Bride price regains meaning as marriage farces banned
Published: Jan 21, 2024 10:33 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Not long ago in November, a marriage farce involving a young couple in North China's Shanxi Province was exposed online. The bride's mother had asked the groom for 30,000 yuan ($4,200) in addition to a previously given 188,000 yuan bride price a day before the couple's wedding. 

The "day of celebration" turned immediately into a "day of separation" after the young man rejected the request. 

This is not the first time that such embarrassing incidents have raised an ugly head. They remind us how "effective" unfair bride-price demands are in ending a loving relationship that often takes years to nurture. 

A solution to stop farces such as this is urgently needed and it has come in the form of recent regulations that address "bride-price dispute cases" released by the Supreme People's Court of China. 

Coming into force in February 1, 2024, the regulations provide solutions for crux issues commonly seen in bride-price dispute cases. Guidance about the scope of bride-price gifts and the principle of returning betrothal gifts are specified in the new agenda. Prior to all specifications, the regulations "reiterated" the importance of prohibiting requests for property in the name of "marriage."  

When did marriage, an occasion of love symbolized by a bride's white dress, turn into an excuse to blackmail people into giving away property? What made concepts such as "lao nü," meaning a girl who "fishes" for money in love, become an emerging topic debated upon by netizens on social media platforms?

Those questions may likely be answered by looking at how the definition of marriage has been "contextualized by changing social beliefs," cultural sociologist Yu Jiadi told the Global Times. Compared to how our parents' generation associated "marriage" with "family," and "children" and "happiness," some people today, especially those immersed in materialistic commercial society, more commonly see marriage as a tool for exchanging resources, or a life-time investment. 

"In some capitalistic Western societies, marriage has long been used as a means to hop from one social class to a higher one. A major part of a bride price helps one show off his or her social and economic capital," Yu told the Global Times. 

If in Western culture a "bride price" refers a lot to one's power and ability, then its original meaning in traditional Chinese culture is utterly at the opposite end of the spectrum, symbolizing pure wishes and parental courtesy.

"Holding one's hand and growing older together," is a phrase that originated from the Book of Songs, one of China's oldest existing poetry collections. Along with another Chinese idiom "love over gold," those concepts reveal the Chinese people's earnest love philosophy since ancient times. 

Despite changing times, these traditional values can still guide Chinese people's moral belief and this is the reason why this new "bride-price" regulation has come out. 

On a practical level, it corrects immoral behavior, but on a more profound level, such regulation, especially provided in modern times has a major purpose to bring distorted marriage culture back on its original "love over gold" track. Such an adjustment is timely and can be most beneficial to the young generation of Chinese people who are learning about love while also witnessing the dark side brought by crazy materialistic society. 

No matter what, Chinese people can still adhere to the belief of treating a bride-price as a courtesy.

"I could care less about how well-off my future husband is because the coolest thing about marriage to us is no longer about 'living a good life,' but about 'living a life that is meaningful," Shi Ai, a Chinese office lady who was born in the 2000s in Shanghai, told the Global Times. She added that her family does not care about how much of a bride price she receives. 

If Shi, a well-educated young woman, can be seen as an atypical case among young people, then a survey of a larger number of young participants might better show their changing attitudes. According to online platform, which provides marriage services in China, more than 40 percent of men and 60 percent of woman believe a bride price should be a "mutual exchange" between a young couple. 

Although the survey cannot reveal the overall landscape, yet the small gap between "40 percent" and "60 percent" unveils young Chinese people's growing mutual respect in marriage. 

"Such mutual understanding restores the bride price's original meaning as a 'love gift,'" Yu told the Global Times.  

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.