Marriage in Traditional Chinese Culture

Marriage is considered a high priority in all cultures around the world, however, different cultures practice marriage and genetic kinship in a variety of ways. Most cultures practice patrilineal lines of descent, where inheritance is passed down from father to son, and where the wife goes to live with her husband in his family home. Some cultures practice matrilineal lines of descent, where inheritance is passed down from mother to daughter, and husband move to live with the wife’s family after marriage. Some societies allow for more than one wife, polygyny, and even fewer societies enable the marriage of one wife too many husbands, also known as polyandry. Very few cultures are monogamous, and even fewer cultures allow marriage for love.  In this paper, I will discuss the marriage practice of the traditional Chinese people. I will show how marriage shaped a young woman’s life and required her to live in an environment where her needs were not entirely met.

Chinese Society

Traditional Chinese society was characterized by the worship of family ancestors, specifically, the male line of descent. Patrilineal descent played an enormous role in the lives of both women and men. Men were highly valued and often women had no familial power until she gave birth to a son. In fact, because Chinese culture was an agrarian society, in which men were responsible for the cultivated of food by the plow, women were often confined to the home, unless the family was poor, in which case women were sent to the field (Stockard, 2002). One sign of wealth, in traditional Chinese culture, was that one’s wife had wrapped feet, indicated that they did not have to work in the field.

Like many agrarian societies, traditional Chinese society was also characterized by male dominance. while being able to stay home and take care of children may sound like a dream to some American women, in traditional Chinese societies, women often lived with and had to contend with the maneuverings of her mother in law, and, sometimes, many sisters in-laws. Because women in traditional Chinese cultures had very little value, they were born outside of their father’s descent line, and therefore only gained secure access to the afterlife once they had been wed (Stockard, 2002). So even daughters who passed away due to sickness were likely to haunt their father’s home in the form of ghosts until a ghost wedding could be performed, in which a groom married a ghost, took her incense burner to his home, and then married a living girl (Pasternak, 1997).


“Patrilineal kinship in traditional Chinese society was a powerful influence on marriage practice and was one of the key factors shaping the meaning of marriage for husbands, their wives, and families” (Stockard, 2002, p. 44). Marriage in traditional Chinese’s culture had more to do with political and economic power than it did with love, in fact, love was never a consideration. Chinese societies, especially rural societies, were often exogamy in nature, and there were strict rules against marrying anyone with the same surname. In rural China, sometimes marrying someone from the same village would have been impossible, as everyone in the village had the same surname. Endogamy was highly frowned upon, and exogamy ensured that the bride would be moved away from her own family once she was married (Stockard, 2002).

Primary marriages began in traditional China when the parents employed a matchmaker, who knew the available sons and daughters within a market area of rural China, her job was to match who could marry whom based on ancestral lines and surnames (Stockard, 2002). “In Chinese society, marriage between a man and a woman with the same surname – the outward sign of kinship identity was forbidden by law and in custom and considered incestuous” (Stockard, 2002, p. 46). And, although a daughter inherited her father’s surname, lineage, and clan, she was technically not a part of either.

Once the matchmaker has identified two possible marriage partners, she suggests the name to the families and both families reputations are highly scrutinized by the other. The personal reputation of both individuals was also highly scrutinized, but only the reputation of the bride was considered relevant to the marriage (Stockard, 2002). Families of daughters often took great pains to limit contact between her and members of the opposite sex for her entire life (Pasternak, 1997), and any hint of a scandal on her part could make her unmarriageable by Chinese standards (Stockard, 2002).

Since marriage in traditional Chinese culture was mostly based on political or economic value, matchmakers were often charged with finding a partner from the same social class. Parents often strived to have a match that would bring them political or economic power. Once that all had been accomplished, the horoscopes of the two individuals would be compared to see if there were going to be any obstacles to the marriage (Stockard, 2002). If the horoscopes matched, the negotiations over the amount the families would exchange began.

“Bridewealth and dowry were fundamental features of the major form of marriage” (Stockard, 2002, p. 47). Father’s in both families, worked hard to negotiate the amount of wealth that was to be exchanged, creating the most advantageous position for his family. The groom’s family paid a large of amount of cash, the bride wealth, and in return, the bride’s family spent that money on a dowry and other individual items, usually household items, that were agreed upon by the fathers of both families (Stockard, 2002). After the agreement had been reached, the family of the bride would parade her, in a red sedan chair, through the streets, with much pomp and fanfare, displaying the items of the dowry from the bride’s village to the groom’s village.

The bride’s arrival at the groom’s home is the first time the marriage partners have met, and often it is a period of sadness or disappointment for both the bride and the groom. The groom, because his wishes for a young, lean, aesthetically pleasing woman has been dashed by his mother, and the bride because she has to leave her family, village, and friends behind, and embark on a new lonely existence, that will be emphasized in the days to come, until she can bear her new husband a son (Stockard, 2002). In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death in rural China among young people ages fifteen to thirty-four, with females committing suicide more often than males, in some places, as much as three times as higher (Zhang, 2010). While it hasn’t be proven that marriage has anything to do with these suicides, it has been proven that marriage is not a protective barrier against suicide for these young women, as it is in Western societies (Zhang, 2010).

