A Lesson From the Ancients: Obey the Contract of Marriage Throughout One’s Life

October 5, 2019 Updated: October 6, 2019

In modern times, traditional marriage matchmakers have been replaced by online dating, speed-dating events, and even matchmaking markets. In ancient China, parents would find a suitable partner for their daughter or son. In this way, one family would look for another family of similar status so that they could get their kids married. Often, matchmakers would be used as a mediator—think matchmaker in folk tales such as “Mulan.”

Illustration – Getty Images | STR

Confucius, a philosopher in Chinese history, had a lot to say about traditional marriages. Confucian thinking in ancient China suggested that the roles of husbands and wives should be complementary—think yin and yang. Marriage has been valued and celebrated in Chinese culture from the earliest of days, the traditional ways expected couples to “marry first, then fall in love” expecting them to gradually learn about each other after tying the knot.

This Chinese traditional matchmaking process involved many discussions that took into account the reputations of the bride’s and groom’s parents, and the social relationship between two households. They believed in the principle of “matching doors and windows.” However, all this planning happened without any input from the future bride and groom.

Parents, who knew the nature of the couple, along with their strengths and weaknesses, decided what was best for them when it came to marriages. The following folk tale from the Qing Dynasty describes how a marriage contract was kept—displaying the good character of a person—revealing the true nature and not just the outside appearance of a person.

An honest man named Han Yunmen with good prospects had a marriage contract with a girl from the family of Qi. However, soon after the contract was made the girl became blind in both eyes. Her parents said, “Han Yunmen is very intelligent and capable. It is not appropriate for him to marry a blind girl.” The girl’s parents were happy to care for her for the rest of her life. To this, even the young man’s parents agreed to void the contract.

Illustration – Shutterstock | zhaoyan

However, Han Yunmen believed “a contract of marriage is something one should obey throughout his whole life.” His values and integrity guided his decision. He married the girl according to the customs that were prevalent at that time.

During those days, the girl’s family offered a dowry. Thus, the Qi family sent a beautiful servant girl as a dowry. Upon seeing this, the groom sadly refused the gift. “It is hard for one to refrain from lust. I would rather not have this servant girl in my household so that my wife and I can have a harmonious life,” Han Yunmen explained.

Over the years that followed, Han Yunmen and his wife cared for one another and got to know each other well, living a happy and harmonious life. Han Yunmen was well thought of and given a position as the highest officer in charge of education in his province. The couple was well known by their community for their honest and loyal relationship—good role models for other couples.

Sadly for the Chinese, the communist regime in the 1950s outlawed traditional arranged marriages. Instead of couples seeking parents’ approval, they now needed permission from the Chinese Communist Party to marry. The new laws “did away with overt concubinage, bride prices, and arranged marriages. … propaganda was rolled out that encouraged marital freedom,” and now divorce was allowed—severely weakening the traditional Chinese family as an independent source of power.

Parents looking for partners for their children at a marriage market in Shanghai on May 30, 201 (©Getty Images | Joannes Eisele)

However, some Chinese parents are still going back to the old ways—trying to arrange marriages. Marriage markets are found in Shanghai and Beijing, where parents gather around in local parks every weekend to display their children’s personal information on a row of colorful umbrellas in the hope of finding them love and an ideal partner. Details about the job position, salary, and homeownership are laid out for all to see.

Due to high moral standards, there seems to have been many successful arranged marriages in Chinese history.

As Confucius says, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Fate might not always have happy endings for us when we look on the outside for happiness. Only those couples who are celebrating a golden wedding anniversary would know the secret of a happy marriage—so parental involvement in marriage culture might not be a bad thing after all.

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