Traditional ideas about marriage still hold some sway among the Chinese, but more and more, couples are finally giving love a chance.
BEIJING — For most of China's long history, there have been marriages, but not much in the way of romantic love. Only in recent decades has that finally changed.
Contemplating this issue, I can't help thinking about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who married Priscilla Chan, a Chinese-American woman, in 2012. Why, many Chinese people asked themselves, would one of the world's wealthiest men, with a fortune of $59 billion, marry a woman of average appearance? What's more, he seems to sincerely love her. How strange! Those kinds of comments are actually quite common among the Chinese. But why?
The answers lie in the difficult economic realities of old Chinese society. Traditionally, the first mission of marriage was to help the entire family financially and, by bringing new children into the fold, provide a counterbalance to old age and illness among the clan's senior members. The ultimate goal, of course, was to have a son to provide security in old age, and for that, marriage played the decisive role.
The building up of the in-law relationship is another key element for boosting long-term security. Marriage is about two people committing until death do they part, but by extension, it's also about the merging of families. That's why, in Chinese society, behavioral rules and the relational structure of all members of the clan are carefully and highly developed.
And since marriage involves so many other people's interests, it traditionally needed to be controlled from the top-down — by a patriarch. As such, the decision-makers of arranged, blind-dates were the parents of both parties rather than the two young protagonists themselves.
Logically, parents measure each other only with hard indicators such as appearance, fortune, and family status. Personal factors like sentiment and love were not weighed since they were important for the young couple but not necessarily for the other family members.
In China, the family is, first and foremost, a production unit.
As a study conducted by World Bank economist Lixin Colin Lu showed, marriages resulting from free love are more harmonious, but the wife doesn't necessarily respect her parents-in-law, and overall family finances may suffer. In contrast, marriages that were arranged by parents don't guarantee a good relationship for the young couple, but the benefits are that the daughter-in-law is more obedient and respectful, there are more grandchildren, and the elderly enjoy more security.
There's a song from the Fairy Couple, a well-known traditional Chinese Huangmei Opera, that reveals a lot about Chinese views on love and marriage. It's widely seen as one of the most romantic love songs, but a careful look at the lyrics shows that it's a love-based essentially on shared interests and responsibilities. "You'll plow the field and I will weave," the song goes. "You'll fetch the water and I will nourish the plants."
The fact of the matter is that the family constructed through marriage is, first and foremost, a production unit in which the combination of the couple's skills and abilities maximizes their total output to obtain the best possible living standards. And until the last few decades, these economic imperatives have always dominated the function of marriage.
Certain historians hold the view that Chinese people also cared about love (and love stories), as evidenced by the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, a folktale about forbidden love in which, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge allowing the two lovers — separated on opposite sides of the heavenly river, i.e. the Milky Way — to reunite for one day.
Romantic experiences were absent in Chinese society.
Yet the fact that the cowherd and the weaver girl meet up at all is precisely because old Chinese society allowed no such luxury. Only in fiction was that allowed. In ancient times, there surely existed love stories, but "love " itself was never mainstream.
It was a luxury, rather, that was reserved to a privileged few, as one Chinese scholar realized while struggling, in the 1920s, to translate French romantic poems. The translator struggled in particular with the word "rose," which westerners use to express romantic sentiment. But Chinese people have no feeling towards roses, he noted.
How then to translate the word so that Chinese readers understand its romantic connotations? This was mission impossible, he concluded, because romantic experiences, in general, were so absent in Chinese society.
Some also argue that arranged marriages can lead to love. True, but rarely. Traditionally, the young couples met each other only after the parents and matchmakers sorted out all the details and conditions of the marriage. In certain cases, the couple-to-be didn't meet until the wedding day itself. What is the difference between such an arrangement and a business deal? How likely is love to foster in such a scenario?
A dozen years ago, Professor Yan Yunxiang from the University of California conducted a survey in a rural area in northeast China, where he asked people in one village if they'd describe the period prior to their marriages as "falling in love." The oldest among them had a different way to describe it: They called it "seeking relatives through marriage." Villagers who married in the 60s and 70s used the expression "looking for marrying object." Only couples who married more recently conceived of things in terms of "falling in love."
File image of Chan and Zuckerberg in Prague — Photo: Lukasz Porwol
Obviously, the shift from "seeking relatives through marriage" to "looking for marrying object" was a revolution in itself. It shows that the spouses-to-be were already enjoying some agency in the decision, with more space for emotional considerations. But marriage still had a clear utilitarian purpose.
Since then, though, love really does seem to earn a place in the equation. Some say it's because the concept of the family has changed for people in China. They have become more modern. But there are other factors at play too, especially in terms of how the economy operates.
With urbanization and industrial development, people are no longer weavers and farmers. As such, the couple's function — as a production unit — has changed dramatically. And the future security of families can be managed through markets. It no longer depends on marriage alone.
What's the point of a husband?
But as the economic and risk-avoiding functions of marriage are gradually replaced by the market, and love is more valued in a marriage, this also increases the rate of divorce. Meanwhile, the proportion of single people also rises. These are all the costs of individual freedom and financial development.
Nevertheless, they are the result of Chinese people attaching more value to love and affection, and of having more choices. This is rather positive, although the fact that so many Chinese still can't comprehend Mark Zuckerberg's choice of partner means that our society still limits the space allowed for feelings of love and emotional attachment.
One woman put it to me quite simply: What's the point of a husband?, she asked.
After all, it used to be that women needed men to move the coal, to carry heavy things around. But now logistics companies can do the job. Anything can be delivered right to your doorstep. Men also used to be the only ones earning income. But now many women earn more than men, at least in highly urbanized areas. Women don't even need a husband anymore — at least not technically — for making a baby or sex.
Perhaps from that perspective, there is no point — unless, of course, there's love.