Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/December 1888/Chinese Marriage Customs



SEXUAL selection, which has doubtless greatly influenced the development and advancement of certain races, has been inoperative in China during many centuries, because, under the prevailing usages, the contracting parties have, before espousal, no opportunity to judge of the strength, beauty, or intelligence of their consorts. Romantic love has no part in marriage or its issue. This may be one of the causes of China's arrested civilization, and of the astonishing fact that her astute people have invented nothing and discovered nothing during hundreds of years.

Although polygamy is legal, it is practically so expensive and inconvenient as to be uncommon among the masses. Under the law, no man may have more than one wife, though he may add to his household any number of helpmeets. The wife, brought home with unique ceremony, may under no circumstances be superseded in her well-defined sphere, the penalty of an attempt to put an inferior in her place being a hundred blows. In all cases the marriage engagement is made by the senior members of the families concerned, and is usually made without the knowledge of the future husband or wife.

Marriage being essential to the continuance of the line of worshipers before the lares and penates, a man who will not marry is reckoned guilty of filial impiety. Spinsters are unknown and bachelors are few. The universal and intense desire for posterity in the male line of descent leads to much self-sacrifice on the part of parents, in order to secure wives for sons, and causes them to make provident arrangements for their marriage at an early age. Betrothals of expected infants, conditional upon their being of different sexes, are not rare. Among the poor it is not uncommon for a newly-born daughter to be given away, that a girl of another clan may be taken by the mother, reared at her breast, and bestowed upon her son in after-years. In many families there is at least one little daughter-in-law that is being brought up in the house of her future husband.

Parents of moderate means endeavor to provide wives for their sons by the time they are twenty years old, while but few keep a daughter after she is sixteen. Those who have a marriageable son, and the means of meeting the expense of taking a daughter-in-law, place their case in the hands of an old female friend or of a matrimonial agent, called a go-between, who finds among her acquaintances that which is required by her client. The parents of the two young people do not meet for conference, and are not usually known to each other even by name. The negotiation is conducted by the go-between, who is the sole medium of communication between the two families. When all details have been settled, a sum of money is carried from the parents of the groom to those of the bride, and the betrothal is completed. This pact can under no circumstances be legally broken by either party. Even the discovery of fraud on the part of the agent does not vitiate the contract.

When the bride knows that she is to be married, she must evince by word and manner the deepest melancholy, and she gains commendation and repute if her lamentations are poetical. An acquaintance of mine, who was spoken of with approval, always, from the time of her betrothal to that of her marriage, referred to the latter as to her funeral. To her little brother—the only member of a bride's family that may before the birth of her first child visit her in her husband's house—she said, "When I am buried, you must come frequently to burn incense at my grave." To her elder brothers and to her sister-in-law she said, "After I am dead, do not kill the lizards and the centipeds that may crawl about the house, for it may be that my spirit will come back and dwell in the vermin about my home rather than abide in the grave into which I shall have been put." A gifted girl makes many such allusions without instruction, while the stupid have to be privately taught what to say when they wail their adieus to maiden life. How much of a girl's distress is real and how much of it is piously feigned can be guessed only by those who understand how deeply Chinese character is affected by Chinese customs.

The vexations of a betrothal and a wedding are so great as to have given rise to the proverb, "Don't say you have had trouble until you shall have married off a daughter or brought home a daughter-in-law." The sum of money paid to the bride's parents is usually spent upon her marriage outfit. The smallest dowry is a few suits of new clothing. The wealthy give hundreds of garments, and sometimes one or two bondmaids, with a field that reverts to the bride's family upon her decease.

In this, the Swatow region, the bride is always carried from her father's house to that of her father-in-law in a sedan-chair that is carefully closed and covered with scarlet. She is accompanied by none of her own family. The go-betweens and a messenger from the house of the groom direct the bearers who carry her trousseau with her in a procession along the streets.

