Marriage in the Middle Kingdom

By Devas and Devas, 2015 – used with permission

Marriage, like so much else in China, has undergone profound changes in recent years. In the past, tradition, social expectations and poverty all tended to oblige couples to stick together, whatever the reality of their relationship. Marriages were generally contracted at a young age, married children usually lived with parents, and divorce was rare. Today, in a much more mobile society, grown‐up children may live far from their parents, and opportunities for multiple relationships are much greater. Living together before marriage has become commonplace, at least in cities. Divorce has reached levels similar to that in Western countries. Abortion is widespread, particularly where the one‐child policy is enforced. At the same time, parents put huge pressure on young people to get married and produce a child. All this presents great challenges to those returning to China who have become Christian believers overseas, particularly since the expectation would be that they marry soon after returning. This article is intended to help those working with Chinese students overseas to understand more about the situation of marriage in China, and to encourage them to address this subject with pre‐returnees, so they will be more prepared for the challenges they will encounter.

When are you married?

For most Chinese, there are two elements: the legal process (called registration) and the big family party. Getting legally married in China involves little ceremony. A couple who wish to marry has to apply for permission from their respective work units (Danwei). The Danwei will then provide a certificate of singleness (Danshenzhengming). In the case of students returning to China their Danwei will normally be their former university until they find a job, after which their employer becomes their Danwei. The couple make an appointment at the equivalent of the Registrar’s office (Mingzenting) to be “registered” (i.e. married). Often an auspicious date is chosen or a special day, such as a birthday. The couple must show their residence permits (hukou), ID cards, and Danshenzhengming. They are asked a few questions about their health and marital status. Once the couple have signed some forms and made vows in front of the national flag and national emblem they are legally married. It all takes about an hour. (Source: www.ebeijing.gov.cn)

For some couples, this is enough, but most wealthier families will have a family party at a later date. For Christian couples, they will want also to make their marriage vows in their church, or at some ceremony in front of their Christian brothers and sisters. It can therefore be confusing for Christian couples to know at what point they are married and can start living together – is it after they are legally registered, after the family party, or after the ceremony with Christian brothers and sisters?

For Christians what matters is making a solemn commitment and promise to one another and before God and their (Christian) brothers and sisters (which of course can – and should – be also in front of their families and other friends). Thus, if they are to honour God, they should not be living together until they have made that commitment before God, regardless of whether they have already been registered.

For new Christians, such as those returning from overseas, having a Christian wedding ceremony can present problems, especially if they are not yet settled in a church. If they already belong to a church which has its own premises, they will usually be able to marry in that church, although they need a legal certificate of marriage first. Many churches do not have suitable premises, but they may be able to hold such a ceremony in a hotel or restaurant. Those wishing to marry in a home town may find that the church there rejects their application since they are not members of that church. This rejection can be quite hurtful, even though understandable from the pastor’s point of view.

One solution may be to have a Christian marriage ceremony as part of the family party, for example by inviting a pastor or mature Christian friend to take them through some Christian marriage vows. Some aspects of a traditional wedding party may be distasteful to a Christian couple, for example, the amount of alcohol which is served and the provision of cigarettes. However, most accept this in order to not offend their family.

C and G, a Christian couple, wanted to mary in G’s home town because his widowed mother still lived there. They asked if they could marry in the local church but were refused as they did not belong to that church. C’s mother, a Christian, vowed she would not attend the wedding if there was going to be lots of alcohol and cigarettes. On the other hand, C’s father, a non‐Christian, vowed he would not attend the wedding unless there was lots of alcohol and cigarettes. The final agreement was that C and G would have a wedding service in a restaurant with a Christian friend to take them through their vows. The restaurant room was arranged as a church and then, after the ceremony, the room was re‐organised for a wedding meal. Lots of sweets, alchohol and cigarettes were provided to show the family’s hospitality. C and G, and C’s mother, had to accept this in order not to embarrass G’s mother who was hosting it.

