State, Gender and Uxorilocal Marriage in Contemporary Rural North China

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Although patrilocal marriage predominates in rural China, uxorilocal marriage, in which the husband moves to live with his wife's family following marriage, has a long history. This paper examines how uxorilocal marriage has evolved in relation to state policies, particularly the birth control policy and the initiation of market reforms.

Birth control planners have assumed that uxorilocal marriage will improve women's status, and that this improvement in status will ultimately help to reduce national fertility.1 Though the state began to promote uxorilocal marriages as early as the 1950s,2 these attempts became especially vigorous during political and family planning campaigns.3 The Party-state also legally affirmed uxorilocal marriage in the 1980 revised marriage law, in a bid to enhance its social acceptability.4

Arguably, official restrictions on family size produce contradictory effects on uxorilocal marriages. On the one hand, Li, Feldman and Li argue that "increasing proportion of no-son families in rural China . . . has necessitated a higher prevalence of uxorilocal marriage".5 On the other hand, the birth control policy has also produced a higher proportion of families with a single son. It thus restricts the number of men available for uxorilocal marriage because, traditionally, men who opted for such marriages came from families with multiple sons. At the same time, the rising ratio of males at birth since the 1980s, an unintended consequence of the implementation of the planned birth programs, is creating a marriage squeeze for men. That is, there will soon be more men than women in the marriage market. This may have important implications in determining marriage forms. One could argue that competition among men for wives may lead to men's acceptance of the terms set by women and their families, which may lead to an increasing level of uxorilocal marriage.6 Nevertheless, scholars like Das Gupta and Li7 and Li, Feldman and Li8 argue that a marriage squeeze for men will not necessarily augment women's bargaining power; these scholars predict a more complex relationship between marriage forms and women's status.

The restructuring of the rural economy through market reforms initiated in the late 1970s also affects marriage patterns. On the one hand, pre-reform collectivization may have discouraged uxorilocal unions. Lavely argues that collectivization prevented the formation of open communities in which uxorilocally married males and their progeny could gain a share of collective property; consequently, outside males were seldom permitted to take up residence in collective farms.9 Now, with collective land contracted to individual households, and the increasing existence of market opportunities, families with both sons and daughters may want to retain the labor of daughters whose earning power becomes greater than ever.10 On the other hand, market reforms also create more opportunities for the young to meet potential spouses in non-familial settings, complicating the negotiations over marital residence. In short, the reshaped power relations and opportunities which derive from evolving state economic policy also produce contradictory effects on uxorilocal marriage forms in contemporary rural China.

Using both qualitative and quantitative data collected in Hebei, where uxorilocal marriage is traditionally uncommon, the present study investigates the evolution of marriage patterns.11 It aims to understand how the demographic shifts and the restructured economy have influenced uxorilocal marriage. I argue that uxorilocal marriage does not increase with state promotion and the policy-induced increase in the number of daughter-only families. This stands in stark contrast to predictions made by a number of scholars12 and disagrees with findings of previous empirical studies.13 Thus, a main objective of the paper is to explain why daughter-only families do not necessarily resort to uxorilocal marriages. …