Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Individual and Transformation of Bridewealth in Rural North China/L'individu Dans la Transformation Du Bridewealth Dans la Societe Rurale Du Nord De la Chine

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Individual and Transformation of Bridewealth in Rural North China/L'individu Dans la Transformation Du Bridewealth Dans la Societe Rurale Du Nord De la Chine

Article excerpt

With few exceptions, anthropologists treat the exchange of marital gifts as a collective strategy employed by the elders of two corporate groups through which 'households attempt to adjust labor needs, the transmission of property, and status concerns' (Schlegel & Eloul 1988: 305). This is particularly true of the institution of bridewealth since it is regarded as both reflecting and shaping the corporate structure of unilineal descent groups (see Goody 1973; Harrell & Dickey 1985) as well as, from a political economy perspective, being the outcome of the prevailing mode of production (Gates 1996; Meillassoux 1981). Such an emphasis on the collective and corporate aspects of bridewealth transfer derives from the received wisdom that marriage in traditional societies is not a personal affair between two individuals but instead involves two kin groups (lineages or families) and thus constitutes a community (public) event. Accordingly, the role of individual agency in marriage transfers rarely warrants serious scholarly scrutiny, and the bride and groom as flesh-and-bone individuals are normally absent in ethnographic accounts of bridewealth or dowry. However, along with the rise of youth autonomy in mate choice, the nuclearization of the family, and the decline of parental power and authority, marriage transactions will inevitably undergo radical changes, and, according to a widely accepted theory of family change, bridewealth should eventually fade away (see Goode 1963).

Anthropologists have also fallen short in theorizing about rapid changes in the systems of marriage transactions that occurred during the twentieth century in many parts of the world. Most ethnographic accounts dealing with changes in marriage transactions try to explain the changing size and content of African bridewealth systems in terms of the impact of the market economy or labour migration (see, e.g., Buggenhagen 2001; Grosz-Ngate 1988); others reduce the complexity of marriage transactions to a simple consideration of cost and benefit in exchange (Bell & Song 1994). A noteworthy exception is the bargaining model offered by Ensminger and Knight (1997), who argue that the rising power of the young generation and the new alternative offered by Islamic ideology changed the social norms of bridewealth among the Orma in Kenya. Despite the centrality of game theory and rational choice in their model, however, Ensminger and Knight still regard the bride's and the groom's families as the basic units of marriage negotiations and property transfers, paying little attention to the agency of individual brides and grooms in the process.

Ethnographic evidence from rural north China reveals the importance of the role of the individual and the transformation of marriage transactions for anthropological studies of contemporary practices of marriage and kinship. Whereas village youth have gained power and independence in mate choice, marriage negotiations, and post-marital residence, the custom of bridewealth remains intact, with the standard value of bridewealth increasing more than tenfold since the 1980s. More importantly, it is now the bride, not her parents, who receives the bridewealth and, working together with the groom, she takes the lead in bargaining for the highest possible amount of bridewealth from the groom's parents, often pushing the parents deeply into debt. To justify their demands for lavish bridewealth, village youth resort to the notion of individual property rights and the rhetoric of individualism, effectively transforming the bridewealth institution into a new form of property division.

What makes the Chinese case even more intriguing is that the socialist state has made repeated efforts to restrict the practice of bridewealth as part of its attempt to modernize the Chinese family. Marriage payments were legally banned as early as 1950, and various education and political campaigns were launched to attack the feudal custom of bridewealth from the 1950s to the 1990s (Croll 1981; Parish & Whyte 1978). …

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