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  • Series: Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China series x
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Xiaowei Zang and Lucy Xia Zhao

The study of the family and marriage in China is interesting given profound changes in fertility transition, household structure, mate selection, divorce, old age support, and so on, since the nineteenth century. This chapter first reviews the English literature on a few selected aspects of the family institution and marriage in China. Next, it summarizes the outline of each of the chapters, which discuss a wide range of topics including love and marriage, educational endogamy, family planning, son preference, the marriage squeeze, family decision-making power, filial piety and old age support, intermarriage and intercultural dating, international adoption from mainland China, and many more.

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Dudley L. Poston

Chapter 2 uses demographic transition theory (DTT) to examine how demographic change influences marriage and family in China. It charts China’s progress through the transition, starting when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, and carrying through to around 2015. It then discusses the types of changes in marriage and family that are likely to occur in societies that have transitioned to low fertility, focusing specifically on age at first marriage, cohabitation, age at first intercourse, premarital intercourse, masturbation, and unbalanced sex ratios at birth. Chapter 2 presents and analyzes empirical data from China on each of these six features of marriage and family, along with more limited data for the US and a few other countries. It argues that changes in China in the levels and prevalence of these six features of marriage and the family have all been influenced by, or have been a consequence of, the changes in China as it has transitioned from high fertility rates in the 1960s to a very low rate today.

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Yan Ruth Xia and Anqi Xu

Chapter 3 discusses the changing family system in urban China. It shows connectedness and interactions between Chinese urban family structure and different levels of the social contexts and explains cultural, social, and economic forces directly or indirectly influencing the Chinese family. Family structure is viewed as flexible and interactive with its environment. Culture, policy, economy, and housing reform all play a role in shaping the experience of urban Chinese families. The social changes in housing, education, and the job market have brought opportunities, choices, and wealth, but at the same time posed stress to Chinese families during the social transition. Contemporary Chinese family structure is fluid and dynamic, and Chinese family structure has become more diverse with the occurrence of single-person families, single-parent families, as well as families with double income but no children and cohabitant households as living arrangements of choice. These changes both strengthen and challenge the families. The support from the extended family has served as a buffer.

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William Jankowiak

Chinese society, as elsewhere, has constructed an often uneasy arrangement between the forces of passionate love, comfort love, and sexual desire. This arrangement requires continuous adjustment at the individual and societal level. The competing push and pull of feeling states and values common to the domains of love and sexual desire are seldom stable. This ensures that every generation will revisit, if not renegotiate, and thus modify the conventional explanation of how best to merge and thus integrate the pull toward emotional exclusiveness found in the impulse for love, with an equally powerful concern for social and economic practicality. This, then, is the chapter’s central focus: to probe assessment of research findings as they pertain to changes found in mate selection criteria, competing rationales, and social negotiations, voiced and unvoiced within the context of courtship and dating, that range from stark materialistic displays to private yearnings about the value of intimacy, and how the weight given that value has come to define what it means to have a satisfactory marriage.

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Jing Song and Lulu Li

Chapter 5 studies mate selection in rural China, stressing local variations, temporal change, and persisting patterns. It reviews three aspects of scholarship on mate selection in rural China: courtship and marriage formation, mate selection preferences, and mate selection markets. Although modernity and individuality are a general trend governing these three aspects, the persistence and revival of patriarchy and gender hierarchy are also evident. In the post-1978 era, market expansion and policy changes have led mate selection trends in different directions, such as increasing ‘girl power’, reinforcing status homogamy, and intensifying the marriage squeeze. Some policy outcomes were unexpected, due to the complicated interaction of family structures, market forces, political factors, and gender norms. For rural people, marriage is not only increasingly entrenched with emotion and affection, but also an institution of status match.

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Pan Wang

Chapter 6 reviews the scholarly literature on ‘Asia_West’ and ‘intra-Asia’ marriages and studies of foreign-related marriages in China. It then analyses how Chinese_foreign marriages started to ‘resurrect’ thanks to China’s economic liberation and legal reforms in the late 1970s. The early transitional period paralleled official recognition of, and public reservation against, Chinese_foreign marriages, especially marriages involving foreign nationals. The 1990s witnessed China’s changing attitudes towards cross-Strait relations, reflecting in the proliferation of cross-Strait marriages and the rising number of Chinese_foreign marriages overseas. China’s increasing globalization in the 2000s triggered the growth in the number of foreign spouses and internationalized marriages in China, giving rise to gendered discourses and binary constructions in relation to foreign spouses of Chinese in the media. Wang concludes by summarizing the changing character of foreign-related marriages in different historical periods and argues that these marriages have begun to shape and complicate the overarching marriage landscape in China in this century.

