The Significance of Marriage in Chinese History


Marriage is a contentious subject in the present day society, and this has mostly been attributed to the feminist movements along with modernization and materialism among other things. Cultures that continue to elevate marriage as a central achievement in one’s life are seen as rather misguided and in most cases inadequate in the present times. Historically however, things were very different especially in the socially strict culture that is Chinese. Marriage was seen as a norm that should not be avoided, and those who opted to remain unmarried had to suffer a lot of ‘injustices’ if the Irreproachable Conduct story in Chinese Lives selections is anything to go by. In this paper, uses the story, The White Haired Girl and Irreproachable Conduct, as a basis to establish just how much marriage was important to the Chinese society by looking at how an unmarried woman was treated, or rather mistreated in an environment within which she ought to have been appreciated given her contribution and commitment. It is important to note that in this case, she would not have been as available had she had a family to worry about, thus her situation made her even more useful to her community. The main argument here is that historically, and in some cases even today, the role of marriage in the Chinese culture was rather exaggerated. The unmarried people were unfairly discriminated against, while they were just as relevant if not more useful than their married counterparts.

The Chinese culture has had to live through a series of difficulties including the Cultural Revolution among other things. During these social, political, economic and cultural turmoil, most families were caused to separate thus leaving children to be brought up only by their mothers, and in some cases their distant relatives or even by themselves. This means that within the Chinese society, people were often expected to get married and have children but after that, they were unlikely to participate in the lives of their children. The protagonist in Irreproachable Conduct was living with her mother after her father left for Hong Kong and they were not even communicating. Her mother even falls ill and eventually dies but the father remains out of the picture completely, like the present guest who never really shows up.


It can thus be appreciated that the concept of Chinese marriage was in most cases a long distance marriage with the family being apart for one reason or another. This beats their argument against the unmarried members of the society. The point of being married is to have a partner with whom to share responsibilities like bringing up the children, feeding and clothing them, and generally instructing them in the ways of the world. Chinese mothers however ended up having to take charge of all these activities, making it rather irrelevant that they had to get married in the first place. Based on this point, it may be argued that the Chinese viewpoint on marriage was simplistic, with the men only considering their role in a marriage as siring children and then taking off to pursue careers and adventures in far off lands. To the women, a marriage was thus a lifetime responsibility while the men only experienced it in passing as they could leave whenever they wanted.

It can also be seen that historically, the unmarried people in China were expected to live in collective accommodation regardless of their stature. The teacher in Irreproachable Conduct was for example forced to live in the dormitories with the female students and when she requested for a private room that was actually unused in the school’s backyard she was refused and even punished when she moved in regardless of the principal’s objection. This presents a case in which the rights of the unmarried people were being trampled on by the authorities. Living in collective accommodation implies deprivation of privacy, and for the teacher, it also meant she was being reduced to the level of her students despite her success with her students in the school. The fact that she was unmarried in this case meant that she was unworthy of privacy despite of her unmatched efforts at work. Based on this, it can be noted that the Chinese society considered marriage as a justification for a number of things including privacy. Marriage here was thus a license to own a house and avoid the predicament of living with the students. And more than that, it was a justification for one’s position in the society such that regardless of one’s hard work they would only be acknowledged and appreciated if they were married.

Marriage defined a large part of the individual’s life. It seems that historically, the Chinese believed that being married showed some level of competence that cut across the individual’s life. The teacher for example was relatively educated and put in a lot of effort towards helping her students to get the best grades in their tests. However, she was still seen as incompetent and she often received the lowest appraisals from her colleagues and superiors due to her status as an unmarried woman. On one hand, it can be appreciated that finding a marriage partner is not always an easy thing especially in China at the time when there were far too many constraints to consider. However, getting married did not mean that one had any additional qualities that the unmarried ones lacked. The narrator in Irreproachable Conduct was a fairly upright citizen who could have been able to get married had she not been in such uncontrollable circumstances all through her life. From an ailing mother, to her own schooling needs and eventually her ill health, she simply did not have the time to engage in courtship and then marriage. This however presents the argument that in Chinese history, marriage was like an achievement that decorated one’s resume and made them more appealing and competent in the work place as well.

Married women are considered free to associate with members of the opposite sex without being judged, but in Chinese history the unmarried woman could barely interact with men without raising eyebrows in the community. It can be seen in Irreproachable Conduct that the protagonist was unable to host any of the male students or colleagues at her new house owing to the fact that she was not married. This may explain the conception of the amorous women, most of whom were married or engaged. With the concept of sexual liberation in China came the idea that women must have a man by their side. The society generally demanded that the women would have to keep to themselves unless they were willing to commit to a relationship within the restraints of a marriage. On one hand, this is the ideal situation since sexual relations were at the time limited to the marriage institution. However, this social norm basically lent a reductionist perspective to the sanctity of a marriage. Getting married was thus reduced to a license for sexual relations, or interactions with members of the opposite sex. This explains why most unmarried people in China were infuriated by how the society perceived them, like the perverted ones when the married ones were evidently more twisted in their thoughts.

Spreading rumors is generally a bad habit but in historical China, the gossips against the unmarried people were the worst. These individuals were considered as rather weird and loners, thus there were frequent speculations in bad taste about them. In Irreproachable Conduct it is especially clear that one of the teacher’s greatest fears is the gossips that are frequently spread about an unmarried woman. She would have been comfortable living her life to the fullest, associating with whomever she pleased and basically dedicating all her time to her students but she had to be careful not to give people something to reproach her about. She was a teacher with a great number of supportive students who looked up to her. They respected her and she intended to keep things that way. The spreading of rumors implies infringing on the individual’s rights to privacy, defaming them and exerting some level of emotional abuse. In order to be safe from this, marriage was the best solution. This also reduces marriage in Chinese history to some sort of protection against social vices like gossiping and spreading rumors. Married women were rarely subjected to such problems since they were seen as beyond reproach.

The significance of marriage in Chinese history is also belittled in The White Haired Girl when the landlord plots to murder his new seventeen year old conquest in order to take a new wife. It can be appreciated that the young woman had been violated and taken by the landlord against her will, and he was willing to take her life just so that he could indulge yet another young woman as his new wife. This story presents marriage as a trivial factor in the Chinese society. The man is able to destroy the women’s life whenever he wanted, but the woman could only comply and in this case run for her life in order to survive. The ease with which the landlord drove the Xi Er’s father to commit suicide, before taking her against her will and getting her pregnant, presents a case against the Chinese version of marriage at the time. It is simply not possible to state that the Chinese at the time valued marriage as a union between two equally deserving adults. The union between the landlord and his tenant’s daughter was for example forced and it was scheduled for a tragic end, had the maidservant not intervened.


Marriage is an institution that in most cases is defined by the society, thus giving it a special outlook in each given society. The Chinese history presents stories of women who were unfairly treated within their marriages, and those who were yet also treated badly for not being married. This indicates some element of mixed feelings when it comes to the idea of a Chinese marriage. Marriage in this culture was for protection from rumors and social stigma since the unmarried women were often gossiped about and stigmatized within the society. Marriage was also like a competence that elevated one’s chances at the work place since the unmarried were constantly mistreated and unfairly rated at the work place. Marriage was also a license to interact with members of the opposite sex as unmarried women could not host men in their living quarters. Also, it can be noted that marriage here was an excuse to enjoy privacy since the unmarried people had to live in collective quarters. On the other hand, the married women had to take responsibility for their lives and those of their children, just like they would have if they were single. This places marriage in a very mistaken position in as far as Chinese history is concerned.

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