Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Interwoven Lives: Parents, Marriage, and Guanxi in China

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Interwoven Lives: Parents, Marriage, and Guanxi in China

Article excerpt

Marriage and family have undergone enormous changes in China in recent decades. Many of these changes--a rise in companionate marriage, lower fertility, and a decrease in the power of large family clans, for example--might be seen by some as predictable. The kinds and extent of economic, social, and political changes seen have frequently been connected to such changes in the family in a variety of cultures and societies (Goode, 1963; Inkeles, 1980; Whyte, 1990). However, even as the historical record and recent evidence in China lends some support to these claims of the inevitability and direction of family change, there are also interesting and important challenges to this literature from the Chinese experience.

In this article, I explore an important aspect of family change, the role of parents in marriage decisions. Evidence from recent surveys (Pasternak, 1986; Whyte, 1990; Xu & Whyte, 1990) indicates that, contrary to some expectations, parents remain actively involved in the marriage decisions of their daughters. Rather than see marriage decisions in China as part of a "stalled revolution" (Whyte, 1990), I suggest a different reading of the evidence. I argue that the reasons for continuing parental involvement lie in how the current social, economic, and political makeup of the society has been mapped onto preexisting norms of strong family ties. In a similar way, Malhotra (1991) found cultural reasons for the continuing involvement of parents in Indonesia, and suggested that "given a long tradition of parental control of marriages in Java, the issue at hand may not be one of displacing the authority of parents, but rather one of accommodating it" (p. 554). In China, it appears that the combination of strong family norms and particular aspects of a socialist economy has actually served to strengthen intrafamilial ties.

As an example of how current Chinese society has reinforced rather than challenged traditional family relationships, I discuss the role of guanxi in Chinese society in general and in marriage decisions in particular. I discuss guanxi in detail below, but, briefly, guanxi is a system of interpersonal relationships that is used in many situations in current Chinese society. China has both a tradition of strong family ties and, until recently at least, a nonmarket system in which there are frequent shortages of goods, services, and opportunities; in that context, use of such ties is one of the few and sometimes the only way to achieve a goal or acquire a good or service. Individuals rely heavily on guanxi, and especially on those ties based on kin.


As in most societies, marriage has always been an important institution in China, and offers a unique window on social inequalities and change in any given historical period. Although marriage behavior always has and does now vary by region, historical era, and class, among other factors (Goody, 1990; Watson & Ebrey, 1991), in this article I focus on changes that have occurred in marriage especially since the early 20th century.

In the past, the purposes of marriage in Chinese society were many and included the transfer of rights over the bride (Wolf & Huang, 1980, p. 73), continuance of a family line (Wolf, 1972, p. 14), a way to increase hands in the field (Croll, 1984), formation of alliances (Ebrey, 1991, p. 5), a way to make a statement of class standing (Ebrey, 1991), provision of old age support and security (Potter & Potter, 1990, p. 202), and the transfer of resources from one family to another (Croll, 1984). The emphasis on any of these processes might depend on a number of factors including region, class, life cycle of the family, and economic and political circumstances (Watson & Ebrey, 1991). In China, although the purposes and processes surrounding marriage have undergone enormous change, marriage as an institution remains as central to Chinese family and social life as ever. …

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