Early on the morning of the wedding, the bride is bathed in water in which twelve kinds of flowers have been steeped; has her hair stiffened with bandoline and wrought into a marvelous coiffure with many golden aigrettes; is attired in gorgeous apparel, which she puts on with an appearance of bitter unwillingness, and enters the red sedan-chair weeping loudly. The marriage procession is headed by a man carrying a branch of a banyan-tree, whose local name is identical in sound with another word which means completed or perfected. It signifies the fact that all that is necessary to legal matrimony has been done in this case. This leader is followed by two men, each bearing a lantern on a stalk of sugar-cane, the former being a part of the bride's outfit, and the latter rising stage by stage to a climax broad and flourishing, symbolizing the hope that the bride's life may likewise widen out. The next in the file is a man carrying over his shoulder a bamboo, the emblem of rapid increase, having a red bundle of footgear on one end of it, and a red coverlet on the other. After him come as many burden-bearers as are necessary to carry all the red boxes containing the trousseau.

On arriving at the door of the house, the bride sees her husband for the first time, and recognizes him, among those who await her, by his rich attire. By previous arrangement, she is first greeted by some woman reckoned lucky and prosperous, in the hope that she will be like the one who gives her earliest welcome in her new home. A mistress of ceremonies that has been engaged to see that during three days all is done according to established usage, throws upon the door-sill some burning straw, half extinguishes it, and leads the new-comer across it, saying:

"Now, fair young bride, the smoke bestride;
This year have joy, next year a boy."

This rite is supposed to disinfect the bride from any evil influence to which she may have been subjected by demons or white tigers along her route. She then immediately enters the room in which her red bedstead has been set up, and in which her possessions are all deposited. There she sits silent all the rest of the day, among her red boxes, no one speaking to her, or noticing her in any way except by bringing her food. A feast is spread in the evening for male friends, who have been invited by card, and its preparation occupies the whole household. After the supper, the guests are permitted to see the bride, who is brought forward by the duenna toward the door of the bedroom. In some cases only those who can offer a felicitous stanza are allowed to approach the bedroom door, and there is much rivalry in the composition of poetry to be recited. The stanzas usually contain allusions to posterity, as in the following translations from the vernacular:

"The bride is high-browed, fair and sweet;
Like awls her small and sharp-toed feet.
Brought home this year with honors meet,
Next year an infant son she'll greet."

"Fresh twigs upon the pine, new sprouts on the bamboo;
The groom brings home the bride to rule his house: his field
To her a thousand-fold its annual crop shall yield;
And she will be a mother-in-law at thirty-two."

Practical jokes usually accompany the entertainment. Sometimes a guest enters disguised as an aged man, and after persuading the duenna to bring the bride close to him by a plea that his sight is very dim, he suddenly tosses off his cap and spectacles and appears as a hilarious youth. This creates much merriment. Another popular joke is to leave a bundle of fire-crackers under the bedstead, with a slow match so placed as to explode them after midnight, and this is often accompanied by an artificial shower falling through the roof upon the bridal couch. When the guests depart they frequently carry with them articles which they know the groom will require next day, and which he is bound to redeem from them with packages of confectionery. It is said that a merry company of the fellow-students of a groom decoyed him from his house after his wedding-supper, and fastened him to a tree in a copse, so that he should not be able to return home that night. His parents finally induced them to go to release him, but when they arrived at the copse they found he had been eaten by a tiger. To avoid probable discomforts, the groom sometimes conceals himself from supper-time until after the departure of all the guests. The fate of Ginevra would be possible to a Chinese groom, but not to a Chinese bride.

On the second day the young pair worship the images of the ancestors in the main room of the house, and make obeisance to each of the senior members of the family. In the afternoon the last presents are sent off from the groom's family to the bride's parents. They include pork, fish, cakes, and confectionery, according with the amount stipulated at the time of betrothal. During the second and third days all who choose may enter the house and view the bride, and the crowd of spectators is sometimes large. They say:

"We look at the new, and not at the old;
We all have, at home, old things to behold."

