Marriage is always a topic that inspires debate in China. It’s not hard to see why: it is a repository of values, a tool of social engineering and a legal contract with major emotional and financial responsibilities.
Rapid social and economic change has seen the institution of marriage and its traditions evolve too – both organically and as a result of government intervention.
The latest example is the so-called “two sides” marriage model that has emerged in rural parts of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.
Under this arrangement, couples split their time between both sets of parents – living a few months with the husband’s, then a few with the wife’s.
Nothing too odd about that, you might think: after all, caring for elderly parents is a responsibility under Chinese law.
But the approach has sparked debate for several reasons. First it is a deviation from the traditional set- up whereby the woman moves into the man’s family home and, secondly, in a “two-sided marriage”, the couple is typically expected to produce two children – one to carry the husband’s family name and a second as an heir for the wife’s family.
Many young Chinese have complained about it as another source of pressure on young couples – and on young women in particular.
“The hidden cost in all of this is that the woman must bear two children in order for her family to have a grandchild,” fumed one Sina Weibo user.
“Of course, the husband’s family gets to name the first child and the wife always goes second!” pointed out another.
Others in the region said the arrangement can work well as the women retain close ties with their families and the practice removes any need for a dowry or bride price – an illegal practice but still a fairly common one.
People who have entered into this arrangement said they and their families discussed it beforehand and that it generally works well – although shifting from home to home can cause disruption.
Part of the reason the change came about is the One-Child Policy. Many women of childbearing age are single children, which means their families are often more reluctant to let them leave home completely.
The first response to this problem was for richer families to pay for their son-in-laws to live with them, instead of seeing their daughter move to the husband’s family home. But as a greater proportion of the population became better-off, this became harder to arrange.
Furthermore, many men were uncomfortable with being a so-called “live-in-son-in-law” because they felt they weren’t doing their filial duty by their own parents.
When the Chinese government started to encourage couples to have more than one child (see WiC480), the two-sided model grew in popularity because it was felt that both families would then get an heir.
The problem, however, is that the changes in living style pull young families in two directions. At its most extreme, it means that siblings may be growing up apart from each other, bearing different surnames. In some cases they are raised by different sets of grandparents, while the parents work.
The arrangement can also run into difficulties if the couple can’t conceive a second child or if one family is disappointed because the child carrying their family name is a girl.
Lawyers quoted by Chinanews.com have also suggested that the arrangements lead to complex problems should the couple divorce.“Different surnames may lead to different preferences by parents and their original families, which can cause further issues in guardianship,” said Tan Fang deputy of the All-China Lawyers Association. There may also be disputes with regards to joint property, he added. That’s no small matter as divorce rates have been rising in recent years.
So while the “two sides” model has been a creative response to changes in Chinese society, it is not without its own problems too. The practice also underscores that the legacy of the One-Child Policy will shape China for many years to come.
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