At our wedding in autumn this year, both my husband Fan and I gave a speech in front of our guests on the reasons we tied the knot — not only because the love we have for each other, but also the mutual respect we have for each other’s life goals. As feminists, Fan and I also promised each other that we would make our family a tight-knit unit based on the values of gender equality.
“In China a lot of families are experiencing ‘widowed parenting,’” I said, referring to a Chinese social phenomenon whereby one parent, usually the mother, spends much more time raising the children than the other. “A lot of couples split household work along traditional lines. We’re getting married because we want to bring gender equality to domestic affairs, including sharing the household chores equally.”
After the ceremony, I posted our speeches on my public account on the messaging app WeChat. To my surprise, the speeches were forwarded by thousands of people expressing their support for our views. While I was very moved that so many people felt the same way as us, I nonetheless felt a little embarrassed because I know that my wedding did, in some ways, contradict our declarations of equality. In fact, the entire process of planning our big day was rife with patriarchy and parental intervention.
Wedding preparations were a constant negotiation between my mom and me. My husband and I had two weddings: The first was in Shanghai, the city where I was born, and the other took place in Nanchang, my husband’s hometown in southeastern China’s Jiangxi province.
This wasn’t our original idea: To save the time and effort involved in planning two events, we initially planned to have a single ceremony on a picturesque island in Southeast Asia. But my traditionally-minded mother opposed the plan, calling it “unconventional” as it wouldn’t have taken place in our hometown. Later, we suggested having the wedding banquet at the Moller Villa, a vast gothic house located in Shanghai’s Former French Concession. But after a tour of the venue, my mother flatly rejected the idea, saying only that it was too small to set up a T-shaped stage for the bride and groom to parade along after the ceremony. In the end, we agreed to get married at the Peace Hotel, an art deco building on the Bund, Shanghai’s waterfront promenade.
Regardless of the fact that we had already obtained a marriage certificate and lived together prior to the big day — all decidedly progressive acts in modern China — mom insisted that I stay at the family home the night before the ceremony and be escorted to the venue by Fan the following day, as tradition dictates.
Similar patriarchal customs appeared as our wedding day progressed. My aunts purchased dried dates, peanuts, longan fruit, and lotus seeds, and hid them in our hotel bed. In Chinese, the words for each of these fruits, when spoken one after another, are a homophone for a phrase expressing hope that the bride would quickly become pregnant and give birth to a boy. Then, my husband’s nephew was told to roll around on the bed and dig out the dried food, an act that inevitably “messes up the bedsheets” — a euphemism for having sex in Chinese.
Most elderly Chinese expect a newlywed couple to have a baby relatively soon after getting hitched. For both my parents and my husband’s parents, the very purpose of marriage is to have children, and they struggle to understand why a married couple would ever use contraception.
A few weeks later, on the night of our ceremony in Nanchang, Fan’s family unexpectedly cooked chicken soup for the two of us just before we went to bed. While my father-in-law said coyly that it was a family tradition to eat soup so late, my husband suspected that his parents meant to offer some last-minute nourishment just in case we had sex, supposedly to help us conceive a healthy child.
Perhaps the renowned Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong best captured the traditional Chinese view of marriage when he wrote that love is about mutual spiritual growth, but marriage is about raising a child together. To Fei, who researched Chinese family structures in the mid-20th century, the objectives of love and marriage were fundamentally different, and you didn’t need to love somebody to marry them.
Chinese society has progressed since Fei’s time, but traditional views of marriage remain ingrained. Whichever way you spin romantic love, I have discovered that marriage is inherently pragmatic – a series of compromises not only between Fan and me, but also between our parents and us. We are still working out how to reconcile the romantic and practical issues in our marriage — not least, how to stop our parents from trying to meddle in our daily lives.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A couple pose for a photo before their wedding ceremony in Shanghai, March 18, 2008. VCG)