The Revolution in Chinese marriage

The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, despite the usual misleading Communist phraseology, marked the completion of the Capitalist revolution there. The new system of society which is emerging from it has changed many things hitherto fundamental to the Chinese way of life, and not the least of these is marriage.

The majority of people, both in Europe and Asia, regard their existing form of marriage, together with the sexual morality that their society claims as sacrosanct, as something permanent, something that always has been and always will continue. But, in fact, marriage laws and sexual morality change in keeping with changing social systems.

Early Chinese Marriage
In ancient times in China the aristocracy were married with elaborate rites and ceremonies. The wife of an aristocrat would be associated in the rites of her husband’s ancestral temple; the temple of his “Clan.” Marriage was particularly important because property was involved and the heirs’ legal claim to the estate had to be established.

But the peasants were not included in the clan system, had no surname or pedigrees, and consequently could not participate in ancestor-worship. Moreover, they did not possess any land of their own. They were serfs, cultivating their master’s soil under his direction. They dwelt in groups in villages during the harsh winter, and in huts built among the fields during the summer when agriculture was possible. Every spring, the peasants celebrated a festival in which the youths and girls of neighbouring villages met in free association, only translated into formal marriage in the autumn if the girls were with child

The Traditional Chinese Marriage
Feudalism was abolished in China in 300.B.C. and replaced by a unified central government ruling through a civil service. Wealth increased rapidly, and extended to fresh groups of the population. This spread of private property necessitated a change in morality as well as in the marriage customs of the population for peasants wished to leave their farms to their own sons, and marriage, therefore, became a social necessity for them. But the heavy tasks of draining farmland in the marshy valleys and the irrigation works that were needed afterwards, required the labour of large family groups.

A system of ethics was evolved which was expressed by the teachings of the sage Confucius, laying down a code of behaviour to cover all relationships. The submission of the subject to the ruler, and, within the family, the submission of the individual to the head of the household. Moreover there were rules formulated to cover relationships such as between younger brother and elder brother, husband and wife, wife and mother-in-law. Thus Confucianism not only made the task of ruling over vast China easier, but enabled the individuals in these otherwise unwieldy family groups to live together in more or less harmony and co-operation. Some of those whose mothers-in-law lived with them as one of the family may perhaps have received an inkling of the desirability of such regulating of family life and behaviour.

This somewhat puritanical code of Confucianist morals was rigidly adhered to in conservative China, where changes were extremely gradual because the Chinese made their living by engaging in small scale intensive agriculture, which has developed very slowly right down through the ages until a few years ago. It also forms the philosophic basis for the literary classics, a thorough knowledge of which was necessary to pass the civil service examinations.

In China until recent times it was the custom for the parents of the bride and bridegroom to be brought into contact by a marriage broker, the parents being the final arbiters on the suitability of the proposed union. The couple had no say in the choice and moreover did not meet before the ceremony. The Chinese compared this form of betrothal with a cold pot that is put on the fire and gradually heats up; whereas marriage in the West usually taking place after courtship was likened to a pot boiling at the time of the ceremony, but thereafter beginning to cool off.

Marriage in “Communist” China
The Marriage Law of the Peoples Republic of China, which came into force on 1st May, 1950, indicates the need for a new set of family rules to govern behaviour in this new Capitalist system of society. It reveals too an interesting side-light on some of the social changes taking place there; for it is only to be expected that China, the latest recruit to the State Capitalist system, should adopt the most up-to-date set of Capitalist marriage laws.

Article 1 of the new law formally abolishes the previous marriage system, and in its place institutes the “New Democratic” Marriage Law which, it states, is based on free choice of partners, on monogamy, on equal rights for both sexes, and of the lawful interest of women and children.

“Husband and wife are companions living together and shall enjoy equal status in the home. Both shall have the right to free choice of occupation and free participation in work or social activities.”

Other Articles deal with prohibition of bigamy and concubinage. The local government is delegated to issue the marriage certificates.

The change in the status of women has the advantage for the ruling-class that the women are “free” to become wage-workers.

