Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview
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Shifts in marriage finance from the sixth to the thirteenth century*

People in the Tang period [AD 618–907] celebrated the Cuis and Lus as top-rank families. Even when descendants of these families were poor and of low political rank, they were esteemed for their pedigree. Today people do not make much of family. If a girl of a noble family is poor and without resources, she may not be able to marry in her prime. Yet village rich families can marry into noble houses and get those who passed the examinations in the top group as their sons-in-law.

Zhao Yanwei, 1206 1

A marriage in China, as in most places, normally involved some financial outlay by both the husband's and the wife's families and therefore some redistribution of wealth. In the classical ritual prescriptions preserved in the Yi li (Etiquette and Ritual), the husband's family would send a goose to the wife's family on several occasions, and midway between the first proposal and the wedding itself the groom's family sent more substantial gifts, given in the Yi li as ten bolts of cloth and a pair of deer skins. 2 The bride's family was not obliged to present gifts to the groom's family, but the bride herself would be sent with clothes and personal items such as jewelry packed in cases, and could be supplied with female attendants who might serve as her maids or her husband's concubines. In early texts these two types of outlays are generally treated as belonging to different realms. The gifts presented by the husband's family fell into the realm of ritual. Presenting and accepting these gifts was integral to the betrothal ceremony: one was not married ritually without some token transfer of objects from the groom's family to the bride's. The classic Li ji (Record of Ritual) asserts: “Without receipt of the betrothal gifts there is no contact and no affinity.” 3 In later periods, at least, once betrothal gifts had been received, the girl's family could be prosecuted if they broke off the

This essay was first published in Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society, ed. Rubie S. Watson and Patricia Buckley Ebrey, copyright 1991 © The Regents of the University of California. Reprinted with the permission of the University of California Press.


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Women and the Family in Chinese History


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