Later, the couple travelled to another province for a second wedding organised by C’s parents. They expected to have to go through the second ceremony without any Christian input. But they were amazed and delighted to find that her mother had invited her local pastor to the wedding, and that he had brought his church choir. So they had a clear Christian element of prayers and hymns at this wedding also.

Finding a marriage partner

Most Chinese students in the UK are here for only one or two years. They return to China at the ideal age for marriage, and they usually come under much pressure from their families to get married. For those who have become believers while overseas, this becomes a major challenge. The challenge is particularly great for Christian girls, given the shortage of Christian boys. Christian returnees need to be helped to think through what they will look for in a future life partner, not least the importance of having a shared faith in the Lord Jesus before getting committed to one another. They also need to be helped to think through how they will deal with pressure from family to get married to an unbeliever.

Ensuring that one’s child finds a good marriage partner is a major pre‐occupation of Chinese parents. By the time their child is 27, this can be a source of considerable anxiety, which grows with every passsing year. In some places parents meet other parents in a park and discuss their children, hoping to find a match which is suitable from their point of view. Others will look among their acqaintances

for the perfect match. There is a strong degree of self‐interest in this since the parents generally want the security that a wealthy match can bring them. The mothers of girls will look at a proposed husband as if he were a racehorse: health, fitness, eyes, teeth, employment prospects and pedigree are all considered. In cities like Bejing, a man is expected to bring an apartment and a car to the marriage. His whole family may have to help him to do this, and he will be expected to repay, in due course, by funding medical bills, old‐age care and even overseas holidays. He will also be expected to take care of his wife’s relatives. Returning students may be faced with their parents’ choice of marriage partner at or soon after their re‐entry. Returnees who have become believers need to know how to respond with graciousness and firmness if the proposed partner is not the one they want to marry, especially if he/she is not a believer. This can lead to major rows and much upset on all sides.

Given the shortage of Christian boys, many girls will not find a Christian life partner. We need to communicate the great value of singleness in a life committed to the Lord.1 Older female returnees (such as those who have completed PhDs) may find that they join the ranks of “leftover women”. Once a girl is over 30, she may begin to be regarded as a failure in the marriage stakes and as someone who brings shame on the family. The older Christian girl faces many problems as she searches for a mature Christian man to marry. Sadly, many Christian girls marry a non‐believer simply in order to keep their family happy. Such marriages may well lead to immense conflict, and may result in the believing partner giving up their faith.

H studied in the UK and has a PhD in English Literature. While in the UK she had come to faith in Christ. When she returned to China her parents, who had strong contacts in the armed forces, proposed that she marry a soldier with “excellent prospects” whom they has chosen. She did not want to marry a non‐believer, but was very fearful of telling her parents that this was because of her faith. After much prayer she had the courage to tell her parents: to her amazement and relief her parents did not protest.

T became a believer while studying in Hong Kong, and since her return to China has joined an active church where she gets good teaching and fellowship. She is already 30 and still unmarried. She longs to have a Christian life partner but there seems to be no sign of one. With all the pressure from her family, this has become a dominant theme in her prayer life. She trusts that one day the Lord will answer her, but so far he has not. Should she keep her family (and herself) happy by marrying an unbeliever, in the hope that he will become a believer?

Already in a relationship?

In the West we tend to treat Chinese students as individuals, without taking account of the fact that many have long‐standing boyfriend/girlfriend relationships back home. They may not mention such relationships when we talk with them, yet on their return they are probably expecting to get married to the boyfiend/girlfriend who has been waiting for them. It seems that many of those who have been studying the Bible while here, and even those who have become believers, do not share anything about their spiritual journey with their partner back home, even if they have been baptised. Consequently, they face a big problem when they return expecting to get married, only to find their partner has little interest in their new‐found faith, or is even actively hostile to it. Thus, it is vital,

before they return, that they are helped to think through how they will share what they have learned with their partner, how they will handle his/her response, and what they will then do.

