Jiu-hwa Lo UPSHUR

One of the wedding traditions of wealthy families in imperial China was to transport the bride to her in-law’s house in a sedan chair.

In imperial China (211 BCE–1912 CE), the institution of marriage—which influenced succession and property rights—followed laws and customs based in both Chinese tradition and Confucian principles.

In Confucian China, as in most of the world, the family was the heart of society. Not surprisingly, many provisions in the legal codes of the successive dynasties dealt with the family. But customs and extralegal institutions including clans, guilds, and religious and professional associations also played important roles in the resolution of problems associated with disputes involving marriages, families, and property.

Among the five key human relationships in Confucian China, three pertained to the family: They were between parents and children, husband and wife, and elder and younger siblings. Reciprocal obligations governed the conduct of each person in a relationship, and in each case one party was superior to the other. For example, the parent, husband, and elder sibling were superior to the child, wife, and younger sibling respectively, assumed more responsibilities, and were accorded greater respect. The remaining two relationships were between ruler and subject, which paralleled that between parents and children, and between friends, a relationship essentially between equals. Confucian philosophy also taught that there were the Three Bonds that were fundamental in human society: They were between the ruler and subject, parents and children, and husband and wife. The fact that two of these three pertain to the family further bolsters the importance of that institution.


The Chinese family was patrilineal, that is the main line was traced through the male, and patrilocal, meaning that a woman left her natal family to live with her husband’s family. She was subordinate to both her husband and his parents, but her status in her new family rose with age and the bearing of children, especially sons. Marriages were arranged by family elders, often through go-betweens; many among them were female professionals and were paid for their services. A betrothal involved presents from the groom’s family to the prospective bride, and there was sometimes a written contract. The breaking of a betrothal was a serious matter that could result in litigation. A bride entered marriage with a dowry, usually consisting of jewelry, clothing, and furnishings. Rarely did she receive landed property from her parents, because farm land and real estate usually went to male children. Although a married woman retained her own surname, her children took the surname of their father. If the bride had no brothers, a marriage contract could stipulate that the groom take up residence with his wife’s family and that their children assume her surname and inherit her property. Technically the husband controlled the money assets that a wife brought to a marriage.

The governments of successive dynasties strongly encouraged the institution of marriage and the raising of families, sometimes by drastically raising the poll tax on unmarried adults. Most marriages were monogamous, although wealthy men sometimes took concubines. Although multigenerational extended families were exalted, in practice most ordinary people lived in nuclear families or three-generation families.

Divorces were permitted and could be initiated by either party, but were rare because a divorce involved not just two individuals but also their families. A husband could divorce his wife more easily than she could divorce him, and such issues as unfilial behavior towards his parents, barrenness, and incurable disease were legitimate reasons. Barrenness was seldom a cause for divorce, however, because often a husband would take a secondary wife or concubine, whose son would be “adopted” by his wife as their heir; alternately a boy who belonged to the same lineage as a husband would be adopted as an heir. But the legal codes of dynastic China protected a woman in marriage by prohibiting her husband from divorcing her under three circumstances: if she had observed mourning for either of her parents-in-law, if her husband’s family had risen in wealth and position since their marriage, or if she had no family of her own to return to. A wife could obtain a divorce with the intervention of a magistrate and for causes such as abuse or abandonment. Divorces were also permitted by mutual consent.

Women, especially those from middle- or upper-class families, were discouraged from remarriage upon widowhood. Many communities in premodern China erected tablets and arches to commemorate the lives and actions of chaste widows. Men, however, were under no such restrictions, and young widowers usually remarried. Although men clearly enjoyed rights superior to those enjoyed by women, Chinese society and families also practiced a division of labor where the wife and mother controlled the household. Sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law also owed obedience to both parents.

Succession and Property

Feudalism, where children inherited the status and rank of their fathers, had declined during the later centuries of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) and ended with the Qin unification of China in 221 BCE; it was only briefly and partially reinstated during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Therefore succession by sons to a father’s position involved only the ruling families and a small number of nobles. Even among the royalty and nobility a man had only one wife, although his rank and the need to ensure the succession allowed him to have secondary consorts or concubines. Primogeniture prevailed: that is, the eldest son of the wife was heir, and if she had no son, the sons of the secondary consorts would succeed according to age and sometimes the rank of the mother. Occasionally the sons of a high-ranking official were entitled to hold a junior office without qualifying for it through the civil service exams.

Since traditional China was mainly an agricultural state, land was the main source of wealth. Daughters rarely received a portion of their parents’ landed property; usually this happened only if she had no brothers. The daughter’s inheritance was generally her dowry. All sons, including sons born by concubines, usually received equal shares of the parents’ landed property, with the eldest son sometimes receiving somewhat more because he usually assumed additional responsibilities in caring for aged parents and in conducting rites of ancestor worship. A widow received her deceased husband’s share as guardian for her minor sons. She would forfeit that right if she remarried. As a result of the custom that divided landed property among male heirs, huge landed estates were rare in imperial China.

Both legal statutes and customs played key roles in governing the lives of men and women. Most laws upheld customs and the moral consensus. As in other spheres of activity, men and women in imperial China tended to settle their disputes through arbitration and informal means, going to the courts only as a last resort. Finally, the fundamental principles that governed interpersonal relationships were based on Confucian ethics and predicated on hierarchy and reciprocity with the goal of achieving social harmony.

Further Reading

Buxbaum, D. C. (Ed.). (1977). Chinese family law and social change in historical and comparative perspective. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (1993) The inner quarters, marriage and the lives of women in the Sung period. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Freedman, M. (Ed.). (1969). Family and kinship in Chinese society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Swann, N. L. & Pan Chao. (1932). Foremost woman scholar of China, first century A.D. New York: Century.

Learn from other’s strong points to offset one’s shortcomings.


Qǔ cháng bǔ duǎn

Source: Upshur, Jiu-hwa Lo. (2009). Marriage, Imperial. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1410–1412. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Marriage, Imperial (Fēngjiàn dìguó shídài de hūnyīn 封建帝国时代的婚姻)|Fēngjiàn dìguó shídài de hūnyīn 封建帝国时代的婚姻 (Marriage, Imperial)

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