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Marriage in Imperial China

Marriage in Imperial China

In The Burning TowerSandun and the other Keltens happen upon a city at the wilderness. The city is named Gipu, and it is one of several trade cities, which exist beyond the edge of Serica’s borders. The people of the city have a very unusual custom, where they offer eligible young women to visiting merchants; acting as temporary wives. Sandun is given a young woman, named Ashala, who actually knows a little Kelten as well as is fluent in Serice. With Ashala acting as a teacher, Sandun is able to learn how to speak the Serice language. This element of my story is loosely based on the real world, and the cities of Kashgar, and Turpan. At one time, the Tang Dynasty took control of these far-western trade cities and then asked the cities to change their immoral customs. The leaders of one of the cities wrote a reply in which they argued in favor of keeping their ancient custom and the Tang government seems to have given up its attempt to reform the scandalous behavior of the people of Kashgar.

In The Fire Sword, both Sandun and Sir Ako get married. One of these is an arranged marriage, the other is actually a love-match. Throughout all of Chinese history (all the way until 1920) arranged marriages were very, very common. It was not quite as extreme as India but it is likely that 9 out of 10 marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. For the upper class this was done so that  government officials could maintain or strengthen their political connections. For scholars, their daughters were considered highly desirable and so they could expect to marry their daughters to families much richer than their own. For merchants, daughters were married to business partners or to up-and-coming employees. It is only in the lower classes of society that we actually find love-matches. If you were very poor, your parents would be unlikely to hire a match maker, and no other family would wish to be associated. But even at the bottom of society, you still find men pledging that, if they have any children, they will marry them to their best friend’s children.

A wedding ceremony from the Han Dynasty, re-enacted in 2015

One amusing story from the late Song Dynasty has a very powerful family kidnapping a newly minted scholar off the streets and then presenting him to a very elegantly dressed young woman and with the almost-demand that he agree to marry the girl, on the spot! See Jacques Gernet’s book Daily Life in China, pg. 159). 

In China, a man could marry as many women as he could afford to maintain, but having more than three wives was looked-down upon, unless you were the Emperor. In fact, the Confucian scholars regarded having more than one wife as a mistake, unless their first wife failed to produce any sons. In which case they were obligated to bring in more women to the household in an effort to produce a male heir.

In English we use the word concubine to refer to all wives other than the first but that is not an accurate translation, nor is it an accurate understanding. In China, one and only one woman could be the prime wife, mistress of the household, and it was very rare to either divorce the prime wife or displace her from her position. After the prime wife, all other women a man married were lower status, in a descending order, usually based on when they joined the household but with important exceptions. However, being the 2nd or 3rd wife of a wealthy man was a perfectly honorable position and if a 2nd or 3rd wife bore a son, then her status could become very high indeed, nearly the equal of the prime wife. There was a distinction between being a wife and a woman who simply joined the household as a plaything. There were women who were bought from flower-girl houses but not married. Also, some women sold themselves to a wealthy family with the expectation they would sleep with the master of the house as well as doing typical servant’s work. These could be considered concubines, but they were rare and the practice was frowned upon by Chinese society.

I explore certain aspects of this in my books, and I talk about them more in The Flame Iris Temple.

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