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

My Chinese Mother-in-law and the Ring of Compliments

Ring on a finger
When I complimented my Chinese mother-in-law's ring, I ended up with a ring of compliments -- to wear.

“I really like your ring, it’s beautiful.”

I couldn’t believe I had missed this lovely glint of silver on the left ring finger of my Chinese mother-in-law, etched in a black with a flower that seemed to burst with all the brilliance of the star of Bethlehem. That’s why I told her I liked it. I don’t believe in keeping a good compliment to myself.

She smiled, wrinkling the corners of her lips as she took her left hand out of the dishwater in the wok to show it to me up close. “Somebody made it in our village.”

She then told me about this metalworking place in town, where silversmiths can fashion such a ring from raw silver. “Do you want one? I can make one for you.”

Is a compliment really just a compliment to her? I wondered. Continue reading “My Chinese Mother-in-law and the Ring of Compliments”

My Chinese Husband, Almost Switched at Birth

Some old dolls packed together
When my Chinese husband was born, the neighbors wanted to swap him for their baby daughter (photo by Onclebob)

When someone gives birth to a baby boy, you wouldn’t say “can we switch babies?” Unless, of course, you happened to be neighbors to my Chinese husband’s family.

As the third son in the family, John dashed his mother’s hopes of finally giving birth to a girl. Their neighbors had the opposite problem — they had just birthed another girl, the third in their family. So the neighbors came to John’s parents, with a different kind of indecent proposal.

The way my mother-in-law and father-in-law tell it, there was no question what they would do. “He’s our son, we could never give him away,” my mother-in-law declared emphatically at lunch one day, as my father-in-law nodded his head, adding how the neighbors “had a crazy idea.”

But what about the neighbors themselves? Continue reading “My Chinese Husband, Almost Switched at Birth”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mao Zedong’s Childhood House, Shaoshan, Hunan

Mao Zedong's Childhood Home, Shaoshan, Hunan Province
Chairman Mao's Childhood Home in Shaoshan, Hunan is a delightful pastoral retreat from the city.

Nestled in the sun-kissed hills of central Hunan, there’s an ordinary yellow mud-brick peasant house with a not-so-ordinary neighbor — a permanent People’s Liberation Army guard station.

That humble — and now fortified — abode was laojia (老家, home) to one of China’s most commanding (and controversial) figures of the 20th century: Mao Zedong.

In a China hell-bent on modernization and the the whole idea of “out with the old, and in with the new” (旧的不去,新的不来), Mao’s home offers a delightful respite from the usual concrete-block urban depression. Yes, delightful — even if you’ve sworn off the Chairman for personal reasons, or after reading Wild Swans (or, more likely, Mao: The Unknown Story).

That might be hard to believe when you’re touring his home. People’s Liberation Army soldiers had us bustle through in a neverending line of tourists, leaving no more than a moment or two to admire the wooden canopy beds, or imagine the fiery aroma of local Hunan dishes being cooked over the old-style hearth. (At the very least, the privilege of gazing upon the humble home of Chairman Mao comes gratis, in a China where, nowadays, there’s a price on everything.)

But then John and I rambled up a dusty trail above Mao’s home, between the terraced ponds and the fringe of forest beside us. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mao Zedong’s Childhood House, Shaoshan, Hunan”

Chapter 71: Migrant Workers in Our Staircase

Chinese migrants
When a noisy Shanghai city works project brings migrant workers into our home -- literally -- I begin to wonder: just whose life is being disturbed?

Our neighborhood still echoes with a sour symphony of drills and hammers as the city of Shanghai makes water line repairs and fire extinguisher replacements.

The project finally reached our house in mid July, 2003, with work starting at the convenient hour of 6am (convenient, that is, from the point of view of Shanghai, which would never have its workforce toil in the heat of the day). The swarthy-faced men descended on our home like an invading army, with the grimaced, sweaty brows of exhausted soldiers in a foreign land. The truth is, Shanghai probably was a foreign place to them, because they had the look of migrant workers, perhaps from Anhui Province (which supplied many of the Shanghai migrants). I should know, because I walked over them, napping on the wooden staircase leading up to my apartment — the entire house oozed with grimy, slumbering men, as if they had just magically grown out of the cracks after I left for work that morning. Continue reading “Chapter 71: Migrant Workers in Our Staircase”

Chapter 48: The Pressures of an Unmarried Chinese man in the Countryside

Chinese man holding a little baby
I wondered why Er Ge, John's second oldest brother, was so painfully quiet. Learning his story was like a window into the pressures of young unmarried Chinese in the countryside.

