Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Dowry Drama

The other day, we got a call asking us to go with Ma Lei’s family to a village near Shenyang, the home village of Ma Lei’s brother’s girlfriend, during the upcoming National Day holiday week. The girlfriend’s family is having a hastily-convened party to celebrate the couple. There will be another wedding in Dalian next year, so this is a kind of pre-wedding for the bride’s family.
This is obviously a momentous gathering, but it would not typically be surprising for a Chinese couple that’s been dating for two years. Casual dating is still taboo in China, so there’s no particular marking of a couple’s engagement. Rather than a single momentous and publicly-announced commitment, Chinese couples from the start are on a slippery slope toward marriage. So the only reason this event is particularly exciting is that, a mere month ago, the couple now to be married had broken up, at the insistence of the young woman’s parents — the very same people who are now hosting the celebration.
Ma Lei’s brother is 27 years old, a nice kid with a broad smile, a good job and, as of just a few weeks ago, his own brand-new apartment. This last is extremely important, because most Chinese girls will only marry a man who owns his own home.
His girlfriend is 23, quite a pleasant girl and, in most people’s opinion, quite beautiful. She comes from an upper-middle-class family and seems to have been a typically pampered Chinese daughter. The Chinese say that, whereas a son is a workhorse, a daughter is like a flower to be watered and cared for, so there were a few bumps the first couple of times she visited the family village. I don’t think she’d ever been expected to help clear the table after a family dinner, for instance, which earned her an angry talking-to from Ma Lei’s father. One thing there are not, in Ma Lei’s family, are spoiled brats (male or female). Despite those early hitches, she eventually figured things out well enough to be accepted into the family. Her name is Cao Dan (曹丹).
The young couple have been together for two years, but they’re a little young to be getting married. The typical age for a woman to marry is 26-28, so it was a slight surprise when, a week or two after our wedding, Cao Dan’s family made the trip to visit Ma Lei’s family.
The families got along as well as is necessary, and probably sometime toward the end of the weekend it was made explicit that neither family would object to the union. It was somewhat remarkable that Cao Dan’s moderately wealthy family would consent to their daughter’s marrying a son of the poor. Many wealthy Chinese families would automatically nix any such union across economic class, especially if the male partner is the one born into poverty.
Shortly before they left, Cao Dan’s family named a dowry. They wanted 40,000 rmb, a bit more than $6000 US, in order to let their daughter marry Ma Lei’s brother.
A demand like this would be incredibly shocking in America, but it’s less so in China. Traditionally, a woman once married was considered to have been absorbed into her husband’s family (or swallowed up by it), and was no longer a member of her birth family. Generally she would see them occasionally, but not often. Ma Lei’s mother, for example, recently paid a month-long visit to her family home in the far north of China, her first such visit in 20 years or so. Hence the husband’s family was, in effect, buying the wife away from her family, repaying them for the expense of raising a girl who would thereafter contribute nothing to their family — and, incidentally, giving parents of girls incentive to see to their proper upbringing so as to command a reasonable dowry when the time came.
But in today’s China, this tradition is (to put it mildly) vestigial. A woman is no longer bound by the Confucian “three subordinations” (to her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her sons after her husband dies). Though they’re not always treated this way, women are now independent persons with the same rights as men, rather than servants to be passed from one household to another. Nowadays, there just isn’t any good reason for a dowry.
In this case, it’s even more unjustified. Ma Lei’s family are poor farmers. They don’t have a water heater, a washing machine, or a computer — let alone a spare $6000 to give to the relatively wealthy family from Shenyang. The effrontery of the demand was made all the more obnoxious by the fact that it took place in the family’s farmhouse, surrounded by ample evidence of its absurdity.
Of course, the girlfriend’s parents have eyes to see that Ma Lei’s family have no money. They likewise know that a 27 year-old young man, particularly one who just bought an apartment, doesn’t have 40,000 rmb in the bank. Hence I’m inclined to suspect that it was slightly more than a coincidence that this demand came a mere couple of weeks after Ma Lei’s marriage to an American. Most Chinese people assume all foreigners are rich, so they probably assumed I’d given Ma Lei’s family a dowry at least as large as the one they were asking for.
