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I wrote this in 2008 as a final essay for my Freshman Seminar Class.

chinese marriage

Devoting one’s life to another is the ultimate gift and sacrifice. Therefore, marriage is considered to be one of the most important and special rites of passage found all over the world. Beginning a new life with another spouse creates what is vital to carrying on the tradition of family and children. These unions in every culture have particular customs and beliefs that set them apart from others as unique individuals. Yet all have characteristics that are shared and celebrated across nations. China is blessed with a rich history that has withstood thousands of years. Over time, their concept of marriage has evolved. The Igbo people of Nigeria have many fascinating aspects pertaining to their traditional marital customs before the British colonized the land, incorporating modernization. Seeing through the eyes of each culture with the lens of marriage reveals that while both the Igbo and Chinese share a similar belief in descent and process of preparation, differences can be found in their social and family values.

The types of marriages existing in both are closely related. The Igbo believe in exogamy, which is the pursuit of a spouse outside the local group. A man would leave his village and travel to those that were near to seek out a wife. Village members were considered family; therefore a taboo was placed on sexual intercourse between a man and a woman born in the same village (Green 155). A group of people called the “osu,” brought to the land as slaves to the deities, were apart from the free-born people and were therefore forbidden to mix (158). In this way, they are also considered partially endogamous, remaining within their social groups. Descent was patrilineal and traced through the male line. Patrilocality was practiced as the wife would leave her family and move into her husband’s father’s household. Polygyny was acceptable and even preferable to monogamy as the more wives a man had, the more prosperous his household. In modern times though, married couples live neolocally and have their own household. Additionally, monogamy has become more acceptable. Chinese people saw fit to marry within their own social class, being a very important aspect of partner choice. They also believed in patrilineage; it was a male-dominated society, as seen in their authority, employment, place of residence, inheritance, preference of sons, and oppression of women (Xiaowei 295). In the case of polygyny, it was acceptable if a wife was incapable of bearing sons. Extended families were very popular in traditional times, and several generations lived together as did the Igbo. Current standards reveal that the new couple will live with their family only until able to find an apartment of their own.

Creating ties between families for economic reasons was one of the only similarities between each culture’s motivations for marriage, and even the economics involved were different. Trading between Igbo villages placed a large part on mate selection. A man would sometimes marry several wives of different villages along a trade route in order to prevent himself from traveling through hostile lands. In this way, war and disputes could be assuaged (Green 152). The continent of Africa placed a large importance of the household on agriculture; thus the Igbo valued a large family comprised of many wives and children as ideal to work the land and gain much productivity and prosperity (Ohadike xxxii). Love was not considered an important factor; husband and wife could always eventually grow to care for one another. This no longer holds true in modern Nigerian society where marriage for love is the most popular reason. Traditional China sought alliances between families in which both sets of parents would be financially supported in the transference of resources (Xiaowei 289). After 1949, however, the government allowed partners to be found based on love and companionship as well as their political and social environment (Xia 235-236). Material comfort and financial security still remained important (Gunde 172). In a social sense, women sought a man that was tall, wealthy, and had an advanced degree. The most desirable women were those that were young, beautiful, healthy, chaste, and gentle (Xia 237-238). It appears that the Chinese have more standards to take into consideration.

The process and preparations for matrimony in Igboland and China had some related aspects. During the traditional time period, arranged marriages were the norm with the Igbo and could take years to fully settle. The prospective husband would bring palm-wine to the bride’s family who in turn would feed him. Then the girl would visit his home, exchanging gifts (Green 151). Inquiries and investigations would take place between the families: consulting a diviner, asking about premature deaths or twin births, guaranteeing the rules of exogamy were followed. Afterwards, the girl would again travel to her potential husband’s home to have her character tested by the elders and adults of his family. She would be observed in her working habits, abilities with crafts, temperament, as well as form and figure (Uchendu 52). If finally deemed acceptable, the brideprice, or amount paid to the bride’s family in reimbursement for their daughter to be leaving the home, would be settled upon by the two families. Finally, the bride would permanently move into her husband’s village. Traditional China also placed high value on arranged marriages and usually did so through the work of a matchmaker. She was an elderly woman who knew the birthday, appearance, and temperament of every unmarried man and woman in the community (Xia 232). Following the tradition of “men dang hu dui,” the matchmaker joined families of the same economic and social status and was rewarded with gifts and money if successful, leaving possible room for exaggeration on her part (233). An astrologer was also consulted for zodiac compatibility. Today, the decision for marriage usually lies between the couple, meeting on their own through school, work, or a mutual friend (239). Originally considered to be a form of engagement and serious endeavor, dating now became more casual. Gift exchanges between the prospective in-laws were not uncommon. It is interesting to note the importance of going through a selection process and exchanging gifts in the two cultures.

