Sometimes you have to admire quite how straightforward the Chinese language can be.
Take the word ‘polyandry’ as an example. In English its indelicate meaning is obscured by its Greek etymology. But in Chinese there is no such squeamishness. This non-conventional marriage practice is simply and accurately known as the “one wife, many husbands system”.
But why, might you ask, is WiC discussing a tradition that has largely died out?
The answer is that it is back in the headlines this month after Xie Zuoshi, a professor at Zhejiang University School of Finance and Economics, advocated reviving the practice as a way of dealing with China’s bachelor glut.
“With so many extra men, women are in limited supply and their value increases… But that doesn’t mean the market can’t be adjusted… One solution is for several low-income men to take a wife together,” he wrote rather bravely on his blog.
Needless to say he offended almost everyone.
But before we list some of the ways in which people took umbrage let us first look at why a respected academic would take the step of suggesting something he knew would cause moral consternation.
The main reason, as Xie states in his essay, is the fear that by doing nothing China will experience a wave of crime and social unrest as millions of single men fail to find wives and personal fulfilment.
By 2020 China is predicted to have 30 million of these so called guanggun or ‘bare branches’. Many academics, including Professor Xie, predict that this group will largely comprise of poor, low-skilled workers who miss out on finding a mate because they are less economically attractive.
The combination of loneliness, dissatisfaction and basic education could make for a potent mix. Already in China there are rural areas in which almost all of the eligible women have left or where the only ‘wives’ are the ones who have been trafficked (see WiC294).
The reason for all this is years of gender selective abortions – in part occasioned by family preferences for boys, but made worse by the One-Child Policy, which turned 35 this year.
The original policy was designed to help the country progress economically but, as many netizens pointed out this week, it may have unintentionally pushed China towards polyandry – which was outlawed during the Qing period.
In the past, communities living in harsh climates and remote locations practiced polyandry as a way of keeping farmland together or as a means of pooling economic resources.
Until about 50 years ago in some parts of Tibet and northern India it was still common for one woman to marry a family of brothers, and for all the children to call the oldest brother ‘father’. And according to historian Matthew Sommer’s book Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China, it was not uncommon for farmers who had fallen sick to add another more able bodied man to their marriage so as to keep the revenue coming in.
Yet despite this rich and fascinating history most were appalled at Xie’s suggestion of a return to former times.“Is this man a robot? No human could suggest this!” wrote one angry weibo user.
“This is the best a so-called professor can offer to society? Would he be happy for his daughter to have this kind of marriage?” asked another. Others took the line that it was wrong for man to suggest something that that seemed to think only of men’s feelings and not those of the women involved. “This shows total disrespect for women. We are not a commodity or currency that can be devalued by changing the exchange rate!” said one outraged woman.
But Xie was not to be outdone. On Sunday he published an angry rebuttal. “Because I promoted the idea that we should allow poor men to marry the same woman to solve the problem of 30 million unmarried men I’ve been endlessly abused,” he wrote.
“If you can’t find a solution that doesn’t violate traditional morality then why do you criticise me for violating traditional morality? You are in favour of a couple made up of one man, one woman. But your morality will lead to 30 million guanggun with no hope of finding a wife. Is that your so-called morality?”
Mind you, late this week Xie was overshadowed by some even bigger demographic news: the end of the One-Child Policy. More on this in WiC’s next issue…
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