Marriage is on my mind constantly. I guess that’s what being engaged does to you. However, the interesting thing about it is as people I interact with find out that I am engaged and how young I am, they are very surprised; and rightfully so considering the laws and culture that surround marriage here in China. This surprise leads to them telling me about marriage laws and culture here in China.
I am interning this summer in China. As part of this I interact daily with Chinese co-workers who, just as other people I meet around town, are curious about my relationship status. Without fail every person who finds out I’m engaged asks,
“How old are you?”
“Wow, you’re so young!”
In America and Europe, the prevailing culture of getting married prompts people to say that I am young. In China, however, the laws along with the prevailing culture are what prompt people to say that I am young.
China has minimum age of marriage laws for both men and women. Women cannot get married before they’re 20 and men cannot get married before they’re 22. They teach that this is for a few different reasons. The first reason is that it prevents child marriages and young marriages in the countryside. The second reason is to act as a passive population control. The reasoning behind this passive control is that if people get married later then they will also have children later. When people have children later the generations become spread out. People will, in consequence, have fewer children in the same amount of time as they would have had if they had gotten married younger.
However, although the legal ages to marry are 20 and 22, respectively, the government incentivizes even later marriage through time off. Men, specifically, are only given about three days off for their honeymoon if they get married before they are 25. However, men who get married after 25 get up to thirteen days off for their honeymoon.
The culture in China also encourages later marriage. People in second tier cities, or slightly smaller cities, such as the one I’m living in, typically get married around age 25. Those in larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai typically don’t get married until around age 30. Before they get married Chinese couples also often live together and date for a long time.
However, a recent phenomenon that is becoming more and more common in China is for couples to get married after only a few months of dating. There is even a Chinese word for it, 闪婚shanhun. It is interesting to think about the almost contradictory trends in marriage in China. The age of marriage is increasing but the time a couple dates isn’t necessarily very long anymore.
Another trend in marriage in China that is old as China itself is the prevalence of husbands having extra-marital affairs. This is particularly relevant for wealthy and/or powerful men. This is not a phenomenon among women, but is almost strictly limited to men. I don’t think it would surprise anyone if it were revealed that Xi Jinping was having an extramarital affair. One of my co-workers is the son of a wealthy and powerful official. He benefits quite nicely from his father’s position and is no stranger to a very comfortable lifestyle. Although he married not too long ago, there is an underlying, unspoken knowledge that he is probably having an affair. This understanding stems from knowing what his lifestyle is. Unfortunately, mainly with wealthy and powerful men, it is an unspoken understanding in China that most of them are probably having an affair. It is such a prevalent phenomenon that I have to wonder if it is because men in these positions marry for connections rather than love or if they feel they deserve the “right” because of their position to be with whatever woman they want, no matter their relationship status.
Marry culture here is so similar and yet different to that in the West in ways I didn’t necessarily expect. It is crazy to me though to think that by the time I get married this fall I will only have been of legal age to marry in China by a year and a half. It is quite the unfamiliar concept to me to have such a high minimum legal age of marriage. However, when I consider all of the countries where child marriage still runs rampant, it is refreshing to know that there is a country out there that takes extra measures to ensure that child marriage never occurs. China still struggles with women’s rights in many ways but, although I’m not saying its approach is perfect, at least it has the right idea about child marriage.