Marriage in modern China

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For the history and traditional forms of marriage in Chinese culture, see Chinese marriage.
Attitudes about marriage have been influenced by Western countries, with more couples nowadays opting for western style weddings

Marriage in China has undergone change during the country's reform and opening period, especially because of new legal policies like the New Marriage Law of 1950 and the one-child policy introduced in 1979. The major change in the twentieth century is characterized by the change from traditional structures for Chinese marriage, such as the arranged marriage, to one where the freedom to choose one’s partner is respected. This evolved from the development of new rights for women. While divorce remains rare in China, the 1.96 million couples applying for divorce in 2010 represented a rate 14% higher than the year before and doubled from ten years ago.[1]


Traditionally, marriage life was based on the principles of the Confucian ideology. This ideology formed a culture of marriage that strove for the “Chinese family idea, which was to have many generations under one roof".[2] It was the maintenance of filial piety that dictated a traditional behavior code between men and women in marriage and in the lifetime preparation for marriage. Segregation of females from the opposite sex and education of males was a cultural practice which separated the two sexes, as men and women would occupy different spheres after marriage.

“Marriage was under the near-absolute control of family elders and was considered an important part of a family's strategy for success”.[3] The system of patrilineal succession and ancestral worship left no place for daughters within their natal family trees. Traditionally, brides became a part of their husband’s family and essentially cut ties with their natal families with special emphasis placed on a wife’s ability to produce a male heir.[2] As arranged marriages were customary, husband and wife often did not meet each other until the day of the wedding. Married life consisted of a complex and rigid family arrangement with the role of the male to provide for the family and that of the female to care of the domestic duties within the home, as dictated by the ideas conveyed in Song Ruozhao’s Analects for Women.[4]

Marriage laws[edit]

Marriage certificate 2004 face

On September 10, 1980 the Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China was adopted as the modified law code from the 1950 Marriage Law.[5] The 1950 Marriage Law was the first legal document under the People's Republic of China to address marriage and family law. The 1980 Marriage Law followed the same format of the 1950 law, but with a few changes.

The law was revised by a group including the All-China Women’s Federation, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, among others. The changes introduced in the 1980 Marriage Law represent the transition of the traditional structure of marriage to a modern legal framework. The law makes provisions to see that gender equality and family relations are emphasized in the reform, and is divided into four major subsections, general principles, marriage contract, family relations, and divorce.

General principles[edit]

The 1980 Marriage Law stipulates that marriage is based on the freedom to choose one’s partner, the practice of monogamy, and equality of the sexes.[5] Article 3 of the law emphasizes the freedom to choose one’s spouse by forbidding marriage decisions made by third parties and the use of money or gifts involved into the arrangement of a marriage. The law also prohibits maltreatment and desertion of family members.

Marriage contract[edit]

The 1980 law also states that marriage must be a willing action where coercion by a third party is not permitted.[5] The age requirement for marriage is 22 years of age for men and 20 years of age for women, “late marriage and late childbirth should be encouraged.” This provision in the law shows a change from the 1950 law which set the age requirements at 18 and 20 for women and men respectively, showing state support of marriage at a later age.[6]

The law bans marriage between close relatives, which is defined as lineal relatives, blood relative in the direct line of descent, and collateral relatives, such as cousins or uncles, to the third degree of relationship. Furthermore, after a marriage has been registered and a certificate for marriage is obtained the newlyweds can freely choose to become a member of each other’s families if they so desire, meaning they are not obligated to choose one family and abandon the other as was tradition for Chinese women.

Family relations[edit]

This section of the marriage law states that men and women are of equal status in the home and each have a right to use their own family name if they choose.[5] Both also have the freedom to work, to engage in society, and to pursue an education where neither is allowed to restrict the other from pursuing these choices. The Law emphasizes marriage planning between the couple as well. Mistreatment of children, including infanticide or any serious harm to infants is prohibited. Property gained during a marriage belongs to both husband and wife and both have equal rights to such property. Familial relationships include the duty to support and assist each other; parents to provide for their children; and grown children have the obligation to care for their parents. This provision “[stresses] the obligation of children to care for aging parents.”[2]

Children are given the freedom to choose either parent’s last name and have the right to demand the proper care from their parents. Children born out of wedlock have the same rights as children born to a married couple and the father has the duty to provide for that child. Adoption is legal and the same rights apply between adopted children and parents as with biological children.