Rights and duties are further detailed, as well as the relations between parents and children; and divorce is to be granted only when the efforts of the local government officials have failed to bring about a reconciliation. After appropriate measures have been taken for the care of children and property, divorce certificates are to be issued without delay. Both parents still have the duty to support their children. In case of divorce, the wife shall retain such property as belonged to her before her marriage.

As a further indication of the trend of society in modern China, 12 put of the 27 articles that go to make up this law deal wholly or partly with money or property matters.

For the smooth running of capitalism, workers must conform to the rules of behaviour which have been found suitable for the social system; and because the needs of capitalism are similar irrespective of which part of the globe is involved, the marriage laws, which codify a part of this behaviour pattern are also similar, differing only in detail in the various national sections of the Capitalist world.

It is understandable that the new Chinese marriage law abolishes the previous marriage system; it is in the interest of the Capitalists to try to increase the surplus value obtained from the labour of the workers, who are induced to speed up their work by the prospects of a higher standard of living. This elusive prize is dangled before them, like the carrot before the donkey’s nose. Moreover, in order to get the Chinese worker to work harder, the old-fashioned household, consisting of several related families sharing the income of their wage-earners, has had to be broken up into smaller units; in this way the wage-earner and his immediate family receive all the benefit from his wages.

The breaking-up of this now out-moded household into the more modern form of family unit has the further advantage, from the Capitalist point of view, that the parents, because the family is now dependent on their sole earnings, are more amenable to Capitalist demands. Hence, the new marriage laws of China, by substituting for child betrothals, the “free choice” of husband and wife and by fixing the responsible minimum marrying ages for women and men, transfer the responsibility for the marriage; financially and otherwise, from the large family group to a smaller family unit; the unit which is now considered normal in the Capitalist world.

This change in the status of women has evoked great interest in China, and Chinese newspapers and magazines frequently carry photos showing the various jobs women have undertaken. One day the Peking newspapers carried on their front pages photographs of women proudly driving the local trams, other pictures showed women repairing these trams, and others, gear-cutting in the machine building shops. A picture of a group of smiling nurses had a caption to the effect that 85,000 medical assistants were to be trained in the next five years. On the railways some of the engine crews are women and there is a train on the Peking-Tientsin run entirely staffed by women whose photographs show them as being understandably pleased with their accomplishments. There are many pictures published of proud “Labour Heroines ’’—those pacesetters of China’s industrialisation drive.

Work teams composed of functionaries of the People’s Court and members of the Democratic Womens’ Federation and the Youth League, visit the villages to see that the Marriage Law is properly enforced. They help to settle marital disputes on the spot and illustrate the merits of the law through plays, skits and lantern slide exhibitions.

It is reported that the special panel meetings for husbands and mothers-in-law are proving very effective.

But as a lotus petal separated from the flower is carried along in the grip of the wind, so have the women of China been broken away from the relatively secure group-household to start on a separate course of life. This has at least begun with great hopes of happiness. The publication of the Marriage Law was accompanied by articles written by leading Chinese personalities—the-Vice-President of the Supreme People’s Court and the Vice-Chairman of the All-China Democratic Women’s Federation—anticipating domestic bliss as a consequence of the operation of this law. In other parts of the globe where somewhat similar laws obtain, the mounting figures of divorces, separations, and juvenile delinquency resulting from broken homes, give cause for doubts about such optimism.

And in China, some of the smiles must surely have changed to tears by now, for another photograph published later shows a parting between a young mother and her toddler at the entrance to a factory nursery. The caption reads—“Come, dear! Let your mother go to work.”

Other pictures show women members of the armed forces in Korea of whom it is stated that they are merely in the medical corps but that others are taking part in the fighting as combat troops. This information has been borne out by reports in Western newspapers of women figuring in the fighting in Korea. Thus is the road to woman’s “emancipation” via blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

And so the world changes. But the more things change the more they often really stay the same; for in a class-dominated society so many reforms, on the eve of fulfilment, turn to dust and ashes. By the promulgation and enforcement of the Marriage Law of the Peoples’ Republic of China are the women of China free—free to become wage-slaves.


Leave a Reply