As an integral part of the traditional Chinese culture, the ancient marriage customs have a long history of over 5,000 years, which have changed over time due to different social ethics and aesthetic standards from one dynasty to another, however, they also have their own unique characteristics and rituals which have been carried forward to the present and still exert a far-reaching influence on later generations.
Development of Ancient Chinese Marriage Customs
The ancient Chinese marriage customs have gone through five stages over 5,000 years: primitive group marriage stage, consanguineous marriage stage, exogamous marriage stage, antithetic marriage stage and the monogamy marriage stage.
Primitive Group Marriage
In the primitive society, the ancestors of the Chinese people lived in groups and had no fixed spouses, and they had sexual relationships indiscriminately with one another. Owing to their weak gender awareness, they didn’t felt ashamed and weren’t bound by customs and etiquettes.
As the first marriage taboo in Chinese history, consanguineous marriage emerged during the middle Neolithic Age, which banned a parent-offspring marriage but allowed the marriage of people of the same generation (such as the brother and sister of a family). The representative consanguineous marriage was between Fu Xi (one of the Three August Ones and the Five Lords) and Nv Wa, who were blood brother and sister.
Exogamous Marriage Stage
As the second marriage taboo in Chinese history, exogamous marriage emerged in the middle and late Neolithic Age, which strictly banned the marriage between blood brothers and sisters, and it only allowed marriage among different social groups.
In the exogamous marriage stage, it was very common for the brothers of the same family to marry a wife from the other group, and she would be the wife of all the brothers in the family, and vice versa. The legend went that Shun (one of the Three August Ones and the Five Lords) married Yao’s daughters, Ehuang and Nvying, at the same time.
As a transitional stage from the exogamous marriage stage to the monogamous marriage stage, the antithetic marriage (or paired marriage) was an unstable marriage between men and women during the late Neolithic Age, which was very different from modern monogamy and easily dissolved; and it retained some vestiges of group marriage with tolerance toward a husband’s or wife’s extramarital relationships.
As the patriarchal social system took place of the matriarchal social system, the private ownership of property came into being, on which the ancient monogamous marriage was based. In the ancient monogamy marriage stage, the husband owned everything in the family, including his wife, children and property, and the main task of women was bearing children to carry on the paternal lineages.
Principles of Ancient Chinese Marriage Customs
According to Confucianism, a marriage is the beginning of ethics and a wedding ceremony is the essence of etiquettes, which has a substantial influence on social stability, and only those marriages with formal wedding ceremonies are recognized by society. The basic principles of an ancient marriage mainly involved the matched social status, the dictates of the parents and the advice of the matchmaker, the ban of the marriage for a couple with the same surname and the tolerance toward polygamy.
Matched Social Status
The marriageable age was 20 for males and 16 for females in ancient China, and an ideal standard of marriage was well-matched in social and economic status for the two families. In the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-771 BC), the intermarriage between noblemen and commoners was absolutely forbidden by law. The implementation of the nine-rank system in the Wei （220-265）, Jin (265-420), Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) resulted in a rigid feudal hierarchy system, making it impossible for a noble to get married with a commoner. Although it was superseded by the civil-service examination system in the Sui Dynasty (581-618), it was still a tradition for the concerned parties to get matched according to their social and economic status, which was followed by the Tang (618-907) Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Dictates of Parents and Advice of Matchmakers
Free love was absolutely banned in ancient China and was widely condemned as an offence to public decency according to the traditional Confucian ethic codes, so it was the task of parents to arrange marriage for their children in order to maintain order of the traditional patriarchal society. Not only was the arranged marriage formally favored by society, but it was also politically supported and enhanced by law in ancient China.
As a matter of fact, the marriageable boy and girl were supposed to obey the dictates of their parents and follow the advice of the matchmaker on the arranged marriage pattern. Having never seen each other before their wedding day, this resulted in numerous unequal and loveless marriages.