Ma Lei got the call from her father late that Sunday afternoon, asking her to help her brother.
Ma Lei is a proud Chinese, and fiercely protective of those parts of Chinese cultural tradition she approves of — such as reverence for her father — but even more fiercely independent. I know of few languages better suited to the expression of anger than Chinese, and Ma Lei wields it for that purpose expertly. Though I didn’t know the substance of the conversation, I knew that I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that phone call, even though it was her own father she was arguing with.
She gave no quarter, during that conversation or afterwards explaining the situation to me. We don’t save money and eat noodles, she told me, to give our money to someone else. “It’s our money, not theirs,” she insisted indignantly. But the strain of conflict with her father was heavy on her, and she slept little that night.
The issue came up again once or twice, not frequently, but it’s been in the background ever since. About a month ago, Brother and his girlfriend came for an overnight visit at our new apartment, their first time staying with us overnight. I don’t know if it was intended as an advertisement for the couple, but a few days later Brother asked Ma Lei to give money for Cao Dan’s family.
Immediately after putting her brother in his place, Ma Lei called Cao Dan to deliver her a long lesson in personal finance. After pointing out the obvious about her parents’ poverty, she listed just a few of the many priorities She and I have for our money, ahead of giving it to the girlfriend’s parents. (To name just one, this was right about the time Ma Lei was going into the hospital for very expensive fertility treatments.) By the end of the conversation the girlfriend had been reduced to tears, but she finally understood that there was to be no dowry for her parents.
A couple of weeks later, the girlfriend’s Renren feed (Chinese Facebook) carried a short, distraught announcement. Her parents had withdrawn their consent for the marriage, so she and Ma Lei’s brother had broken up. (As readers of my writings will know, Chinese parents have veto power over their children’s romantic relationships.)
A week went by, then another. Then Ma Lei’s father got a call from the girl’s mother. “Why did your son break up with our daughter?” Now she’s distraught, she cries all night, she doesn’t sleep.
This time it was Father’s turn to do a little place-putting. Our son did no such thing, Father told them, it was you who broke them up with your demand for money we don’t have.
Suddenly, by magic, not only have the kids gotten back together, but the two families have been called together outside Shenyang for a pre-wedding celebration. As nearly as I understand it, this will not be an actual wedding ceremony — there’s no time for that — but a family party. It’s common in Chinese families for each family to throw its own party, partly to make sure that the money their guests are expected to give will go to the right family.
I think, but I’m not certain, that the couple will perform their legal marriage at this time, but the big ceremony in Dalian will happen next year. In China, unlike in the West, there’s no such thing as a wedding license to be actuated at a civil or religious ceremony. Rather, the registration with the government is one’s legal wedding, and the ceremony is purely pro forma. Some couples wait years after getting legally married before they bother with the big family celebration.
We will, of course, be going along for this quasi-wedding/peace summit between the families. And of course, if anything interesting happens, I will be sure to write it up for your amusement! 


  1. This is a very interesting and confusing subject and one that I find particularly difficult. Not only do the boys parents fork out for the house, wedding, clothes etc but they have to pay the brides family as well!

    I know we have had this conversation with our own daughter in law to be and she knows in no uncertain terms that there will be no dowry forthcoming. Not because we are mean but because its not our tradition. Fortunately like Ma Lei she is a modern and far seeing young Chinese woman and can understand our reasoning. The old days of marriage brokering has a lot to answer for, there are many unhappy Chinese marriages but hopefully in the future marrying for love will become more the norm.

    Good story Robert.

  2. It's great that your son has such an open-minded fiance. Ma Lei is the same, but there are precious few such great women in this country.

    I don't think love is irrelevant to Chinese marriage, but there is this other, materialistic concern that messes everything up. That is improving.

    1. Yes thats true and hopefully it will get much better for the next generation. The pressure on young people to marry is so strong that it must be very difficult not to bow to the pressure and just marry someone to shut the family up!! Anyway...good blog story