Approximately 80 years ago, the famous Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong described a peculiar model of matrimony found in some parts of eastern China known as liangtou hun, or a “two-sided marriage.” According to traditional Chinese marital practices, a bride would marry into her husband’s family, but the newlyweds Fei surveyed didn’t frame their decisions using terms like men “taking a wife” or women “giving (themselves) in marriage.” They exchanged no betrothal gifts or dowries, but the bride and groom’s parents each set aside rooms in their respective households, with the married couple regularly alternating between the two. After marriage, if the couple had two children, one was given the father’s surname, the other, the mother’s. In return, they were expected to take care of both sets of parents, just as they had the right to inherit assets from both sides of the family.
The two-sided marriage never disappeared, but recently it’s been enjoying a renaissance of sorts, as Chinese media outlets have reported on the phenomenon and its place in the country’s rapidly changing marital landscape. But if much of the ensuing debate has focused on how modern or pro-women the two-sided marriage model is — does it increase women’s status or only burden them with more family members to care for? — the real reason for the practice’s reemergence is less a desire for more equitable gender relations and more a need to address the thorny practical issues caused by China’s embrace of family planning and the one-child policy.
In the waterside villages on the eastern Hangzhou-Jiaxing-Huzhou Plain where I conducted my fieldwork, the one-child policy left many households without male offspring to carry on their family name. Early on, some of these “one-daughter families” sought to preserve their bloodlines by adopting their sons-in-law, an inversion of traditional marriage norms known as ruzhui. Beginning at the turn of the 21st century, however, growing concerns over ancestry and bloodlines — as well as more practical matters such as the inheritance of assets, elder care, and the general unwillingness of men to ruzhui — led to a rise in popularity of two-sided marriages. Today, they are the most common form of matrimony in the region.
This shift has challenged many local traditions tied to the patriarchal family system, especially in rural areas. Customarily, familial lineage and assets would be passed down through male offspring alone, requiring brides to join and exclusively live with their husband’s family thus only giving children their father’s surname. In the two-sided marriage system, daughters can inherit their parents’ often-not-inconsiderable assets, and in return bear responsibility for taking care of them when they’re older.
Many of the households I surveyed felt this model of marriage encouraged a greater degree of mutual care between children and parents, and partially resolved the neglect of elderly parents that has occurred in some families under the one-child policy. In two-sided marriages, couples regularly switch between living with each set of parents, thus avoiding the “empty nest” phenomenon so common in rural China. And through these comings and goings, two-sided marriages also encourage association between the bride and groom’s parents, allowing the elders of each household to look after one another and thus lift some of the elder care burden from the young couple’s shoulders.
Ultimately, though, one of the most important considerations for forming a two-sided marriage in this region is still the very patriarchal question of inheritance. In particular, a two-sided marriage is often expected to solve the inheritance dilemma by producing two children: one to inherit the paternal line and surname, the other to inherit the maternal line and surname. Indeed, the decision to have two children is usually hashed out in pre-marital negotiations, and if one or the other side is unwilling to agree to a second child, they won’t enter into this form of marriage.
Yet even if a couple has talked things out beforehand, it’s inevitable that conflicts will arise from time to time. In most two-sided marriages, both sets of grandparents agree to let their wealth and assets be split evenly among their grandkids, both the one with their surname and the one without. In one case I heard about while conducting my fieldwork, however, the wife’s parents were significantly wealthier than the husband’s, and they wanted to leave their property to only the grandchildren bearing their surname. Such actions seed conflict not just between parents and grandparents or husband and wife, but also the grandkids. Two-sided marriages depend on unity, not just of husband and wife, but of their families. If that unity breaks down, clashes ensue.
Since the media picked up and reported on the reemergence of liangtou hun, many have wondered if the model might be a solution to some of China’s matrimonial problems, whether the oppression of women in their husband’s households, the need for elder care among the parents of only daughters, or even the increasingly unreasonable bride prices demanded in some parts of the country. Others argue that two-sided marriages are just a new coat of paint on the same old patriarchal system, a system whose fundamental purpose is simply continuing a family’s bloodline and passing down familial assets. If it appears feminist at first glance, it often only increases the burdens on women by requiring them to give birth to two children.
The truth is, even setting all this aside, two-sided marriages are likely too much a product of their region and era to be widely viable. Unlike much of rural China, the waterside villages where I conducted my fieldwork are far from impoverished — some sit less than 5 kilometers away from Alibaba’s headquarters, one of the province’s main economic engines. As a result, locals have no need to leave their hometowns to find decent opportunities for employment as migrant workers. This in turn has preserved a stronger sense of kinship and community than has survived elsewhere.
Two-sided marriages are suited to this kind of wealthy exurban cross between the traditional rural village and modern city, where community negotiation and compromise remain viable models for finding solutions to the common familial problems of the post-family planning era. But if Chinese millennials think they’ve found a secret solution to the problems of patriarchal marriage structures, they’re likely to be disappointed.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell, portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: hisa nishiya/iStock/People Visual, re-edit by Sixth Tone)