The third day is a busy one for the bride, as she must then formally begin her domestic duties. Early in the morning she washes clothes for herself and her husband, under the direction of the duenna. Then this mistress of ceremonies takes her hand, holds it upon the long handle of a ladle, and stirs up the food in a jar, from which she is to feed and fatten pigs. She meanwhile recites a rhyme, of which this is a close version:

"Stir up the swill, make the jar fume;
Raise hogs that are bigger than cows.
Stir deep and long, stir into spume;
Give thousand-weight swine to your spouse."

At noonday the bride cooks the family dinner, under the superintendence of her mother-in-law. In the intervals between other occupations she begins and completes the making of a pair of trousers for her husband. On no account must she be assisted in this task, or fail to accomplish it before the time for cooking the evening meal, else bad luck may follow all her subsequent career. Some time during the forenoon of this third day a messenger from her mother, usually her younger brother, brings her a bottle of hair-oil, takes dinner with her husband, and returns home accompanied by the duenna, who has then finished her duties.

On the fourth day the bride must rise long before daylight to dress her hair in the complex style of a married woman, and, as she is unaccustomed to performing this difficult work alone, she may succeed only after many trials. She this day lays aside her finery, and takes up all the occupations of a daughter-in-law, serving her elders in various ways, and doing the hardest of the housework.

If she hates her husband, and cares little for the comfort of her parents, she may waste food, break dishes, threaten suicide, and make herself so disagreeable that the family she has entered will soon consider the expediency of marrying her off into another household. If she desires to remain where she is, she strives to please her mother-in-law. A husband who takes the part of his wife against his mother is reckoned unfilial, and has little peace in the home of his ancestors. If he takes the part of his mother against his wife, the wife may be driven to suicide, and this would furnish opportunity for her family to make an inquisition financially ruinous to him. The mother and the wife, each jealous of the man's devotion, are the members of the family who are most likely to be unfriendly to each other. The existence of countless families in which three or four generations of both sexes live in apparent amity under one roof proves that the Chinese have great power of self-repression.

At the end of a month the bride's mother sends her a basket of artificial flowers, that she may make acceptable presents to her young neighbors. No bonnets or other head-coverings are used by youthful ladies in southern China, and flowers are worn in the hair on all festive occasions.

At the end of four months, on a day selected as lucky by a wizard, the bride goes to pay her first visit to her mother, unless some event has made it mystically unsafe for her to leave her present domicile or to enter her old one. The length of the bride's stay in her former home varies in different villages. In some she remains a month in her mother's house, and in others it is considered very unlucky if she does not return the same day, before the smoke from the village chimneys indicates that supper is being cooked. But any circumstance that renders either of the families unclean, and therefore unpropitious to luck, prevents the bride from having this outing. Uncleanliness is of two sorts that which results from a death, and that which follows the birth of a child. They are distinguished as that of bad fortune and that of good fortune, the former continuing three years and the latter one month. Were the bride to approach any unclean person, she would herself incur the danger of becoming an occult cause of calamity among her relatives. During the first few months after marriage she must carefully guard against exposure to any influence adverse to good luck.

A neighbor of a Chinese friend of mine had one daughter, an only child, of whom she was passionately fond. The girl was married off when sixteen years old. When the first four months were nearly past, her mother's neighbor died, and her visit to her old home had therefore to be delayed for a hundred days. Before this period of the neighbor's daily worship of the manes had passed, the bride's mother-in-law died, and she had to go into mourning for three years. Just before she put off mourning, she bore a son, and that made it necessary for her to again delay her first visit to her mother's house. Her mother, meanwhile, became subject to hallucinations, under which she frequently saw her child entering her door. She said she could distinctly perceive her face, could discern every detail in her dress, and could hear the jingle of her bangles. She would exclaim, "O my child, you have come!" but, when she clasped the vision, she found only empty air in her arms. At last the daughter, who had all these years been but two miles away, really came to visit her mother. The two embraced each other and wept aloud; and thereafter the mother's hallucinations ceased.

After the first visit, a married daughter may go to the home of her parents at any time, and they, after the birth of her first child, may occasionally go to see her in her husband's house.