Arranged Marriage in China: Matchmaker Li vs.

May 13, 2011 § 3 Comments

In China, at least well into the twentieth century, it wasn’t chemistry that brought boy and girl together in marriage.  It was the local matchmaker.  Shrewd and deliberate, she would take great care in engineering favorable partnerships. The compatibility of boy and girl (soon to be husband and wife) was of little account to her; neither was the potential for mutual affection between them.  For she knew that marriage wasn’t principally for the purpose of bringing these two individuals together–it was an alliance between their two families.

Li Haoren of Fujian province was an especially good matchmaker, responsible for most of the matrimonial unions that took place in Dan’ning village during the 1550s, including the one between Lingbo of the landowning Fu family and Xiaomei, the daughter of the Wang family from neighboring Jinling village.  Lingbo had never laid eyes on Wang Xiaomei; likewise, Xiaomei had never before caught sight of Lingbo.  But that didn’t matter.  It wasn’t their wishes that were at issue

A matchmaker, to be successful in her trade, had to have her ear to the ground.  And Li Haoren was very successful.  She had heard that a certain Wang family in the neighboring village of Jinling had a daughter, approaching her thirteenth year; perhaps she’d be a good match for the Fu family’s Lingbo.  Lingbo had just turned sixteen and Matchmaker Li imagined that his parents were becoming somewhat anxious about finding him a wife.  The task Li now set herself was to get the Wang and Fu families to see eye to eye.  Her livelihood depended on it.  Further, a successful match here would be good for her reputation, which in turn would be good for business.

The Fus were people of means, with an estate of a few hundred acres; and Lingbo, having been tutored since the age of six in the Confucian Classics, had earned a reputation as a bright scholar with a bright future, certain someday to earn the prestigious civil service degree.  With this degree he could look forward to winning an official appointment in government, and great fame for himself and his family.  Yes, a handsome dowry is something the Fus surely expected: a nice sum of silver, a few rolls of silk, and perhaps a cow or two.  Fortunately, the Wangs, a merchant family with ties to the salt trade, certainly had the means.  No problem there.  But there was still more Matchmaker Li needed to offer the Fus.

Lingbo was the Fus’ only son, their only hope to continue the family line.  The choice of a wife for Lingbo was surely the most important one they’d ever make.  For it was Lingbo’s wife on whom the survival of the Fu family would finally depend.  And this is where Matchmaker Li had some especially auspicious news for Lingbo’s parents.  Not only were the Wangs a family of means, but the Wang women were notoriously fertile.  Xiaomei herself was but one of seven children.  And her two older sisters, married off a while ago, had together already produced five children of their own.  This, Li would tell the Wangs, boded real well for the likelihood that the Wangs would soon have grandchildren.  But there was better news still: Wang women had produced an abundance of sons–Xiaomei herself had four brothers, while her two older sisters had together produced four sons. They were real adept at conceiving boys.  The Fus now were beginning to warm to the prospects of making Wang Xiaomei their daughter-in-law.  If she could produce a son for them, and the odds were looking pretty good–never mind the role of the Y chromosome–the Fu biological line would be assured, as would the well-being of generations of Fu ancestors.

There were still other concerns, however.  The Fus, after all, would be bringing an outsider, a total stranger, into their household, and with her would come the potential for trouble.  How could they be sure she’d help promote harmony in the Fu household?  And would she uphold their good name in the community?  Absolutely, Matchmaker Li told them.  Both of Xiaomei’s sisters had won reputations as model daughters-in-law in their husbands’ families–in part because their parents had dutifully instructed them in the “Lessons for Women,” a brief text written centuries earlier by a great woman scholar, Ban Zhao.  Of course, the Fus didn’t need to be reminded of the contents of the “Lessons for Women,” as it had long been a canonical text in China.  The fact that the Wang girls had all received careful instruction in Ban Zhao’s chapters on “Humility,” “Respect and Caution,” “Whole-hearted Devotion,” “Obedience,” and “Harmony with Younger Brothers- and Sisters-in-law” pleased them greatly.  They’d think to themselves, if Xiaomei’s sisters had taken the lessons learned from Ban Zhao to heart, why wouldn’t Xiaomei?

Like her sisters, Xiaomei would no doubt have heard and memorized these words from “Lessons for Women”:

Nothing is better than an obedience that sacrifices personal opinion.  Whenever the mother-in-law says, “Do not do that,” if what she says is right, unquestionably the daughter-in-law obeys.  Whenever the mother-in-law says, “Do that,” even if what she says is wrong, still the daughter-in-law submits unfailingly to the command.  Let a woman not act contrary to the wishes and opinions of the parents-in-law about right and wrong; let her not dispute with them about what is straight and what is crooked.

The Fus were becoming increasingly persuaded that Wang Xiaomei was a pretty good bet.  With her, they’d receive a dowry, they’d continue the family line, and they’d get an obedient daughter-in-law to serve them around the house.  Yes, Matchmaker Li urged, this was a marriage sure to benefit both families.

Nowhere in these deliberations was Lingbo consulted, nowhere were his wishes taken into account (though Matchmaker Li might have suggested that the precocious Lingbo would be getting something of a “looker” if the parents agreed to the arrangement).  Neither did Xiaomei play any role on the Wang side (though Matchmaker Li would no doubt have suggested to the Wangs that the Fu family was reputed to be kind and generous, hoping to allay their fears that Xiaomei might be harshly treated in her new household.)  In fact, it wasn’t until the day of the wedding that the two would likely first lay eyes on each other.

