The Chinese regard marriage as one of life’s most important events; a wedding is the most solemn ceremony in which one can participate. A new family is formed by the marriage ritual, and ties between the bride’s family and the groom’s are also established. Furthermore, different circles of friends and relatives intermingle and social networks are rebuilt. Marriage culture has been constantly enriched and transformed through dynastic changes, production and growth, and relations between ethnic groups.
Through singing or dancing, young men and women became acquainted and got to know one another, resulting in romantic marriages. However, in regions where the Han Chinese resided, customs changed after the Qin-Han period (221 BCE–220 CE). As agricultural production improved, the restraints of feudal rituals, marriages arranged by go-betweens, and marriages of one’s free will all gradually vanished. The romantic marriage, on the other hand, managed to survive in the remote areas among the Dong, Zhuang, Miao, Buyi and other ethnic minorities, as well as among the Hakka people.
In pre-modern China, early marriage was customary. For example, in the Tang dynasty (618–907) when a boy turned fifteen and a girl turned thirteen they might get married. Patriarchy brought about paternalism, and the system of private ownership; in this framework, children constituted just one part of the family’s and clan’s private property. Many parents did not take the romantic feelings of their children into consideration; they would arrange marriages for their children, and forcibly make sure they took place. At times, it could be like a business transaction. Bad customs sprang from these practices, such as arranged marriages in childhood or even before birth; pawning one’s wife, and marriages with the dead.
In late nineteenth century, Western marriage customs were introduced to the East. Selectively adopting Chinese and Western customs, some people chose to abandon religious rituals and advocated civilized wedding formats. This marked the beginning of marriage reform. The liberation of women made gradual progress after the Xinhai Revolution and the May Fourth Movement when enlightened scholars and youths shook the foundations of feudal ritual system. Customs became more open and marriage reform was able to take place. During the 1930s, many young people opposed arranged marriages and boldly pursued the freedom to love.
The founding of the People’s Republic of China witnessed a fundamental change in marriage customs. Published in 1950, The Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China was the first codification to define the basic form of marriage. Its contents covered a number of topics: the freedom of marriage, monogamy, equality between men and women, and the protection of women and children’s legal rights and interests. This Marriage Law was a milestone in the history of Chinese marriage, marking the end of the feudal marriage system.
In the 1950s, social trends influenced the choice of spouse. The collective consciousness of women was awakened regarding marital autonomy—they no longer accepted their so-called destiny; instead, they became part of a trend opposing arranged marriage and setting themselves free from feudal bondage.
During the ten years of turmoil in 1966–1976, while old customs and bad practices were radically washed away, late marriage and childbearing were forcefully implemented. The most important factors for marriage included political outlook, family background, and status. The marriage ceremony was so simple and monotonous as extravagance and wasteful practices had been eliminated. Civil etiquette required everyone to be frugal, and to keep the ceremony free of erotic overtones and religious superstition. These were replaced by the boundless love and adoration of Mao Zedong (1893–1976).
A dual residence registration system became an artificial cause for the drastic disparity between town and rural populations. It gave rise to numerous tragedies concerning love and the marriage of young people from towns and villages.
Since the beginning of the Reform and Opening-up policies in the 1980s, some traditional marriage customs were revived. Religious elements in these traditions were no longer officially prohibited. Practicality and affordability became bywords among the common people when preparing the dowry.
With the gradual opening of the country, the reform of the household registration system, and the growing freedom of mobility and career choices, came social and economic developments which brought about ideological changes. As a result, the opportunities to fall in love and the degree of freedom accorded the couple reached an unprecedented height. Divorce also came into vogue and underwent several sudden surges due to various intrinsic factors. Gradual increases in premarital cohabitation, marriages with non-locals, marriages with other nationalities, and marriages with foreigners could be seen. With the implementation of the family planning policy and the improvement of living standards, weddings have become more and more luxurious and costly. This reveals a wish for flaunting and success, as well as a fashion for luxury. In the twenty-first century, there has been a trend a trend for single men and women to get to know one another through “network matchmakers.”
The broadening of marriage customs has formed a new trend and become a characteristic of urban life in the new era: now it is the will of the groom and the bride that is dominant, and parental advice is for reference only. The two partners in the marriage gradually became equal in status; the old concept of “male superiority and female submission” has faded from contemporary life. There is still a lot of competition regarding extravagant weddings, freely mixing Chinese and Western customs. Romantic and peaceful atmospheres are more and more common, while taboos and rules are fewer and fewer. However, the endless reproduction of relevant cultural elements, the wish for auspiciousness and the avoidance of evils, and spiritual support for the pursuit for happiness remain the same core value and will never change.