My Chinese Inlaws’ Not-So-Free Marriage

Clouds against a blue sky forming a heart
My Chinese father-in-law insisted that the new China included free choice in marriages. But it seemed like an illusion when he admitted he didn't freely choose his bride. (photo by miguel ugalde)

The other day, while talking about weddings in China with my Chinese father-in-law, we happened on the idea of parental involvement (or should I say, pressure) since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

“It seems to me that parents still have a say in marriages today,” I said.

My Chinese father-in-law shook his head. “No, no, that’s the past,” he disagreed, referring to how Chinese parents used to arrange marriages for their children. “Now people have the freedom to marry whoever they want.”

How I longed to shake him and say, what about what you said about John and I? My Chinese father-in-law was the one who cautioned John against having a foreign girlfriend, telling him he could be friends with — but not date — me.

But I bit my tongue. “What I mean is, Chinese parents have ideas about their children’s marriages. The parent will tell the child if they like the person or not. The child has free choice, but may want to be filial and not go against their parents.”

My father-in-law’s eyes widened and he grinned. “Ah, yes, yes!” Then came a surprising confession. “That’s my marriage.”

All of a sudden, I felt as if his revelation shook me. “Really?”

“My mother said, ‘you’re a scholar, but you’re not very useful. You need to find someone who is useful, who knows how to do lots of things around the house, otherwise you won’t have anything to eat. So she said, ‘look at Jin,'” Jin being my Chinese mother-in-law. “‘She can work in the fields, she sews, she knows how to cook. She’s useful and hardworking. You should marry her.'”

“So you followed her suggestion, to be filial?”

“Eh! You should be filial. I’m the oldest son, the only child from my father.” His father passed away before he even reached his first birthday. “I would feel bad if I did not.” Call it the modern version of the arranged marriage. Parents suggest, child — though always free to choose — follows out of respect. Maybe my Chinese father-in-law simply followed his mother and millions of Chinese parents before him when he suggested John avoid dating me?

Still, my Chinese father-in-law has one consolation about his not-so-free-after-all marriage. “At least it’s better than having a child bride.”

Have you experienced pressure from your Chinese parents (or the parents of your loved one/spouse) on who to marry? Is it a “family tradition”?

14 Replies to “My Chinese Inlaws’ Not-So-Free Marriage”

  1. My husband’s parents were a bit concerned when we got engaged, since his mother admitted that her dream was for her son to return to China and marry a nice Chinese girl. His mom would then buy a bigger house where they all could live, and her son and daughter-in-law would go to work while she raised her grandchild. That will not happen due to our marriage, but thankfully they have accepted me despite the fact that I have different cultural values.

    My husband’s cousin, however, was told by his father, a government official, that he could, similar to what you said: be friends with, even date, but not marry a foreigner. He followed their directions, but my husband did not! 🙂 We’re happy with our decision, but I can understand some parents’ concerns about who their children marry, after all, China is a very collectivist society at its core, and if your child marries someone who does not share those same values, there could be problems ahead if both sides are not willing to compromise.

  2. jocelyn how can I contact u?your facebook username?I’m chinese boy who loves caucasian since I was five.I left a message on facebook “speaking of china”please mail me when u see that.thank

  3. I don’t know about the situation in China. But here in Malaysia, Chinese parents nowadays more or less let the children choose their partners. There is hardly any pressure from parents nowadays. But of course parents as parents will always give their two cents worth. But Malaysian Chinese children hardly listen to their parents anymore when it comes to their choice of partners. And Malaysian Chinese parents hardly insist anymore.

  4. I sometimes long for the days of arranged marriages. It does help out the men who for one reason or another aren’t flashy or competitive in the courtship game. Giving women choices seem to have made their standards astronomically high.

  5. I think all parents in the world will chip in with some advice of what they expect their son and daughters to look for in a partner, however Western parents are generally less scrutinizing.

  6. I am leaning towards agreeing with Richard above. He has some points. When one has too many choices, one tends to look for something “perfect” rather than what is. I am not speaking of settling. I am just speaking of a woman might overlook a man with a mole on his otherwise perfect face.

    I personally feel that Western children are taught that they have to stand on their own two feet, make their own choices and live with the consequences. With Kin mentioning that Western parents generally speaking scrutinize less, I think I agree. Especially when it comes to the definition of the word. But when it comes to judging and such, I think all parents are on par. Only I do feel in China that parents are more vocal in expressing their displeasure and in the West it is more of a private conversation while the couple is not in the room.

  7. “Western parents generally speaking scrutinize less…” if the partner is of the same race at least here in the good old USA! Try bringing home a black or Asian partners, they may not be that sympathetic!

  8. My BIL’s who actually lived in America went back to China to marry wives their parents liked because they were friends with the parents of the girls and all grew up in the same home town.

  9. I met my mother in law for the very first time on the day we got married! Go figure! My mother gives advice but that’s basically it. My family is a New England Irish family – they LOVED my husband instantly. My family was laid back and actually glad that I married him.

