Getting to ‘No’: How I Negotiated My Bride Price Away
This Spring Festival, I decided it was time for my boyfriend to meet my parents. That meant a joint trip back to my hometown, the central city of Wuhan.
For all the changes in relationship norms over the past several decades, it is still customary for Chinese couples to introduce their significant others to their parents before discussing marriage. Once broached, however, the topic can quickly shift to setting a date or other particulars of the ceremony. But I faced another conversation, one I particularly dreaded: telling my parents I wouldn’t accept a bride price.
I’ve spent the past seven years living and working in Shanghai, a very different place from Wuhan. My experiences there have instilled feminist values in me, and I had no interest in factoring a bride price into my relationship decisions. If my parents were to request a bride price from my boyfriend’s family, it would be as though they saw me as an object, one with a definite worth and value. I’d walk down the aisle feeling like a commodity.
This awakening was going to be hard to sell to my parents. In my hometown, paying a bride price is a matter of course. On previous visits home, my relatives would excitedly discuss the weddings of my cousins and the wealth of their in-laws. They always made special mention of the amount paid in bride price, the grandeur of the ceremony, the luxury cars used during the wedding, and the extravagance of the gifts given to the bride’s relatives.
I decided to get ahead of the problem, hoping that by taking a firm stance and asserting myself as soon as the matter was raised, I could get my parents to back down.
It didn’t work. Even before my boyfriend and I arrived, my stepmother — who typically handled these discussions instead of my father — and my aunt began calling me to ask how much my boyfriend’s family could pay.
The calls were upsetting, and at our first family dinner back home, I bluntly told them to stop. “I refuse to discuss a bride price,” I said. “It’s akin to human trafficking.”
My aunt was undeterred. “We don’t mean any harm, but this is a custom here,” she replied. “Your cousin was married two days ago, and the groom paid a bride price of 200,000 yuan ($30,000). If you don’t accept anything, it will look like you married poorly. As for the money, your father will give it to you later.”
After dinner, my female cousins pulled me aside one by one. At first, I thought they had been sent by the family, but as we spoke, I realized they genuinely believed I was making a terrible mistake. To them, receiving a sum of money from their husband-to-be was a way to guarantee their financial security while symbolizing the in-laws’ financial status.
“You’re being foolish,” they repeatedly told me. “The bride price is for your own good.”
Unlike my sisters and cousins, who had married locals accustomed to the convention, I had fallen in love with a man from outside the province. But this only seemed to increase their desire for me to receive a bride price. “You don’t know anything about this guy,” they argued. “How will you protect yourself?”
Pretty soon, I was completely worn out. Feeling misunderstood, I reached out to a good friend from college. As we chatted, I mentioned how my relatives were on my case for rejecting a bride price. I thought my friend, who is similarly educated and like-minded on many issues, would support my stance. To my surprise, she was shocked and called me foolish for turning down the money.
“I don’t need it,” I protested. “I’m capable of supporting myself.” But she remained unconvinced. “If a man doesn’t pay a financial price to marry you, he won’t value you as much in the marriage,” she replied.
It’s a common argument. And to an extent, I understood. Although my hometown is far from poor, many of my female friends and cousins there do not have strong economic resources. They are either full-time housewives or work in state-owned enterprises with meager salaries; their main source of income is either their husbands or their in-laws. In this context, a bride price becomes a crucial financial guarantee. The gap in career prospects and opportunities between women in first- and second-tier cities is wider than many realize.
Still, it’s one thing to know something, another to experience it firsthand. As I dealt with relative after relative, I realized just how little feminism has penetrated Chinese discourse. And I was still no closer to resolving the issue.
Finally, as the Spring Festival holiday drew to a close and my boyfriend and I prepared to leave, my stepmother pulled me aside for a private conversation.
“Even if you truly don’t want the money, you can’t go around saying that you didn’t take a bride price,” she informed me. “It would be too humiliating. Your father and I wouldn’t be able to face our relatives and friends.”
I pushed back, quietly thankful that I lived far enough from home not to care about the local gossip mill. But then she said something that caught me off-guard: “If you spread the word that you didn’t accept a bride price, your sister’s boyfriend will hear about it, and that might influence his offer to marry her! I’m expecting at least 200,000 yuan for her bride price.”
I was momentarily speechless. This was something I had not considered. She might be willing to compromise when it came to my life. After all, I was only her stepdaughter. But this was her own daughter’s future at stake.
In the end, we reached an agreement. I promised her that I would stay silent, and she could make up a bride price so that people would think she had married me off decently.
“No matter what I say about your bride price, you’re not allowed to contradict it,” she declared. “I don’t believe anyone will come to our house to check if the money is there or not.”
I nodded silently. The matter was resolved. I just wasn’t sure if I had won or lost.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Wang Zhenhao/Sixth Tone)