Rights between adopted children and birth parents become null after the child has been adopted. Stepchildren should not be mistreated and have the right to the same relations between parents and children. Grandparents have the duty to care for grandchildren whose parents are deceased and grandchildren have the duty to care for grandparents whose children are deceased. Older siblings who are able to care for younger siblings that are orphaned have the duty to provide for their siblings.


Divorce can be granted when both husband and wife desire to get a divorce. Both should apply for a divorce and make arrangements for children and property so a divorce certificate can be issued. Divorces initiated by one party should be taken to the people’s court and will be granted when reconciliation is not possible. The law also specifies that divorce does not cut ties between parents and children and that those relationships should be maintained.

Marriage reform[edit]

Marriage today has been influenced by many of the revolutionary and feminist movements that have occurred in the twentieth century. Such reforms focused on women and family. For example, the efforts to end foot binding, the movement to secure rights to education for women, and the campaigns to allow women into the work force, among other changes all challenged the traditional gender role of married women.[2] In particular, the May Fourth movement called for men and women to interact freely in public, and to make marriage a free choice based on true love. This freedom of choosing one's spouse was codified in the 1950 Marriage Law, which also outlawed arranged and coerced marriages.

Important changes in marriage practices came from the 1950 and 1980 Marriage Laws' outlawing of concubinage, child marriages, polygamy, and selling of sons and daughters into marriage or prostitution.[7] Provisions made for changes in property ownership have also significantly changed the marital relationships between men and women. For example, women were allowed to own property under this law, as well as inherit it. Laws such as the one-child policy have influenced the family structures and fertility patterns of married couples as well.

The marriage laws also enforced an age restriction on marital union in an effort to encourage a later marrying age. The law however seemed to have the opposite effect as the law appeared to reduce the age at which couples got married. In 1978 the average age of marriage for women was 22.4 and 25.1 in rural and urban areas respectively, and after the 1980 Marriage Law it decreased to 21.0 years of age in the decade after the law was enacted.[7] The mid twentieth century also saw changes in the occurrence of dowry and payments for brides as these no longer occurred as frequently. However, reports in recent years appear to indicate that these customs are still practiced in some areas, and may actually be increasing since the government has relaxed its tight prohibitions on the practices.[3]

Same-sex marriage[edit]

Today there is no recognition of same-sex unions in China.[8] Same-sex relationships have been a part of China’s long history, but it is in the modern period where “cultural tolerance of same-sex eroticism began to fade.”[2] In the modernization efforts after 1949 sexuality was removed from the movement until specific policies were enacted in 1956. Acts of homosexuality were outlawed and classified as “hooliganism” and punished under criminal law.[9]

In 1984 the state no longer punished homosexuality as a crime, but classified homosexuality as a mental illness. However, homosexuality is no longer classified as a mental disorder.[2] Today there are no laws regulating same-sex love although the stigma against people who identify as homosexual is largely present in Chinese society.

Parental involvement[edit]

The marriage decisions in pre-modern China traditionally were made by parents with the help of matchmakers, and the fate of the children were determined at an early age. Since the reforms in the twentieth century, and the implementation of the marriage law, such practices have been outlawed. Legally the decision to marry lies in the freedom of choice of a man or woman to choose their partners.[5] Before the Mao Era, also the late imperial China, young people almost have no choice about their own marriage. Parents or old generation decided everything for them, on who should be their mate and how much money will spend on the wedding.[10]

Arranged marriages[edit]

Research has shown that the enforcement of the law has not necessarily been able to stop the practice of parents arranging marriages completely, but change in the practice is evident. In the last fifty years, data indicates that parental involvement in marriage decisions has decreased in all areas of China and among the majority of the population.[3]

Total control in the marriage decisions of children by parents is rare in China today, however, parental involvement in decision making now takes on a different form. Parental involvement can range from introducing potential spouses to giving advice on marriage decisions. As the family is an important institution in Chinese culture, parents may no longer hold absolute control but continue to be influential in the decisions of their children’s marriages.

Living with married children[edit]

Outside of marriage decisions, parents may also be involved in the married lives of their children through their living arrangements. Although many couples now have their own separate residence, residential patterns of parents and children vary according to different circumstances.[11] The occurrence of parents and their married children living together changes over the course of their lifetime as circumstances like childcare needs for the married couples arise, or when parents become widowed, and/or consideration of the health of parents.