  10. Chinese families are very hierarchical; the whole ‘respect your elders’ concept may be a part of every culture, but the Chinese take it a step further by exerting control over their (adult) children’s personal lives. In my experience, most parents’ knee-jerk reaction is to disapprove of whomever their child chose of his/her own accord. I guess on a psychological level it sends the message that “I can pick my own spouse, I can pick my own family” and it downplays the parents’ importance in the family-making process. Usually parents will suggest someone (eg a friend of a friend’s child) to their child based on a perceived idea of other person and their family. When their child picks his/her own spouse, the parents usually have no idea of the background or guanxi of that person’s family, and they are left to take their child’s word for it. And that makes them feel vulnerable.

    As far as the success of the marriage, it really depends on the couple and has no bearing on previous parental involvement. In my aunt’s case, her daughter found her own boyfriend (despite immediate parental objection before they even met him), and her son married someone she herself suggested. Like a movie plot twist, her daughter has a great marriage and after the birth of their child, my aunt really warmed to the son-in-law. However, she now hates her son’s wife (haha)! My aunt initially chose this girl on a perceived notion of her being gentle and subservient because she is a kindergarten teacher and her parents are simple, rural peasants. But right after the marriage, the two of them got in a huge argument. My aunt wrote her will and divided everything equally between her son and daughter but the daughter in law thought that her husband should get more because he is the son. So for the past few years they’ve been on a barely speaking basis, even after the birth of a grandchild.

    There are so many cases like this, so I always advise my Chinese cousins to stand their ground and decide for themselves. At the end of the day, it’s your own marriage and you’re the one bearing the brunt of the consequences if things turn out badly, not your parents.

  11. This sounds like standard Chinese stories. The outside daughter-in-law is suspect UNTIL she produces an heir. Did she produce a son? Now mother in law is happy. If it’s a girl, that is not so good, but try try again; at least the DIL has shown she CAN deliver babies, so she is not hopeless in the eyes of the MIL.

    Chosen DIL presumably had no choice in accepting this man, and finds her life with him and MIL less than happy. So in her unhappiness, she starts brooding about the unfairness of things, and becomes greedy even at her young age. Or perhaps, with her kindergarten work and husband’s work combined, they are not earning as much as the other couple’s. So she sits and broods and realizes, possibly with the help of her husband or her own rural relatives, who may themselves need financial help from a city family, that there is a possibility: use the old argument that a son should get more than 50% of an inheritance, simply because he is the son. Don’t ask reasons, use historical pretexts!


    MIL refuses. DIL must stand her ground or seem foolish in speaking up for her husband’s greed; if she backs down, she looks ridiculous, even if it is clear that she spoke on her husband’s behalf. He is probably too ashamed to ask directly to his mother, for it admits to his less-than-stellar financial situation vis-a-vis his sister’s. Chinese women are often the ones to make complaints for their silent husbands, and then have to become ferocious and never back down, while the husband dithers around, smoking and listening, sweating, heart beating fast while he listens to the “traditional MIL/DIL” argument – all about HIM.

    Was the son’s child a boy or a girl? Critical to Chinese stories!

    I am not Chinese but have a lot of exposure to them through my work of the last 18 years as a fulltime tourguide in San Francisco. It is the woman who will make the fuss, complain and even start shouting in tourbuses, restaurants and hotels, with the staff, clerks and help, until a manager is found, and the story intensifies. The husband stands nearby and appears unconcerned, but no one is fooled, least of all the victims of these foaming-at-the-mouth Chinese wives, who represent the cowardly but conniving husbands.

    My own trick finally was to insist that if there was any matter of dispute, then I would only be able BY COMPANY POLICY (ha!) to speak to the person who had paid the bill. It is the man who signs the credit card normally, still, with Asians. This will haul the husband forward to take some part in the discussion and the woman can be politely ignored or even dismissed if she will not lower her voice.

    Does anyone who works with the Chinse agree with me? I am of course speaking of the Chinese ethnics when they LEAVE their home countries and come to USA.

  12. I am an American caucasian parent. I taught my children to look beyond race when forming relationships. My daughter has had 3 boyfriends – all of them Asian. She dated a South Korean gentleman for 2+ years. We loved him. The next boyfriend was of Philippine descent. We did not care for him, but it had nothing to do with his race and everything to do with social graces, education and shared interests. Although we kept our opinions to ourselves, our daughter most likely sensed our lack of enthusiasm and terminated the relationship after about 10 months. Her current boyfriend is Chinese. We think he is great and hope the relationship goes the distance. She met his parents when they visited and they seemed okay with her, but it still worries me that they may not really approve. Thanks for the insight provided via this post.

  13. Hi Jocelyn: Have you tried the Chinese herb named “Black chicken white phoenix pill” (烏雞白鳯丸)? My younger sister tried and was successful after first three years of marriage to her German-descent husband. And one of my former students also had the same good result after they were attempting to adopt a child but backed out last minute because they did not need anymore.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.