Ruzhui: When Chinese Men “Marry Into” Wife’s Family

A man falling upside down
Ruzhui -- where Chinese men "marry into" the wife's family and have the child take on her name -- turns Chinese marriage tradition upside down. (photo by Charlie Balch)

Before I even entered his apartment with John, my Chinese husband, I knew O’Neil – a close Chinese friend of John’s from middle school – had marital distress. But I never imagined that – among other things — it would have anything to do with a struggle over the next generation’s name. “At first, her parents demanded ruzhui,” he shared late Friday, May 27, as John and I sat side by side on a sofa in his apartment for one on Hangzhou’s West Side.

I raised an eyebrow at this strange Chinese word. “What’s ruzhui?

“You marry into her family, and your children have her name,” explained O’Neil. Unlike O’Neil, who came from the countryside, his wife was the only child of a proud Hangzhou family – a family that didn’t want their name extinguished in the next generation, just because they happened to have a daughter. It turned Chinese tradition — the woman marrying into her husband’s family and giving her child his name — upside down.

O’Neil documented far greater transgressions in their marriage (the parents bought them a car, but only gave their daughter a key; on an apartment deed, where they were required by law to write their son-in-law’s name and give him a share in the real estate, the parents gave him only one percent of the value). If anything, the suggestion to ruzhui was almost understandable in a Chinese sense – except that the parents hadn’t discussed it with him before the marriage.

“Did your wife’s parents ask you to ruzhui?” I was having Dragonwell tea in a local Hangzhou teahouse with a guy we all call “Lao Da,” also one of my husband’s middle school classmates. We had attended his wedding ceremony on May 28, a marriage to a local Hangzhou woman, also an only child, also from a family with more real estate and money than Lao Da, a countryside boy. I wondered if her parents had the same idea as O’Neil’s.

He shook his head. “If they had asked, I probably wouldn’t have married her.” Lao Da still believed that passing on the family name was his right and his alone, and, clearly, so did O’Neil.

But not all Chinese men do. After all, my second sister-in-law’s elder brother chose to ruzhui for his own practical reasons. “Where our family is from, it’s not so convenient to travel in and out,” my sister-in-law explained, referring to the fact that they live on the top of a mountain. “He drives a van and thought it would be easier to live with her family in town in the countryside.” That’s because when you “marry into” someone’s family in the countryside around here — normally the case for women in China — you move into that family’s house. I couldn’t believe it.

“So your brother’s child has his wife’s surname? And he’s okay with that?”

My second sister-in-law looked up from her rice bowl and smiled. “Eh. He doesn’t mind at all. He’s happy there. His wife’s family treats him very well, and her father admires him.” As if to make ruzhui even more confusing, my mother-in-law added this: “Sometimes, all the children have the wife’s surname. Sometimes one has the wife’s surname and the other has the husband’s surname. It depends on the couple.”

Sister-in-law’s elder brother — apart from growing up on a mountaintop — seemed pretty similar to his wife: both from the countryside, both of modest means.

But most Chinese men who ruzhui look a lot more like O’Neil, countryside men marrying women from wealthier families from the city — and feeling disrespected that they would even ask him in the first place (and after, not before, he married).

That’s the thing about turning tradition upside down — sometimes, when you don’t discuss things first, it ends up turning a marriage upside down too.

P.S.: For those of you curious, the Chinese characters for ruzhui are 入赘。

P.P.S.: Had a pinyin mistake in the original post — it should be ruzhui, not ruzui. Thanks to Sophie Sun and tweep @alexwoods5 for catching the error. (Guess this is bound to happen when your husband and his family hail from Zhejiang. Oops!)

Have you ever heard of ruzhui? What do you think about this concept?

13 Replies to “Ruzhui: When Chinese Men “Marry Into” Wife’s Family”

  1. This is one of the problems that comes from not talking about different issues before marriage. Growing up, I was taught that you should discuss a variety of topics with your SO (significant other) before considering marriage. I do agree with this, though not necessarily to an extreme extent, such as going over lists and lists of questions (like ‘What is your favorite color?’) to get to know someone. I noticed that this isn’t common in the Chinese culture. Things like who will handle the finances, or whether the couple will have one bank account or two, or how to handle child-raising, is not usually discussed before marriage.

    Maybe O’Neil’s wife didn’t know about her parents’ intentions for him to “ruzui,” though maybe he could’ve gotten a hint of it if they had talked more about expectations of their marriage.

    Luckily, my bf isn’t as adamant about Chinese marriage traditions. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t be together, since I made it clear from the beginning that this city girl can’t live in the China countryside forever. In fact, he finds it strange that I want to change my last name to his when we get married.

    By the way, is “O’Neil” the English name of a Chinese guy? Confused.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Michelle!

      I think it does depend on the couple. In Lao Da’s case, clearly some things must have been discussed, otherwise the marriage would not have happened. But as for the rest, it does seem as if many couples just make assumptions about finances/child-rearing or simply don’t consider them major issues. Obviously, though, her parents should have said something. In fact, it seems that this is how ruzui is handled — it must be asked of the man before marriage, not after (as you can imagine many men will not agree to it).

      That’s great your bf is not so conservative and more willing to work with you.

      As for your question, yes, O’Neil is a Chinese man. I used “O’Neil” because it’s our nickname for him, so as not to use his Chinese name and embarrass him. I know he is going through a very difficult time right now, sorting through a divorce he never expected.

