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Marriages in China - What Is the Role of Chinese Women in Family?

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Zhaniya Nurgozhina

Title: What is the role of Chinese women in family?

Subtitle: Understanding the 1950 New Marriage Law


Confucian China had a male-oriented society: The Master said: “Girls and inferior men are hard to get along with. If you get familiar with them, they lose their humility; if you are distant, they resent it.” (Confucius, Analects). Traditionally, women were seen as objects to the men (father, brother, husband and son), they obeyed and served them until death. In addition, marriage was arranged without the wife’s approval, and divorce was never acceptable. The role of women in society began to change after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. While keeping a focus on women in domestic life, I will investigate how the New Marriage Law (or First Marriage Law) of 1950 has facilitated these changes. This was a civil marriage law whose main aim was to increase the role of women at home and public life. I will therefore compare the conditions for women before and after the implementation of this law.  

Keywords: male-oriented society, women as objects, People’s Republic of China, New Marriage Law, domestic life, the role of women


The importance of the family and the order within the family is rooted in the deep history of China. The coherent plan and well-directed order was the main Chinese concern and there was a Confucianism studies, which came with the book ‘The Classic of Filial Piety’, which constructed the code of conduct as well as introduced five human relationships – ‘father – son, ruler – subjects, husband – wife, old – young, friend – friend’ (Teng 1977, 127-129). As far as the Confucianism hierarchy of relations was implemented through the variety of social structures, such as politics, managing affairs, etc., the importance of the order given by Confucius in the family was highly emphasized. It was Confucianism studies which turned the marriage system into the bondage of women treating them as the ‘objects’ for their husbands. Even though, with the support of Confucius beliefs, the relations between husband and wives were maintained through ‘virtue and uniformity’ (Teng 1977, 130), which means that women were used to have such kind of system and blindly obeyed it, there are no incentives to claim that women were satisfied with this structure. Arranged marriages mostly without the real feelings of love, servitude for husband which was taken for granted, the inability to have a voice outside household relations and many others are the conditions which violated the role of Chinese women in family and, formally, in society. However, this was the case until the remarkable transition with the implementation of the New Marriage Law 1950.  

Research question

This paper asserts that the transition from the ‘Confucian’ structure of the family to the ‘Communistic’ one was possessed by the law, which is the legal vector of modernity. The question ‘How the role of Chinese women changes with the implementation of the New Marriage Law in 1950?’ is the central to this essay and will be answered by methods of comparing the conditions of Chinese women, which were described above in the introduction, with new opportunities brought by the law.

Literature review

The first main article which investigates the topic of the law and family was written by Teng in 1977. After describing the Chinese legal system, considered to be one of the most stable and flourishing one, the author argues that family – ‘the basic unit of society’ – is a ‘reflection’ of the government structure where husband, the head of a family, was obliged to represent the family while other members are controlled by him. The role of women remains to be low with the rule of servitude, obedience and remaining silent. These are the conditions before the ‘industrial age’ has come to China in 1930s.

The very first attempt to change the position and role of the women and family as a whole, was the release of the Civil Code in 1931, which dealt with feminine issues most. The allowance of choosing the husband, seek a divorce or even having a new family were the central issues within the law. The remarkable thing to mention is that although the law was on the ‘family structure’, changes that occurred had an influence on the women in particular as the men’s status is already stable and powerful. Nevertheless, inability of the society to get rid of the old ‘order’ resulted in a failure of the law, and the conditions of women remained the same as before.

The release of the New Marriage Law in 1950 has given women more opportunities and proper role not only in the family but in the society as a whole. The new communistic government has persuaded women to take benefits of the law – they could seek a divorce; the arranged marriages were no longer experienced. The later point is significant in an analysis of women’s role in family, because the ‘arrangement’ weaken feminine role in a family and empowers the masculine power.


After the founding of People’s Republic of China in 1949, the first official law which was driven by the government is the New Marriage Law of 1950 (Leader 1973, 55). This was an incentive given by the Party Leader, Mao Tsetung, who along with the party members emphasized the importance of the family as the basis of Chinese society, and if authorities want to change the system, the family the first issue which should be addressed.  

Data and case study

There is a significant role of the visuals such as propaganda posters which were used by the Chinese government to implement the new law, New Marriage Law 1950, in the right way and to minimize possible misunderstandings by the society. One example of the propaganda tool after the release of the New Marriage Law is the illustration shown in Figure 1. A happy Chinese family is enthusiastic to officially register their marriage and to establish a family which is based on the love, peace and the desire to somehow contribute to the development of the state’s stability. The woman in the picture is looking forward to the ‘bright’ future; however, taking hand of a husband. The meaning of this propagandistic poster is that the rights of women are expanding in a positive way towards freer participation of managing activities with the man being along with her to direct in the efficient way. In addition, there are some hidden implications behind the picture. First, as Linbeck (1951, 137-138) claims, the Communistic authorities emphasized the fact that feministic nature is undervalued in constructing a state system, and the policy, the civil marriage law proposed by the Communists, releases the image of a happy woman taking part in a societal development (meaning that she went beyond the scope of the family) and being involved in it. Second, the rules and the legislature processes are necessary to the successful integration of a policy and law.



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