The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home: True Stories of Love and Marriage in Communist China

The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home: True Stories of Love and Marriage in Communist China

The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home: True Stories of Love and Marriage in Communist China

The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home: True Stories of Love and Marriage in Communist China


"The ugly wife is a treasure at home" is not just an idle expression in China. For centuries, Chinese marriage involved matchmakers, child brides, dowries, and concubines, until the People's Republic of China was established by Mao Zedong and his Communist Party in 1949. Initially encouraging citizens to reject traditional arranged marriages and wed for love, the party soon spurned "the sin of putting love first," fearful that romantic love would distract good Communists from selflessly carrying out the State's agenda. Under Mao, the party established the power to approve or reject proposed marriages, to dictate where couples would live, and to determine if they would live together. By the 1960s and 1970s, romantic love had become a counterrevolutionary act punishable by "struggle sessions" or even imprisonment. The importance of Chinese sons, however, did not wane during Mao's thirty-year regime. As such, in a world where nobody spoke of love, 99 percent of young women still married.
The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home draws the reader into the world of love in Communist China through the personal memories of those who endured the Cultural Revolution and the generations that followed. This collection of intimate and remarkable stories gives readers a rare view of Chinese history, social customs, and Communism from the perspective of today's ordinary citizens.


“Before marriage, every boy wants a beautiful girlfriend.
If she is beautiful, then when the couple walks outside
together, the man will feel very confident, because everyone
will notice his high status. If the girlfriend is not very
beautiful, well then, maybe he won’t take her outside! When
it comes time to marry, however, a common man’s thinking
will be totally different. He will hope his wife will be good at
housework and cooking. I think this opinion is the same
for men across all of China: a girlfriend should be a
beautiful girl. But if you want to marry, the woman doesn’t
need to be beautiful, just good at housework. A beautiful
wife might bring you bad luck. Or someone else might steal
her away. We have a saying about a good-choice
wife in China: Chǒu qī jiā zhōng bǎo, or
‘The ugly wife is a treasure at home.’”

Mr. Wang paused, pondering the matter. “Well, maybe a rich man would want a beautiful wife,” he mused, “because she would not really need to do any housework.”

At thirty-one, Mr. Wang was not a rich man. But he was married. We were talking over tea and snacks in a Starbucks, huddled back from the bustle of the Chegongmiao metro station in Shenzhen, China. I was starting work on a collection of true stories about love and marriage in China, and Mr. Wang had generously agreed to share his experiences with me and Ms. Lin Ling, my friend and translator.

While some aspects of his story were romantic and sweet, Mr. Wang’s expectations of a spouse were primarily practical and family oriented. When I asked him to recall his motivations for marriage, he named four: wanting a lifelong companion, wanting love, wanting to satisfy his parents’ expectation that he marry, and wanting children. I proposed other possible motivations, which included find-

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