  2. I had heard of 入赘 once when I was young, surprisingly. What I was given to understand from the adult family members then, was that it carried negative connotations. Here in Malaysia, I have not heard nor seen it practised since.

    1. It’s when a the man marries into a wealth family, especially if there are no male heirs or no capable male heirs. So the family might choose a capable and nice guy for their daughter, and marry him in to continue the business properly without letting the business go to ruin. But they’ll want their surname to be passed down, so they’ll ask for Ruzhui (入赘) to be done. After all, their family is wealthy, so they’ll be providing, so the provider should get to choose. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the man should be grateful that he gets to marry such a wealthy girl and have a chance to succeed in life.

  3. How interesting….I had no idea that ruzhui was still being practiced today. The situation in your friend’s case does sound unfair since it seems like they just sprung it on him. Let me share my family’s experience:
    My grandfather married into my grandmother’s family in 1959, and both my mom and her sister have my grandmother’s last name. Of course, my grandfather agreed to all of this before marriage. Both of his parents had been killed years ago during the communist takeover for being landowners, and the family house was being shared by his 2 older brothers + their wives/kids. Already in his 30s without family or money, my grandfather’s prospects for marriage were low, so ruzhui didn’t seem like a big deal to him.
    On my grandmother’s side of the family, her mother was a single parent (divorcee) without any sons. (The 1930s-era divorce story is pretty interesting but too long to tell here.) Anyway, my great-grandmother worried that without a son, there would be no daughter-in-law to take care of her in her old age so she insisted on my grandmother marrying someone who wouldn’t be taking her away. Not many men agreed to this plan so good thing my grandfather came along at right time! At the time, my grandfather was working in Hangzhou, but my grandmother’s family lived in a rural village between Hangzhou and Ningbo. As part of their arrangement, my grandfather would continue living in danwei dormitories in Hangzhou, and my grandmother would stay with her mom in the countryside. After my great-grandmother’s death in 1979, my grandmother took the kids and joined her husband in Hangzhou. As far as inheritance, everything went to my grandmother, but as long as they stayed married, my grandfather would technically be partaking in that inheritance too.

    Sorry the story is so long but my point is that I had always thought of ruzhui as being something that’s in name only. It was slightly difficult for my mom to grow up without a father in the house but after everyone reunited, they became an incredibly close-knit family. Also, my grandfather is an extremely laid-back guy without much of an ego, and I don’t think that he’s ever felt like he didn’t belong or missed out on anything or lost his manhood or whatever just because he let his kids have his wife’s name and let his wife control the family money.

  4. heard about it (ruzui) from the older generation. it was nothing unusual back in the old days. the family of the woman is rich, the groom is not well off, so the family of the woman say ‘ok the first born, male first born will carry our family name and the rest (whether male or female) will carry your family name’ and most of the time the groom will agree to it. but of course there are other types of arrangements, depending on what the family of the bride has in mind. the practice still exists in modern times, but then again most people never heard of it or choose to think that it no longer exists.

  5. An idealistic conclussion would be if the daughter was to stand up and tell the world (well at least her parents) “I love this man, I married him because of who he is and how he makes me feel ; I love, respect and trust him and I want to build a future with him” It would be goog to know that she “had his back” but that would be going against family, tradition and expectations; life and life circumstances are real and almost never idealistic.

    It may seam that O’neils in-laws are “dictating” (maybe this is a harsh word) the way they want their daughters marriage to “flow”. No doubt they love her, and want to protect and give her the best in life but in doing so they are not only disrespecting (again maybe a harsh word) the one man (her husband) who loves and cherrishes her but they are also disrespecting her choice of man whom she fell in love with and whom she chose to marry.

    I hope your friend canget through this difficult period and start a fresh

    1. @ordinarymalaysian, thanks for the comment — interesting you heard about it as a child, but it doesn’t seem to be practiced much in Malaysia.

      @Sophie, thanks for correcting me! Between you and a tweet I got, I definitely slapped my head on this one (doh!). Should have double-checked it, instead of relying on the exceedingly NON standard Chinese of my family here (my Chinese father-in-law’s Mandarin, according to his own admission, seems to be getting worse with age, now heavy with an accent of the Huangshan region where he grew up). Anyhow, fixed and learned a good lesson. 😉

      @xi thanks for telling your story — one that, given I am living in rural Hangzhou, took place right in my backyard. That’s really cool your grandfather was willing to agree to ruzhui. He sounds a lot like my sister-in-law’s older brother.

      @sam, thanks for sharing your perspective on the tradition. When you say it was common in the old days, it makes me long to read more about it. May just have to hit the bookstore again while I’m in China… 😉

  6. Considering that a relatively recent shift in legislation favors the signer of the lease over spousal rights to property, I’m more surprised that ruzhui is not catching like wildfire. I’m not sure if this is a Beijing only law or blankets all of China, but the spouse has no rights to property in the case of divorce. In a country where it’s expected of men to own property before marriage, that’s leaving a lot of women very vulnerable.

  7. In the Old Testament in Joshua 17:3-4,6 one of the grandchildren of Manasseh has no sons, so the daughters went to the priest to ask for their inheritance because only sons get their land as inheritance. This was granted.
    I suppose when they get married it will be a ruzhui situation for their husbands in order to pass down the inheritance in their father’s name.

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