Freedom from Wedded Bondage

October 10, 2011
Editor: Sun Xi

A wedding photo of a child bride and her husband around the late Qing Dynasty/early Republic of China period (1912-1949). []

A wedding photo of a child bride and her husband around the late Qing Dynasty/early Republic of China period (1912-1949). []

Li Na (pseudonym) remembers well the passing of China's first marriage law on May 1, 1950. Now 78, she sings the duet it inspired 60 years ago as she sits in the porch of her home in rural Jinmen City, central China's Hubei Province.

Woman: The feudal system is an iron chain. Women were deceived so. Parents arranged marriages.

Man: Fill my pipe and pour us a cup of tea. Let's talk heart to heart. How should our marriage be? Sunflowers should be matched with moon flowers.

Unison: Sunflowers should be matched with moon flowers

Woman: Chairman Mao has made a new marriage law.

Li Na was one of many girls whose parents arranged her marriage while she was a child.

Her father earned a living making deliveries from a nearby distribution center while her mother worked their small patch of land. The family income was barely enough to survive.

When Li Na's father died of tuberculosis, her mother saw no other course for the family's survival than to offer her daughter as a child bride to a wealthy family.

When Li Na was seven, her mother proposed her as a bride to the paraplegic son of a wealthy landlord family. She then went to her prospective husband's family, who raised her until she was of marriageable age.

Until the end of China's last imperial dynasty wives were considered chattel. A husband could divorce his wife simply by signing a document. Wives, on the other hand, had two choices: endure or commit suicide.

The social revolution at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and early stage of the Republic of China (1912-1949) brought changes to family and marriage values.

Kang Youwei, a prominent scholar, political thinker and reformer of the late Qing Dynasty, fiercely attacked the traditional mode of Chinese marriage in his work The Book of Solid Reason and Public Laws. He regarded arranged marriages and the convention that enslaved a wife to her husband's household as both inhumane and irrational.

In his best-known and probably most controversial work Da Tong shu (literally The Book of Great Unity) Kang proposed systematic marriage reforms, most notably that sons and daughters above age 20 should choose their own marriage partners.

Kang's attempts to reform the traditional family unit define him as an early advocate of Chinese women's liberation. He criticized the social institution of the family, in force since time immemorial, as a source of strife. He called for state-run institutions where women could be looked after during pregnancy and nurseries and schools where children would live while being nurtured and educated. Decrying as oppressive the contemporary form of marriage that trapped a woman for a lifetime, he proposed a system of one-year marital contracts. Kang advocated gender equality in a society where nothing stops women from doing whatever men do.

Freedom of marriage is the sign of a mature society. But by the same token, so is the freedom to divorce.

In 1900 Chinese educator and president of Peking University Cai Yuanpei, known for his critical evaluations of Chinese culture, became a widower at age 32. As superintendent of Shaoxing Chinese-Western School, Cai was a well-known local figure. After his wife's death he became inundated with matchmakers intent on finding him a new mate.

It was during his dealings with them that this young thinker made his historic pronouncement on marriage. It comprised five conditions: that wives be literate and have unbound feet, that men should not take concubines, that a wife be permitted to remarry after her husband's death, and that a wife also have the right to divorce if she was unhappy in her marriage.

From the point of view of the prevailing Confucian ethics, this was an iconoclastic statement, especially the last two conditions.

In the overarchingly patriarchal environment of that time, women stayed married to the same man until death, even if widowed at a young age. Divorce was simply not an option.

Many, like Li Na, who had been given up as child brides, tried to escape. But they risked being stripped naked and beaten in public if caught. There are newspaper reports at the time of recaptured brides simply disappearing from view.

Li Na did not dare to flee.

"I had nowhere to go, and would have starved to death," she said.

In 1905, Western-style weddings came into vogue, at least in cities. The trend brought a certain degree of freedom of choice of marriage partner. But there was no change in divorce conventions.

Foreign observers at the time commented at the huge contrasts in rural and urban concepts of wealth, values and lifestyles areas that amounted to two distinct Chinas.

Gender-equal freedom to divorce could occur only in mixed nationality marriages. China's first such case was in 1908, when judge Li Fang of the Qing government supreme court and his English wife divorced.

He Zhen, wife of Chinese classical scholar Liu Shipei, spoke out on women's liberation, monogamy, and freedom of divorce in Tianyi News, the official journal for the Society for the Restoration of Women's Rights that she founded.

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