1902 Encyclopedia > China > Marriage Customs. Infanticide.

(Part 60)


Marriage Customs. Infanticide.

Marriage Customs

It is mainly due to this cause that early marriages are almost universal in China. Like the Jews of old, the Chinese look upon the possession of children, especially of sons, as the chief blessing of life, and consequently as soon as a young man comes of age his parents cast about to find a helpmate for him. The would-be bridegroom has very little to say in the matter. Marriage is not the result of acquaintanceship ripening into affection, as amongst Western nations. The bridegroom rarely sees his betrothed until she has become his wife. The preliminaries are entirely arrange by a professional "go-between" or "match-maker," who makes it her duty to acquaint herself with all the marriageable young people of both sexes in the neighbourhood. When employed by the bridegrooms’ friends she calls on the parents of some young lady who she considers would make a suitable wife for the future bridegroom, armed with a card on which are inscribed the ancestral name, and the eight symbols which denote the year, month, day, and hour of the birth of the suitor. Should the lady’s parents be inclined to accept the proposal they consult a fortune-teller as to the future prospects of such a union. If the answer be favourable a return card is given to the go-between, and this in turn is submitted to the security of a fortune-teller employed by the man’s parents. Should the oracles prophesy good concerning the match the bridegroom prepares two large cards on which are written the particulars of the engagement ; and on the outer side of the one which he keeps is paste a paper dragon, and on the one which is sent to the lady, a phoenix—emblems of conjugal fidelity. Each card is further sewn together with two pieces of red silk. Legend traces the original of these silken cords to the time of the Tang dynasty (618-907). During that period, it is said that a man named Hwuy Ko, while staying at the town of Sung, saw one evening an old man reading a book by the light of the moon, who addressed him thus : "This book is the register of the engagements of marriage for all places under heaven, and in my pockets I have red cords with which I tie together the feet of those who are destined to become man and wife. When this cord has been tied, though the parties are of unfriendly families, or of different nations, their fates are fixed. Your future wife," said he, "is the child of the old woman who sells vegetables in yonder shop on the north." Upon hearing this Hwuy Ko started off in search of the old woman, and found her possessed of such a hideous little infant of about twelve months old, that in despair he hired a man to kill the child. Years afterwards the prefect of a neigbouring district gave Ko in marriage a beautiful young lady whom he affirmed to be his own daughter. Seeing that his bride always wore an artificial flower over her eyebrow, Hwuy Ko asked her the reason of her doing so. "I am the daughter," she replied, "of the prefect’s brother who died at Sung when I was an infant, leaving me to the care of an old woman who vegetables. One day, when I was out with her in the street a ruffian struck me on my eyebrow, and made such a scar that I am obliged to wear this flower to conceal it." On hearing this Hwuy Ko recognized the immutability of fate, and from that time forward red silken cords have been entwined in the marriage cards of every pair in China. Following the exchange of cards, presents of more or less value according to the wealth of the contracting parties pass between the two households, and at last when the happy day has arrived, the bride, surrounded by her friends, starts from her father’s house in a sedan chair for her future home. Half-way between the two houses she is met by a party of the bridegroom’s followers, who escort her the rest of the way. In this custom it is impossible not to see a survival of the primitive custom of marriage by capture. At the present day, in some parts of Central Asia, the bride rides off on horseback at full gallop from the door of her fahter’s house or tent, followed by the bridegroom, who after an exciting chase, is allowed to come up with her, and she straightway become his property. Among some of the Siberian tribes, again, the bridegroom is obliged to hunt his bride through the compartments of her father’s tent, while old women go through the farce of tripping him up and other wise hindering him in his pursuit. In more civilized China there are fewer traces of the ancient capture, and the contest has there become but a formal act of taking over the bride on her way to bridegroom’s house. On alighting from her sedan chair she is led with her head covered into the room where her future husband awaits her. Without exchanging a word they sit down side by side, and each tries to sit on apart of the dress of the other, it being considered that the one who succeeds in so doing will rule in the household. After this silent trial of skill they adjourn to the reception hall, where stands the family altar, and there they worship Heaven, and Earth, and their ancestors. This done they drink a glass of wine together, when for the first time the bridegroom is allowed to see the face of his bride. Here the marriage ceremony ends, and the guests give themselves up to feasting and rejoicing.


Like many other apparent paradoxes, the co-existence of infanticide with an universal desire for children among the Chinese admits of a ready explanation. The chief object of desire is the possession of sons, and in the parts of that country where infanticide exists—this is the case only in poverty-stricken households in certain districts of certain provinces—female infants are the only victims. In some parts of the province of Fuh-keen the people make no attempt to conceal the existence of the practice, and even go the length of defending it. What is the good of rearing daughters, they say ; when they are young they are only an expense, and when they reach an age when they might be able to work for their own living, they marry and leave us. But even the poorest people nourish and cherish their sons. Their labour soon becomes remunerative, they support their parents in their old age, and when these are gathered to their fathers they perform the prescribed observances at their tombs,—offering sacrifices at fixed periods to the souls of the departed, and keeping the tombs in repair. Should anything interfere with the repose of the dead, the living may expect to be visited with misfortune ; and to allow the soul of a parent to pass between its tomb and the households of the descendants, the entrance to the grave must be kept unimpeded. Curiously enough, the tombs, especially in the south of China, are all made in the shape of an W. This is probably an importation from the West.

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