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When two souls, that have shed their loneliness, embrace and melt into one; from out of loneliness, love is born.

Mori Yuriko
Traditional Wedding
Chinese Marriage

Chinese marriage (Chinese: 婚姻; pinyin: hūn yīn) is a ceremonial ritual within Chinese societies that involve a marriage established by pre-arrangement between families. Within Chinese culture, romantic love was allowed, and monogamy was the norm for most ordinary citizens.


In more ancient writings for the word 婚姻, the former has the 昏 beside the radical 女 (pinyin: nǚ, literally "a female"). This implies that the wedding ceremony is performed in the evening, which is deemed as time of fortune. Similarly, 姻 (pinyin: yīn) is the same as 因 (pinyin: yīn). According to Zhang Yi's (張揖) Guangya Shigu (廣雅•釋詁), a dictionary of ancient Chinese characters, 因 (pinyin: yīn) means "friendliness", "love" and "harmony", indicating the correct way of living for a married couple.

Marriage in a Confucian context

In Confucian thought, marriage is of grave significance both to families and to society as well as being important for the cultivation of virtue. Traditionally incest has been defined as marriage between people with the same surname. From the perspective of a Confucian family, marriage brings together families of different surnames and so continues the family line of the paternal clan. This is generally why having a boy is more preferred than a girl when giving birth. Therefore, the benefits and demerits of any marriage are important to the entire family, not just the individual couples. Socially, the married couple is thought to be the basic unit of society. In Chinese history there have been many times when marriages have affected the country’s political stability and international relations. From the Han Dynasty (漢朝, pinyin: hàn cháo) onward, the rulers of certain powerful foreign tribes such as the Mongolians, the Manchus, the Xiongnu, and the Turks demanded women from the Imperial family. Many periods of Chinese history were dominated by the families of the wife or mother of the ruling Emperor. Thus marriage can be related to politics.

Prehistoric Chinese marriages
  • Marriages in early societies
  • Sibling marriages
  • Inter-clan marriage and antithetic marriage
  • Maternal marriage and monogamy
Traditional marriage rituals

Chinese marriage became a custom between 402-221 B.C. Despite China's long history and many different geographical areas, there are basically six rituals, generally known as the three letters and six etiquette.

Traditional divorce process

In traditional Chinese society, there are three major ways to dissolve a marriage.

The first one is no-fault divorce. According to the legal code of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a marriage may be dissolved due to personal incompatibility, provided that the husband writes a divorce note.

The second way (义绝) is through a state-mandated annulment of marriage. This applies to when one spouse commits a serious crime (variously defined, usually defined more broadly for the wife) against the other or his/her clan.

Finally, the husband may unilaterally declare a divorce. To be legally recognized, however, it must be based on one of the following seven reasons (七出):

  • The wife lacks filial piety towards her parents-in-law (不順舅姑). This makes the parents-in-law capable of breaking a marriage against both partners' will.
  • She fails to bear a son (無子).
  • She is vulgar or lewd/adulterous (淫).
  • She is jealous (妒). This includes objecting to her husband taking an additional wife or concubine.
  • She has a vile disease (有惡疾).
  • She is gossipy (口多言).
  • She commits theft (竊盜).

Obviously, these reasons can be stretched quite a bit to suit the husband and his family. However there are three clearly defined exceptions (三不去), under which the unilateral divorce is disallowed:

  • She has no family to return to (有所取無所歸).
  • She had observed a full three-year mourning for a parent-in-law (與更三年喪).
  • Her husband was poor when they married, and now is rich (前貧賤后富貴).

The above law about unilateral divorce was in force from Tang Dynasty to its final abolition in the Republic of China's Civil Code (Part IV) Section 5, passed in 1930.


This section discusses the social and legal aspects of polygamy, mostly polygyny (one man, multiple women), in traditional Chinese society. The traditional culture does not prohibit or explicitly encourage polygyny (except as a way to obtain male children).

The scope of practice is limited by the number of available women, as well as the financial resource of the man, since he has to be able to support the women. Therefore polygyny is mostly limited to parts of the upper to middle class; while among the rest of the population monogamy can be regarded as the norm. Historical written records is probably skewed with regard to the actual prevalence of polygamy, since the elite can be safely assumed to be overrepresented in them.