Types of marriage practices[edit]

Naked marriage[edit]

Naked marriage (裸婚, luǒhūn) is recent Chinese slang, coined in 2008 to describe the growing number of marriages between partners who do not yet own any significant assets. The "Five Nos" involved are: no ring, no ceremony, no honeymoon, no home, and no car.[12] The practice violates traditions that a groom should provide a new place for his future wife or, at least, that the couple's families should provide them a material foundation to provide for their future grandchildren. However, in order for the marriage to be legally recognized and protected by law and the government, the marriage must be registered with the government in accordance with the marriage law. [13] The practice also saves the groom's family from an expensive wedding, the average cost of which has been reckoned to have increased 4000 times in the last 30 years.[12]

Flash marriage[edit]

Flash or blitz marriage (Chinese: 闪婚, shǎnhūn) is recent (and pejorative) Chinese slang for a marriage between partners who've known each less than 7[why?] months. In some cases, these young couples (usually in China's large cities) represent changing attitudes towards romantic love;[citation needed] in others, they have found the soaring prices of real estate have made such speedy marriages more economical.[14][15] "Flash" marriages are also more likely to happen due to some couples being pressured by parents to marry quickly before the parents feel its too late. However "flash" marriages are more likely to end in divorce soon afterwards as the couples find themselves unable to cope with each other due to personal habits that they did not know about before they married each other.

Sheng nu ("leftover women")[edit]

In recent years, the concept of sheng nu or "leftover women" (pinyin = Shèngnǚ, 剩女)has been created by the state media and government in order to pressure women into marrying earlier. State media often have articles about women regretting their decision not to marry early, highlighting the consequences of marrying at a later age and stressing that women should marry no later than 27.

Currently in China, there is an imbalance between the sex ratios of men and women. Figures show that there are over 30 million more men than women in China. Therefore this (along with the one-child policy) will have an impact on the long term population growth in China as well as the number of working age population available in China, which is why the government believes that it is necessary to persuade women into marrying earlier.

Since the opening and reform period in the 1980s, increasing numbers of women hold college degrees and are now reluctant to be "tied down" to a married life so soon after their graduation, with women choosing to be more career orientated until they reach their 30s. Another dynamic is reverse hypergamy, where men preferably choose to marry women who are younger than them, earn comparably less than their counterpart and come from a "lesser" background compared to the man himself.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Patience, Martin (2 November 2011). "'Love Post' tackles China's rising divorce rate". BBC News. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Mann, Susan L. (2011). Gender and Sexuality in modern Chinese HIstory. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
  3. ^ a b c Riley, Nancy E. (1994). "Interwoven Lives: Parents, Marriage, and Guanxi in China". Journal of Marriage and Family 56 (4): 791–803. doi:10.2307/353592. JSTOR 353592. 
  4. ^ DeBary, William Theodore; Irene Bloom (1999). "Excerpts from Analects For Women by Song Ruozhao". Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press): 827–831. 
  5. ^ a b c d e The Marriage Law of the People's Republic of China. Beijing: Foreign Language Press. 1982. 
  6. ^ "China's New Marriage Law". Population and Development Review: 369–372. 1981. 
  7. ^ a b Davis, Harrell, Deborah, Steven. Chinese Families in the Post-Mao Era. London: University of California Press. 
  8. ^ Branigan, Tania. "Beijing's 'happy couples' launch campaign for same-sex marriages". Retrieved 2 April 2014. 
  9. ^ Sang, Tze-Ian D. (2003). The Emerging Lesbian. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 163–222. 
  10. ^ Selden, M. (1993). Family Strategies and Structures in Rural North China. In D. Deborah and H. Stevan (Eds.), Chinese Families in the Post-Mao Era, 139-145. London.
  11. ^ Chen, Feinian (2005). "Residential Patterns of Parents and Their Married Children in Contemporary China: A Life Course Approach". Population Research and Policy Review 24 (2): 125–148. doi:10.1007/s11113-004-6371-9. 
  12. ^ a b Waldmeir, Patti. "The bare necessities of naked marriage". Financial Times. 3 Jul 2012.
  13. ^ People's Daily Online. "'Naked marriage' challenges Chinese marriage traditions". 7 Aug 2011.
  14. ^ China Daily Online. "White-collar Workers Interested in 'Flash Marriage'".
  15. ^ Zhang, Wendy. ""Flash marriage" stirs public debate". Shanghai Daily. 14 Nov 2005.
  16. ^ Magistad, Mary Kay (20 February 2013). "China's 'leftover women', unmarried at 27". BBC News. Retrieved 2014-04-17.