John’s second oldest brother, Er Ge, was like the wallflower of Chinese New Year at the family home in China’s countryside. He usually lingered in the corners with a slight hunchback and frightened, delicate eyes, like a fragile little sparrow hoping to escape the marauding glance of humans. There was a quiet, impenetrable sadness that clouded his personality, and somehow, I couldn’t get past a Ni Hao to really know the man within.

Only 26 years old, he was the only brother who still lived at the family home. He didn’t care much for study, only finishing Junior High and then going on to become an itinerant worker in the countryside, doing odd jobs for relatives and friends. But none of this seemed to explain why Er Ge withdrew from the world.

So I asked John one evening, as we sat around the hot coals and watched Chinese television. Continue reading “Chapter 48: The Pressures of an Unmarried Chinese man in the Countryside”

Of China’s Countryside Bachelors, and One Chinese Man’s Divorce

Er Ge in Yaolin Cave in Zhejiang Province, less than a year after his wife abandoned him.
Er Ge in Yaolin Cave in Zhejiang Province, less than a year after his wife abandoned him.

Er Ge, my second-oldest brother-in-law, wanted to marry for life.

His bride in 2005 was a lovely, lithe girl of 18 from Guizhou who worked in a local sewing factory, often evenings. I never forgot her almost ubiquitous smile in my presence. It was inscrutable, a smile that remained far too long to be just about happiness.

Mysterious smile or not, she must have made Er Ge happy, or at least relieved.
For years, his mother had fretted over finding him a wife — not easy, given the distorted sex ratio, especially in the countryside. Er Ge’s own personality added challenges. He was always the wallflower of the family, parsimonious with his own words, as if they were a precious currency. It took years before I even held a bona-fide conversation with him. But Er Ge’s mother didn’t want him to take years before he understood romance. So, following in a long tradition of mothers who arranged marital affairs for their sons, she made inquiries in town, and eventually found him a bride. He would be the last of the three brothers to be matched.

Er Ge is a peasant, and still resides in his family home, so they held the celebration at home too. He donned a black polyester suit and tie; she dressed in a white Western-style tulle wedding gown with roses in her flowing black hair.

She may have looked like a fairytale bride, but there is no fairytale ending here. Continue reading “Of China’s Countryside Bachelors, and One Chinese Man’s Divorce”

For Many of China’s Rural Residents, Health Insurance is Not Enough

This is the first in a four-part series of articles providing a snapshot of modern life in China ahead of October 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was published September 20, 2009 in the Insight section of the Idaho State Journal.


Peng Qiulan and Jin Genxiu, like most residents in China's countryside, have rural health insurance policies that only cover a fraction of their medical costs
Peng Qiulan and Jin Genxiu, like most residents in China's countryside, have rural health insurance policies that only cover a fraction of their medical costs

Zhongshan, Tonglu County, Zhejiang, China — In a old wooden home hidden behind Zhongshan’s main street is a place where Ye Xianna, my husband’s 76-year-old grandmother, is quietly putting her trust in Jesus — to protect her against illness.

After sitting with for nearly four hours in the rows of turquoise-colored pews that felt like tiny park benches — witnessing speaking in tongues, singing hymns in Chinese, and preaching on the virtues of Christianity — it was one of the congregation who spoke the most important reason why Ye, like many others in the church, was present that morning.

A senior man in a tan-striped polo shirt and oversized brown pants, with squinty eyes, stubble and a mostly toothless smile, stepped behind the turquoise podium with a blood-red plastic cross attached to it, and began addressing the room.

He was speaking in the local dialect of Tonglu — one of the thousands of dialects in China that sounds different from the country’s official Mandarin Chinese — so I couldn’t understand his words, at first. “What is he saying?” I asked Ye, sitting next to me in the pew in a flowered blouse and pants, with her wiry, shoulder-length gray hair tied into two pigtails.

Ye, whose local dialect is better than her Mandarin Chinese, explained it to me as simply as she could: “His arm used to hurt. Then he believed in Jesus, and it stopped hurting.”

Her simple words spoke a powerful idea: that Jesus heals, literally.

And for many churchgoing senior citizens in China’s countryside, like Ye, it’s the one thing they can count on in the face of a rural healthcare system that is still far from ideal. Continue reading “For Many of China’s Rural Residents, Health Insurance is Not Enough”