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Lijun Song, Rachel Skaggs and Cleothia Frazier

Chapter 7 examines patterns of education homogamy in China, which refers to people’s tendency to marry those with similar educational attainment. It is a crucial determinant of the distribution of various resources (social, economic, and cultural capital) and serves as a key mate selection criterion. It summarizes seven hypotheses can predict an increasing trend: educational homogenization, status attainment, educational legitimacy, economic inequality, promoted sameness, female economic attractiveness, and gender inequality. In contemporary China, the rapid educational expansion and the rising return to education may lead support to three hypotheses: educational homogenization, status attainment, and educational legitimacy. The increasing economic distances require attention to the economic inequality hypothesis. Additionally, gender-related social factors play a role in spousal resemblance on education. The increasing gender segregation in occupations and earning differentiation calls for research on the gender inequality hypothesis. Finally, attention to the rural_urban divide is required in the study of educational homogamy partly because of differences in the population structure and marriage patterns.

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Arianne M. Gaetano

Chapter 8 studies shengnu (剩女), which is a derogatory label to describe educated, successful, unmarried urban women in their late twenties to forties in China. Public attention to shengnu is conditioned by state regulatory power along with the market-driven media and commercial wedding industry. Shengnu is a discursive construct that simultaneously produces the social phenomenon it purports to describe. It is also indicative of a general malaise and a conservative, patriarchal backlash wrought by recent challenges and changes to institutions of marriage, such as divorce and adultery, and of family, such as the one-child structure and aging population, as well as in gender roles, particularly due to the increasing proportion of women in higher education and white-collar professions. The institutional or/and ideological influences on shengnu include state development policies and programs; the marriage market rules of spouse selection and marital gift exchange; patterns and perceptions of marriage; family structure, gender and intergenerational relations therein, and filial piety; gender role conflict between household and workplace; and reconfigured gender norms. These in turn relate to broader socioeconomic and cultural transformations of post-socialism, including ideologies of neoliberalism, privatization, and individualism; rising incomes and consumerism; urbanization and migration; and increasing social stratification.

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Shuzhuo Li, Quanbao Jiang and Marcus Feldman

Chapter 9 examines son preference and its effect on the male marriage squeeze in China. The authors first review the rural_urban and parity differences and the recent trend in China’s sex ratio at birth (SRB). They also introduce an estimate of China’s missing girls and investigate the male marriage squeeze together with the projected number of surplus males in the marriage market. Next, they discuss a number of issues related to marriage squeeze in China, including the increase in bride price and wedding expenses, increased bargaining power of females in the marriage market, female marriage migration, and bare branch villages. Their empirical study is supported by rich data from China.

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Lisa Eklund and Isabelle Attané

Chapter 10 reviews existing studies on mate selection in China in the context of a marriage squeeze, identifying different theoretical perspectives on sex ratios and mate selection. It deploys three theoretical lenses in analysing and furthering the understanding of how sex ratio imbalance and subsequent marriage squeezes impact upon mate selection: the demographic opportunity thesis, the sex ratio theory, and the institutional approach. They centre around three main themes of: (1) mate selection for marriage purposes; (2) non-marital mate selection; and (3) strategies that men subject to a marriage squeeze deploy, as well as some consequences of these strategies. It suggests that scholars can merge the sex ratio theory with an institutional approach to understand the marriage squeeze and mate selection in China. For example, the sex ratio theory posits that in high sex ratio societies, norms surrounding family and marriage are becoming more conservative and male-centric, and norms governing women’s sexuality and behaviour are becoming more controlling due to men’s structural power. Therefore, in the absence of a marriage squeeze, and a growing concern of being subject to one, it is possible that there would have been a reduction in marriage rates, a further delay in marriage, even higher divorce rates, and possibly more liberated sexual behavior than is currently the case, even though as demonstrated here there is a positive relation between sex ratios and premarital and multi-partnered sex among women. This argument is possibly a potential reason for Chinese marriage rates and age at first marriage not following similar patterns to other low-fertility countries in East Asia.