YS became a believer while studying in UK. Shortly after her return to China she announced her intention to marry her long‐standing boyfriend, H, who was not a believer. Christian friends challenged her about this, but she argued that he had waited all this time for her, how could she now refuse to marry him? They did marry, and H accepts that she goes to church, but there is always an underlying tension about the use of time and money, and how to bring up their little boy.

A contrasting case is LX, who became a very committed Christian believer while studying overseas. He too had a long‐standing relationship with his girlfriend, LY. But when LX returned to China he explained the problem to LY, concluding that they could not marry as she was not a believer. Needless to say, LY was deeply upset, but she took LX’s advice, went to church and read the Bible. In due course she too became a believer, praise God. The way was then clear for them to get married.

Problems of traditions

Traditional views of marriage, which are deep‐seated in Chinese culture, can set up many difficulties in a marriage. Before the 1911 revolution, a wealthy man could have a number of wives and concubines. Some men in China still feel entitled to have a wife and some other women. Under the Maoist communist regime, married couples were often sent to different parts of the country to work. Many people acquired other partners in their place of work and only saw their spouse once a year at Chinese New Year. It is still quite common for couples to live and work or study in different places for years on end. Thus, Christians need to be helped to understand the importance of married couples living together.

One elderly Christian pastor described how, as a young man, he had to travel cramped under a train seat for 24 hours in order to visit his wife. He also did not see her for 15 years while he was in prison for his faith. They are together now but have no children due to their enforced separation when they were younger.

Mothers‐in‐law can sabotage marriages. In Chinese tradition, a man’s mother is more important than his wife. A man would bring his wife to his family and she would be subject, in every way, to her mother‐in‐law. This presents a great challenge for young Christian couples: how to show proper respect for parents without being dominated by them, especially if the parents are not Christians.

Mothers in China are very possessive and feel it is their duty not only to do their best for their child but also to chivvy and drive the child to succeed in every area of life. When a girl marries the son, she gets the same treatment. Her cooking is criticised, her housekeeping scrutinised, and when the grandchild arrives mother‐in‐law will arrive too, to look after the child “properly”. One woman described having rows with her mother‐in‐law over how many layers of clothing her baby should wear. This was just a symptom of how difficult their relationship was. Adult children are expected to provide for their parents’ old age and a widowed mother will usually choose the traditional option of going to live with her son. This too can set up problems in small modern apartments.

Young Christians M and E live in Beijing and have a baby girl. M’s parents, who are poor, immediately arrived from the north to “help”. M’s father had a history of

domestic violence and his wife had left him several times because of this. E was deeply concerned for her baby’s safety. M’s mother immediately began to bind E with traditional prohibitions: she must not leave the house for at least one month after giving birth; she must not have a bath; she must not eat peanuts and many other similar foods and behaviour restrictions. E described how she hid in the bathroom and ate peanuts out of sheer defiance.

M’s parents then decided to move to Beijing permanently. This meant that they gave up all the benefits on which they lived in their home town and became dependent on M and E for everything. After a tense time M and E solved their overcrowding and in‐law problems by buying a nearby apartment and moving the older people in there. They also started to do a weekly bible study with M’s parents.

Divorce

Marriage in China is under great strain, and sadly many Chinese marriages end in divorce. The figures are comparable with the UK. A divorce is very quick and easy to obtain: all that is required is for both parties to sign the divorce papers. Once the papers have been accepted and stamped (“chopped”) by the marriage office, the divorce is instant. Contested divorces have to go to court.

For men who divorce and remarry, it is an opportunity to have another child, assuming his new wife has not already had a child. Recent restrictions in some cities on the number of apartments a couple can own has also, apparently, encouraged couples to get divorced.

Helping returnees think through these issues

It is vital that returnees have a proper Christian understanding of marriage, and how the Lord can help them to build a lasting, God‐honouring marriage. In particular, it will be important to help them to see the importance of marrying a believer, and for those in an existing relationship, to challenge them about how they are going to deal with that situation now that they are a believer.