One of the more prominent contrasts dividing the Igbo and Chinese was the actual wedding. With the traditional Igbo, a ceremony was not usually practiced. Most of the emphasis was placed upon the engagement and preparations leading up to when the bride would move into the husband’s family. Now, with acculturation, there are church weddings, civil court marriages, and another option called “marriage by photograph,” common with soldiers in which photographs would be exchanged between the two instead of personally meeting to decide whether or not to pursue a marriage (Uchendu 51). In contrast, China in both the past and present has elaborate ceremonies. The couple would officially register with the local government and proceed with a physical and health examination to ensure a healthy union between the two (Xia 242). Glamorous wedding photos in traditional garments were also taken well in advance. The groom and his family would be in charge of all the wedding expenses except in the case that the bride was not a virgin; in consequence of that occurring, the expenses would be shared (Xiaowei 300). On the day of the wedding, the bride would traditionally be transported to the groom’s home by way of a decorative sedan chair, but now, the groom comes to her house escorted by a fancy motorcade. At her doorstep, he would then be stopped by the bridesmaids who would test his love for his wife-to-be in mischievous tests by forcing him to sing loudly of the depth of his affection to the entire group of guests or to drink something horrible. All would go to a fancy restaurant in Western suits and gowns where there would be fireworks to scare off evil spirits. The couple would drink the marriage wine, called “jiaobeijiu” and would settle down with the guests for an elaborate feast (Xia 245). Igbo people seem to be simpler in their ceremonies.

Another clear dividing line between the two cultures was the matter of divorce. It was perfectly acceptable among the Igbo. A wife could leave her husband, returning to her parent’s house for a few days or even longer, if she was annoyed or felt neglected and mistreated (Green 164). In China, traditionally marriages were binding without the option of divorce; a widow wouldn’t even be able to remarry after the death of her husband (Xia 234). Now in the present, divorce is becoming more acceptable in the case of lack of emotional support, family violence, fading of love, or extramarital affairs. During the Cultural Revolution in particular, divorces were common if one member of the family was in political trouble, therefore protecting the children’s future, surviving socially, and avoiding persecution (Xiaowei 245). Although the standards began differently, the Chinese and Igbo are embracing the option of ending a relationship and no longer living together.

There is another definite contrast between China and Igboland when considering family and children. They were highly valued with the Igbo and believed to be the reincarnations of previous ancestors and spirits (Green 162). Everyone would fawn over them, petting and overindulging until the next child was born. Children spent most of their time in the village center where they would participate in wrestling, informal education, games, dancing, and archery, consequently being raised by the entire village (Uchendu 63). When grown, the children would still maintain close ties with their families. Daughters would travel back to their home village to care for their mothers if they were sick (Green 163). Despite the reverence of children, twin births were a taboo because of the Igbo belief that multiple births lowered humans to the level of beasts. When twins were born, the mother would be isolated and the children destroyed without severing the umbilical cords from their bodies (Uchendu 58). China had a very particular preference for sons to carry on the family name. It was not uncommon for a girl born to be abandoned or a victim of female infanticide. The One-Child Policy of today was introduced by the government in an effort to control the population and, with the introduction of ultrasound scans, led to abortions of fetuses that would have been born girls. Children were viewed in vastly different manners between the two cultures.

Vast distances and language barriers may exist throughout the world, but it is simply amazing how much cultures can share. China and Igboland in particular have very similar family and descent distinctions along with the marriage process. The world is filled with diversity, each culture bringing to the table aspects that set themselves apart from everyone else. This can be seen especially when considering how the two mentioned cultures view children and social values, such as divorce. All humanity is linked in some form with similar beliefs that help when opening eyes to a culture beyond one’s own yet in a way that there is much to learn from one another.


Works Cited

Green, M.M.Ibo Village Affairs. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1964.

Gunde, Richard. “Family and Gender.” Culture and Customs of China. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002. 167-190.

Ohadike, Don C. “Igbo Culture and History.” Introduction. Things Fall Apart. By Chinua Achebe. Johannesburg, South Africa: Heinemann Publishers (Pty) Limited, 1996. xxx-xxxii.

Uchendu, Victor C. The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria.  New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1965.

Xia, Yan R., and Zhi G. Zhou. “The Transition of Courtship, Mate Selection, and Marriage in China.” Mate Selection Across Cultures. Ed. Raeann Hamon and Bron B. Ingoldsby. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc., 2003. 231-246.

Xiaowei, Zang. “Family, Kinship, Marriage, and Sexuality.” Understanding Contemporary China. Ed. Robert E. Gamer. Boulder: Lynn Rienner Publishers, Inc, 2003.

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