IN PRE-LIBERATION CHINA, weddings were the occasion for as much festivity and extravagance as a family could afford. After the passage of the 1950 Marriage Law, however, the Chinese government encouraged its citizens to simplify weddings. It hoped to minimize the economic exchange involved, making marriage a union between equal individuals rather than a complex economic and status transaction between families. In addition, the government aimed to make legal registration replace weddings as the primary marriage ceremony, thereby asserting a degree of state control over marriage that did not previously exist. Despite intense propaganda, extravagant weddings continued to prevail until the Cultural Revolution, when celebrations were toned down for fear of attracting criticism (as either feudal or bourgeois, depending upon who and where one was).
The late 1970's witnessed a revival of extravagant wedding celebrations. The festivities, though in part a backlash against the spartan practices of the Cultural Revolution, were primarily an expression of the increased prosperity resulting from the post-Mao economic reforms. Whether a marriage was based on romantic love, compatibility, status, wealth, or convenience, weddings once again became an occasion for conspicuous consumption and display. No matter how much freedom parents might have given their children to select a mate, they rarely remained uninvolved in arranging the wedding itself. As consumerism became a more prominent part of life in the post-Mao era, wedding festivities were increasingly seen as an opportunity for families to display their wealth and status in the community.
If marriage offered a unique opportunity for women to achieve upward social mobility, then weddings were the occasion to begin collecting the benefits. All aspects of a wedding--engagement presents, goods provided by the bride and groom at the time of the wedding, and the wedding feast itself--symbolized both the groom's economic status and the value accorded the bride.
Government officials, perhaps disturbed by the return to traditional nuptial practices, frequently issued pleas that marriage ceremonies be