For those planning to get married soon, we can share with them some key Bible passages about marriage (for example: Genesis 1: 26‐27, 2:15‐25, 3:7 & 16; Exodus 20: 12 & 14; Malachi 2: 10‐16; Hebrews 13: 4; Matthew 5: 27‐30; Ephesians 5: 21‐33; 2 Corinthians 6: 14‐16; 1 Corinthians 7: 1‐16; 1 Corinthians 13: 4‐7). We can also help them to think through some of the practical aspects of marriage, such as communication between husband and wife; use of time; use of money; attitude to children; attitude to parents/in‐laws; headship; sex; self‐giving love; living together (many Chinese married couples regard it as normal to live in different places, often for years on end).

Additional Case Studies

Junming became a believer while studying for her Masters in the UK, but was still very young in the faith when she returned to China. She joined a returnees Bible study group and grew in her understanding and faith. Being in her late 20s, her parents were keen that she should get married. At one point her father was calling her every day to ask if she yet had a boyfriend. They suggested various possible young men but none were suitable. Junming started going out with one young man who seemed nice enough but he wasn’t a Christian, and did not seem very interested, so that relationship ended quite quickly. The next boyfriend seemed quite interested in her faith and came to church with her. He seemed at first to be quite serious, but after a while she realised that he was really only interested in her, not in her faith. Through Bible studies with other believers, she realised that marriage must be based on a shared faith in the Lord Jesus, so reluctantly she broke off that

relationship. Then she met a young man at another church who said he was a believer, although Junming had her doubts, particularly because of the church he was attending. He was less well educated than her and did not speak English, so she was concerned about how he would cope with her friends, several of whom were foreigners. After some ups and downs in their relationship, he decided to join her church. He really grew in his faith, to the point where she was convinced that he really was a believer. Only then did she feel free to marry him. Their wedding in a house church, and later in her home town, was a tremendous Christian witness to family and friends.

Maolin became a believer while doing his PhD in the UK. His new‐found faith profoundly changed his life, and he soon became a leader on the Chinese student group on campus, as well as an active member of the local Chinese church. But his big concern was his girlfriend Yu, back in China, who was not a believer. They had been together for several years, and had lived together before Maolin came to study in UK. He longed for her to share his faith, but she was very resistant. At his encouragement, she started meeting up with some Christians to study the Bible. She was willing to give it a go, but she found the conflict between what the Bible said and the scientific atheism that she had been brought up with just too great. Moreover, she had many friends who warned her against joining a “foreign religion”. Maolin’s Christian friends in the UK were trying to help him see the importance of marrying a believer. He could see that very clearly, but he still loved Yu. Furthermore, both his family and hers were expecting them to get married on his return: to break the relationship after they had been together (and lived together) for several years would bring dishonour, not just to him but to their perception of his Christian faith. What to do? He prayed very much for Yu and about what was the right thing to do – and continues to pray, since the story is not yet concluded…..

Xuemei studied the Bible while she was doing her Masters in the UK, and came close to believing. Soon after returning to China, through the help of Christian friends, she came through to a living faith in Jesus and was baptised. She also came home to her long‐standing boyfriend Chao. They had been together since high school, and he had been waiting for her return. But Chao was not a believer, and she had not really shared anything with him about her spiritual journey. Her Christian friends wanted her to break that relationship, but she felt that she could not do so after he had waited faithfully for her, Moreover, their families were expecting them to get married. So they did, and a year later they had a son. Xuemei goes to church when she can (her demanding job makes that difficult), and Chao is happy for her to go but does not join her. Xuemei’s relationship with her mother‐in‐

law (who lives with them) has been very difficult, but she has seen the Lord’s help with this and things have improved. But still there are big challenges in their family life, and about bringing up their son, as they do not share the most fundamental values.

Notes

1. There is a valuable series of studies (in Chinese and English) on singleness available at: http://www.seaturtles.org.uk/articles/

2. The image used with this story was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on by KTo288. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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