Myths and Legends of China
Marriage in Early Times
Certain parts of the marriage ceremonial of China as now existing indicate that the original form of marriage was by capture—of which, indeed, there is evidence in the classical Book of Odes. But a regular form of marriage (in reality a contract of sale) is shown to have existed in the earliest historical times. The form was not monogamous, though it seems soon to have assumed that of a qualified monogamy consisting of one wife and one or more concubines, the number of the latter being as a rule limited only by the means of the husband. The higher the rank the larger was the number of concubines Page 23and handmaids in addition to the wife proper, the palaces of the kings and princes containing several hundreds of them. This form it has retained to the present day, though associations now exist for the abolition of concubinage. In early times, as well as throughout the whole of Chinese history, concubinage was in fact universal, and there is some evidence also of polyandry (which, however, cannot have prevailed to any great extent). The age for marriage was twenty for the man and fifteen for the girl, celibacy after thirty and twenty respectively being officially discouraged. In the province of Shantung it was usual for the wives to be older than their husbands. The parents’ consent to the betrothal was sought through the intervention of a matchmaker, the proposal originating with the parents, and the wishes of the future bride and bridegroom not being taken into consideration. The conclusion of the marriage was the progress of the bride from the house of her parents to that of the bridegroom, where after various ceremonies she and he worshipped his ancestors together, the worship amounting to little more than an announcement of the union to the ancestral spirits. After a short sojourn with her husband the bride revisited her parents, and the marriage was not considered as finally consummated until after this visit had taken place.
The status of women was low, and the power of the husband great—so great that he could kill his wife with impunity. Divorce was common, and all in favour of the husband, who, while he could not be divorced by her, could put his wife away for disobedience or even for loquaciousness. A widower remarried immediately, but refusal to remarry by a widow was esteemed an act of chastity. She often mutilated herself or even committed Page 24suicide to prevent remarriage, and was posthumously honoured for doing so. Being her husband’s as much in the Otherworld as in this, remarriage would partake of the character of unchastity and insubordination; the argument, of course, not applying to the case of the husband, who by remarriage simply adds another member to his clan without infringing on anyone’s rights.
Marriage in Monarchical and Republican Periods
The marital system of the early classical times, of which the above were the essentials, changed but little during the long period of monarchical rule lasting from 221 B.C. to A.D. 1912. The principal object, as before, was to secure an heir to sacrifice to the spirits of deceased progenitors. Marriage was not compulsory, but old bachelors and old maids were very scarce. The concubines were subject to the wife, who was considered to be the mother of their children as well as her own. Her status, however, was not greatly superior. Implicit obedience was exacted from her. She could not possess property, but could not be hired out for prostitution. The latter vice was common, in spite of the early age at which marriage took place and in spite of the system of concubinage—which is after all but a legalized transfer of prostitutional cohabitation to the domestic circle.
Since the establishment of the Republic in 1912 the ‘landslide’ in the direction of Western progress has had its effect also on the domestic institutions. But while the essentials of the marriage contract remain practically the same as before, the most conspicuous changes have been in the accompanying ceremonial—now sometimes quite foreign, but in a very large, perhaps the greatest, number of cases that odious thing, half foreign, half Page 25Chinese; as, for instance, when the procession, otherwise native, includes foreign glass-panelled carriages, or the bridegroom wears a ‘bowler’ or top-hat with his Chinese dress—and in the greater freedom allowed to women, who are seen out of doors much more than formerly, sit at table with their husbands, attend public functions and dinners, dress largely in foreign fashion, and play tennis and other games, instead of being prisoners of the ‘inner apartment’ and household drudges little better than slaves.
One unexpected result of this increased freedom is certainly remarkable, and is one not likely to have been predicted by the most far-sighted sociologist. Many of the ‘progressive’ Chinese, now that it is the fashion for Chinese wives to be seen in public with their husbands, finding the uneducated, gauche, small-footed household drudge unable to compete with the smarter foreign-educated wives of their neighbours, have actually repudiated them and taken unto themselves spouses whom they can exhibit in public without ‘loss of face’! It is, however, only fair to add that the total number of these cases, though by no means inconsiderable, appears to be proportionately small.
Parents and Children
As was the power of the husband over the wife, so was that of the father over his children. Infanticide (due chiefly to poverty, and varying with it) was frequent, especially in the case of female children, who were but slightly esteemed; the practice prevailing extensively in three or four provinces, less extensively in others, and being practically absent in a large number. Beyond the fact that some penalties were enacted against it by the Emperor Ch’ien Lung (A.D. 1736–96), and that by statute Page 26it was a capital offence to murder children in order to use parts of their bodies for medicine, it was not legally prohibited. When the abuse became too scandalous in any district proclamations condemning it would be issued by the local officials. A man might, by purchase and contract, adopt a person as son, daughter, or grandchild, such person acquiring thereby all the rights of a son or daughter. Descent, both of real and personal property, was to all the sons of wives and concubines as joint heirs, irrespective of seniority. Bastards received half shares. Estates were not divisible by the children during the lifetime of their parents or grandparents.