For a girl, marrying into the husband’s household was not so much a matter of marrying the husband, then, as marrying the mother-in-law.  It was she who had to be pleased, for it was she who had signed off on the union in the first place.  Put crudely, she had chosen the son’s conjugal partner, not her son.  Should this point be lost on the new wife, Chinese law would be a sharp reminder; the civil code stipulated seven grounds for divorcing a wife, at the top of which was disobedience to mother- and father-in-law.

Divorce in China, needless to say, was not a pretty prospect for a woman.  You sure didn’t want to be running back to your natal family–for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that they didn’t particularly want you back.  They had incurred heavy expenses already on your account: for many years they fed and clothed you even as they knew you’d soon be leaving their household for good; and, when you left, they had handed over a hefty dowry to the husband’s family.  They certainly weren’t keen on starting the whole business over again.  And consider this: what was the likelihood they’d be able to arrange a second marriage for you, given the reputation you’ve earned for being a “tumult-maker”? You’d be a terrifically hard sell even for the most accomplished matchmaker. More seriously still, your screw-up with your in-laws would be sure to reflect poorly on your entire family, making it far more difficult for Mom and Dad to find interested takers for your two younger sisters.  The marital marketplace would be concerned that they, like you, were bad eggs.  Their stock, indeed your whole family’s stock, had, because of you, dropped dramatically.  No, the family definitely didn’t want you back.

Institutionally the cards were stacked heavily against you.  You were going to do everything you could to make your peace with your husband’s mother.  Now, the question always gets raised, what did the unfortunate daughters get out of a system like this?  Why did women tolerate a system where their rights and autonomy were severely limited, where they were so oppressed?  The long answer here would require lengthy discussion of the nature of culture and the power that culture, with its layers of customs and traditions, exerts.  The short answer, however, is: daughters grow up to be mothers–and mothers-in-law.

A system like this, in which marital union is arranged by a matchmaker, is jarring to our modern Western sensibilities.  For us, individual volition is essential to the marriage pact:  a man comes to feel deep, abiding love toward a woman; this woman, in turn, comes to feel deep, abiding love toward the man, and so the two choose to come together in lifelong matrimony.  Marriage is about them, husband and wife, and about their bonds of affection.  Our romantic ideals of love are deeply engrained and don’t mesh easily with a practice where the prospective husband and wife—and their feelings–are placed outside of the negotiating loop.

The recent explosion in this country of on-line dating services–,,,,,, and–is a curious phenomenon then.  For the services these dating dot.coms offer look much like some of those offered by our Matchmaker Li.  Consider the Right Stuff, which advertises in magazines as follows:

Date someone who knows that poetic meters don’t take quarters.

Date fellow graduates and faculty of the Ivies, Seven Sisters, MIT, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Accredited Medical Schools and a few others. The Right Stuff. More than 4000 Members. 800-988-5288.

Like Matchmaker Li earlier, the Right Stuff promises to do some initial screening for its customers.  Subscribers to its service can feel assured that potential matches will be of roughly similar socio-economic status and have roughly similar aspirations. (For those interested in finding a relationship, this is both a more efficient and more promising process than walking into a bar cold.)  Also like Matchmaker Li, is the conduit of exchange, passing personal information about one interested party to the other.  From the Right Stuff website, one party gleans the level of education, the line of work, the family background, and the interest and hobbies of the other.  This, of course, is accomplished without the two parties ever coming face-to-face.  Only once both are satisfied with what they have learned about each other might they agree to give up their anonymity and meet.

As with Matchmaker Li, then, the contemporary services efficiently engineer an introduction between two unacquainted individuals.  But, the decision whether to establish a relationship (as well as about what type of relationship), in the end, rests with these individuals.  This is where the crucial difference with arranged marriages in China lies.  The prospective couple there had no decision-making authority, indeed no input at all in the negotiations that could eventuate in their marital union.  Marriage, after all, did not signify feelings of love or affection between boy and girl.  It signified an alliance between families. The wishes of the prospective husband and wife thus were largely irrelevant.  This is something Matchmaker Li knew well.


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§ 3 Responses to Arranged Marriage in China: Matchmaker Li vs.

  • Julen says:

    Wow, is that a plug for a dating website in the end of your post? I’ve never seen that technique in a chinablog, but is sounds like it might work… good one!

  • Mary Beth says:

    This is a fascinating view into the complicated considerations and points for negotiation for arranged marriages AND for marriages made by choice. I wonder how the dot com dating services function in China….Today, the internet dating screening process certainly makes bold the ways in which social class plays a central role in choosing a mate – something many would prefer to keep hidden from awareness as one can see that the myth of romantic love is the overlay on many of these sites. I found a site recently advertising Russian and Ukrainian women available to men in western Europe and North America. There too, romantic narratives dominated but with a twist of 19th century style domestic companionship.

  • Kathleen Woods Masalski says:

    I enjoy keeping up to date with ChinaMusings–an historian’s view on society and the environment in China today–and would like to receive the postings at my new email address. Please delete the address under which I am currently listed. Thank you.

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