Who’s Profiting Off China’s Bride Prices?
This is the first article in a series on bride prices.
Few topics are the subject of more debate — or more clickbait headlines — in China than the sky-high bride prices found in some rural areas. Last month, an article with the headline “Jiangxi Woman Demands 18.88 Million Yuan ($2.75 million) Bride Price From Her Shanghai Boyfriend” soared atop trending lists on multiple social media platforms, only for the story to be revealed as a fake. That revelation didn’t stop a town in a rural part of Jiangxi province from marshalling 30 young unmarried women to put their names on an open letter decrying high bride prices, resulting in yet another round of media coverage.
Not every story is quite so lighthearted, of course. Earlier this week, reports that a Sichuan family had received a 260,000-yuan bride price when they married off their underage daughter sparked a furious backlash on social media.
Regardless of the circumstances, attitudes toward bride prices in both traditional and new media are almost universally negative. They are widely seen as an outdated tradition that must be ended as soon as possible. Local governments, especially in northern China, have also sought to discourage the practice on numerous occasions, casting it as an obstacle to stabilizing the rural marriage market.
And yet, the practice persists. One reason for the apparent durability of bride prices is their diversity: They can vary widely by region and are tightly bound to local community norms and lifestyles.
To understand the scale of the issue, it’s important to first define what bride prices are and how they are used. In traditional Chinese culture, the practice had a strong ceremonial connotation: They were a means of regulating marital relationships by subjecting them to ritual conduct. Today, however, ritual has taken a back seat to bride prices’ other functions, namely compensation for the parents of daughters and financial support for newlywed couples.
Which of the two is more important depends on the region. In rural parts of north China, such as Henan, Shandong, and the northern parts of Anhui province, the bride’s parents generally don’t keep the money for themselves, for fear of being accused of having sold their daughter. Instead, the money is passed to the bride for use in married life.
Rural parts of the upper Yangtze region, including Sichuan province, Hubei province, and Chongqing, follow a similar practice. In these areas, the bride price is typically passed onto the bride, and her parents might give her an additional dowry when she marries, usually equal to that that given by the groom’s family.
It is in the south, including Guangdong, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces, that the bride price is usually kept by the bride’s parents as a form of recognition for the work put into raising her. Indeed, in these regions, bride prices are often instead referred to as “childrearing money” or “breastmilk money.” Generally, parents will pass some of the money along as a dowry for their daughter — usually less than half — and keep the rest to cover their personal household expenses or to pay the bride price for their son.
This raises a curious question. If bride prices are more likely to be passed on to the brides in northern and southwestern China, why does it seem that stories of sky-high bride prices distorting the marriage market are most common in these regions?
Based on my research, bride prices indeed tend to be highest in rural Henan and the northern parts of Anhui, and especially on the Huang-Huai-Hai Plain that stretches across the two provinces. Families living in rural areas in these regions generally must pay at least 10,000 yuan per son in bride price — a number that does not include the wedding ring, other jewelry, or the cost of the ceremony, much less the price of a house and car for the new couple.
Bride prices in southern provinces such as Jiangxi, Guangdong, and Fujian are relatively lower, especially given these regions’ higher wealth. For example, during a research trip to a central part of Guangdong province, I found that bride prices were only around 10,000 yuan to 20,000 yuan. Prices in Jiangxi are somewhat higher, but still generally between 20,000 and 30,000 yuan.
Bride prices are lowest in the southwest, as the absence of any formalized rules means that the sum, if it is given at all, is generally decided on a case-by-case basis. On a research trip in rural Sichuan, I found many cases in which a woman’s family would ask for a high bride price, only to be turned down by the man’s parents. “If worst comes to the worst, then don’t marry (her),” was a common refrain.
Ironically, one of the biggest reasons why bride prices are relatively costlier in regions like north China is the practice of passing the money onto the bride. Because the money ultimately goes to their daughter and her husband, the bride’s parents cannot be accused of selling their daughter for money and feel free to drive a hard bargain. Local cultural norms that hold parents responsible for helping their sons marry only give the families of brides more leverage. In the south, if a bride’s parents pushed for a higher price, they could be accused of treating their daughter like a commodity.
The other factor pushing bride prices up in north China is the region’s relatively closed marriage market. Generally speaking, the expectation to marry a local increases competition and drives up the bride price. In general, the marriage market in rural northern China is limited to the surrounding areas. Locals generally want their children to find someone from nearby — usually from the same county — which is an important factor behind the higher bride prices there.
In short, the issue of bride prices is more complicated than it may at first seem. If the practice is to be eliminated, or even just ameliorated, it’s important to look beyond the headlines about “sky-high prices” and at the underlying logic.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: 500px/VCG)