The marriage ceremony started with the parade through the streets but is wrapped up once the groom lifts the bride’s veil and reveals her face. The bride and groom then kneel before the family altar, bowing their heads to the ground several times. Following that brief ceremony, there is a grand feast commencing the marriage (Stockard, 2002). Three days after the wedding festivities the bride would return home for a brief visit with her family. After the new bride leaves her family’s home, she may not see them again, except in celebration, such as a wedding or in mourning, such as at a funeral (Stockard, 2002).

Family Life

Life for the young bride changed dramatically at the time of her marriage. Since traditional Chinese societies practiced patrilocal residence, the wife moved to a new village, leaving her family, and friends behind, to marry a man she had never met, and to live in a home that may or may not have sisters-in-laws she had never met as well. From this moment on, her entire life was lived to serve her mother in law, she would be required, as the newest bride, to perform the worst of the household chores, and she would be subject to abuse from her mother in law, who chastise her or beat her if she did not do the jobs well enough or quick enough (Pasternak, 1997). Her nights were not much better, as her husband was likely to abuse her as well, not only physically if she displeased him, but often forcing his unwanted sexual attentions upon her as well (Pasternak, 1997).

Marriage was mainly designed to ensure the continuation of the groom’s male descent line, and the only way the new bride could gain a footing in her new household is to give birth to a son. All eyes in the family, and indeed, in some cases, the entire village, were on her as they waited for her to fulfill her obligation of producing a male heir. The sooner she gives birth to a son, the sooner she will be able to start convincing her husband to break off from the family and make a home of their own. Without a son to continue the family line, her husband may opt to marry another girl, which would only cause more problems in the extended family home.

Relationships between mother in laws and daughters in law in traditional Chinese culture has usually been one marked by strife and conflict. In fact, all the women in the family may fight, causing strife among the brothers as well (Stockard, 2002).  As each new wife set about trying to establish a place for herself in her new family, she often employed such tactics as gaining her husband’s ear and a place in his heart. The young bride would do this so that her husband would support her and look out for her best interests, in a place where she had no say or power over her own destiny. Once the new bride had children, she would use the children to vie for position in her new family, especially if that child was a son, by creating strong emotional ties between her new husband, his parents, and her children (Stockard, 2002). Wives often watch carefully to see which of the grandchildren was receiving better treatment and would cause problems with their husbands if their child was receiving worse treatment than another.

While it is best for the mother to keep all of her sons together, under the same roof, wives often pressed their husbands for the division of the family household. In a patrilineal society, property passed from father to son, with adult sons enjoying equal rights to the family land (Pasternak, 1997). A wife who is dissatisfied with the decisions of her father in law, in relations to how the grandchildren are educated, or treated, in general, will become, what the Chinese call a “ghost pillow” (Pasternak, 1997). In bed, at night, she will press her husband to the division of the household. If she succeeds, then she and her uterine family will move to another spot of the family land, and begin to fend for themselves. Curiously, extended families were found more often in wealthy families than in poor families, a fact that may reflect that sometimes men were required to practice matrilocal residence, where the groom moves in with the bride’s family, not very popular among the Chinese, but it did happen (Pasternak, 1997).

Modernization of Chinese Culture

Modernization of culture means for that culture to transition from one of traditional values and morals to one of more modern values and morals. Along with those values and morals comes a new way of living, most of the time causing an upheaval in widely held, superstitions, behavior, and beliefs.  Today, China is dealing with many changes, as the country attempts to become more westernized.

Today, young people of marriageable age meet at a marriage market, and views on marriage range from hoping to find a partner at the market to wishing for parents to arrange a marriage, to young females preferring to stay single (Looking for love; modern marriage, 2012). Arranged marriages were officially banned in the 1950’s; however, some parents still believe in that traditional belief, and so do their children. It is a belief that is still practiced by some to this day.

Young women have seen an increase in socio-economic freedoms, and with it has come the right to choose one’s husband. Since that freedom has been enjoyed, so has the option of remaining single, and of being extremely picky when choosing a husband (Looking for love; modern marriage, 2012). Online dating sites have become immensely popular in modern China, and often young women will marry a man from far away, leaving their families behind.


Young women in ancient China were often not afforded many privileges and were kept out of all political and social hierarchies; with the males of the society having dominance even in the after-life. As one can plainly see, young women were not offered much chance of advancement, they could not own land or property, and were in fact, considered the property of one male or another throughout their entire lives. Today, however, young women are afforded much more freedom, in not only their options for work outside the home but also for their choice in husbands. One can see that more and more Chinese women are becoming educated and moving out of their countries to pursue greener fields elsewhere.




Looking for love; modern marriage. (2012, June 09). The Economist, 50, 403. Retrieved from

Pasternak, E. E. (1997). Sex, Gender, and Kinship A Cross-Cultural Perspective. New Jersey, US: Prentice Hall.

Stockard, J. E. (2002). Marriage in Culture. Belmont: Earl McPeek.

Zhang, J. (2010). Marriage and Suicide among Chinese Rural Young Women. Social Forces, 89(1). Retrieved from