Global Times – February 22nd, 2010
Getting married is almost always an expensive ordeal. There’s the banquet hall, the caterer, the photographer and the alcohol that all must be paid for. It’s also usually about the time the couple buys a new home to start their future.
But in China there’s one other expense that the groom must account for in his wedding budget: the bride herself.
For centuries, China has practiced the “bride price” marriage custom in which the man must pay a handsome sum of money to the family of the woman in order to gain the privilege of marrying her. The practice was first mentioned in “Three letters and six etiquettes” of marriage customs dating back to the Warring States Period (475BC-221 BC) of China. But this practice is still prevalent today throughout China from the biggest cosmopolitan cities to the smallest villages.
The price varies depending on the wealth of both families, the perceived value of the woman and beliefs in auspicious numbers. A standard bride price in China ranges from 30,000 to 100,000 yuan ($4,393-$14,645), but can reach as high as 1 million yuan.
Reasons for the tradition vary. In Chinese society, the man is still heavily favored over the woman and, on average, has far more opportunities and earning power. Some see the bride price as a kind of consolation payment to the woman’s family for not having a boy. Chinese customs also dictates that when a woman is married, she all but leaves her own family to become part of the man’s. This means she will live in his hometown and visit his family on holidays. So in a way, the man is actually buying the woman away from her family.
In poorer areas, some families see the gender imbalance of more men than women as a simple matter of supply and demand; meaning that they can weigh the bride price offers of several male suitors. In more developed areas, men pay the bride price only to have the woman’s family return part or all of the money later in a kind of ritual homage to the ancient tradition.
For whatever reasons, the bride price is a custom that foreigners often find hard to swallow, especially if they intend to marry a Chinese woman. One reason may be that, traditionally, most of the West has done the exact opposite and practiced a dowry marriage custom. With a dowry, the family of the woman gives a large sum of money to the man for the marriage.
The dowry practice stretches back even further in history than the Chinese bride price, being first mentioned in ancient Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi in 1790 BC. It was even the subject of many of Shakespeare’s works in the 16th century when it was still a common practice. Some of the reasons for the custom in Europe demonstrate a clear divergence from China in attitudes toward women.
One reason for the dowry was that women couldn’t contribute as much labor as a man, so their families saw them as a burden rather than an asset. Giving a dowry to her future husband was seen as payment for taking the woman off her family’s hands.
The dowry was also a kind of insurance for the woman. If the man was paid a high dowry, he felt more obliged to treat the woman well and refrain from beating her.
The practice continued in Europe through the 19th century and still exists today in parts of India. But in most parts of the world, the custom is dead. However, the current Western tradition of a woman’s father paying for the wedding festivities is a lingering remnant from the dowry practice.
So perhaps many Westerners view the Chinese custom disapprovingly because it reminds them of their own antiquated traditions of putting a price tag on marriage, implying that love is not the only precondition.
Still others may subconsciously feel uncomfortable with the role-reversal that puts women in the matrimonial economic advantage. Whatever attitude a Western man may have toward the practice, if he intends to marry a Chinese woman, he had better budget the bride price into his wedding plans or be extremely persuasive in explaining his own culture’s dowry tradition to his future Chinese in-laws.