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Confucian thoughts had tremendous influence in both China and Japan, and these thoughts provided the principles of roles each person must play in daily life. Men and women play different roles in marriages in both Chinese and Japanese cultures. In both countries, marriage, in all social classes, was first and foremost a union of family rather than individual. In upper classes, marriages were political and economic relationships arranged by the prospective families. Women’s roles in marriages are essentially the same in China and Japan; however, marriage practices are diverse across the culture, and they follow different traditions.
In traditional times, both Chinese and Japanese societies were clearly not egalitarian and highly stratified by the interests of different social classes. Marriage practices reflected this hierarchy. Weddings were a ceremony of change of residence and social recognition. The ceremonies were most of the time simple and modest, and there was usually a feast involved. In China, marriage united not just individuals and the families but also extended family networks in the society. Marriages provide the two families to unite as well as to maintain or advance their social status in society. In numerous cultures, the suitability of an individual as a potential husband or wife was judged based on characteristics likely to make the person a valuable and productive mate and an agreeable companion. “Japanese parents looked for a daughter-in-law who was healthy, skilled in housework and farming, good-natured, and obedient and a son-in-law who was healthy hard-working, and most likely to be successful as a provider” (Rosaldo, 17, 159-161).
Because of the expectation of the society, arranged marriages were widely practiced in both China and Japan. In traditional societies, parents controlled the selection of spouse and arranged the marriage between a bride and groom who had never met. They will meet for the first time on the actual wedding day. In stratified societies, the control over the selection of spouse and the arrangement of marriage served to support the continuity of the proper hierarchy within the family. Child betrothal can also be seen for consolidating relationships between families (Boude, 48-49). In China, if one family is particularly close to another, the parents will betroth their children so that they will maintain this relationship with each other. However, in the modern society, either prospective spouse can refuse to go through with a marriage arranged by their parents.
This arranged marriage tradition remained in some cases; however, it is very different. The modern system of arranged marriages resembled traits from blind dating in the Western societies. When a young woman reaches the appropriate age, she and her parents put together a packet of information about her, including a photograph of her in nice clothes and information about her family background, education, hobbies, accomplishments, and interests. “Her parents then inquire among their friends and acquaintances to see if anyone knows a man who would be a suitable husband for her”. The matchmaker shows the packet to the potential bridegroom and, if both parties are interested, arranges a meeting between them. (The man provides a photograph and information as well.) Such meetings often take place in a restaurant. This meeting is attended usually along with representatives from both families. If the young couple feels that they are interested, they will begin dating, and marriage might occur between the two. “It is not uncommon for a woman to have 10 or more such introductions before she finds the man whom she wants to marry to” (Rosaldo, 42-45). The young man and woman usually make the final decision about marriage between themselves, though the advice and approval of their parents are highly encouraged.
In cultures where marriages are arranged, traditions can serve to soften the attitude of potential spouses toward marrying the other who are not their own choices. For instance, the Chinese say that a husband and wife are linked together by fate. One man is made for one particular woman, and the two are tied to each other by an invisible red string in the wedding (red represents celebration). When a marriage is arranged by parents, their choice is guided by fate (Edwards, 61).
“In Asia, in the 1950s, about 70 percent of all marriages were arranged. In 1973, the figure was only 37 percent. Today only around 20 percent are” (Edwards, 3). Some Japanese feel that the most important element in the marriage is not necessarily the love between the two, and maybe because of this the divorce right in Japan is generally lower than in the Western Societies, such as the U.S. “The divorce rate for arranged marriages in Japan is lower than for love marriages” (Morley, 93).
In a Japanese marriage, once the woman has a baby, her husband refers her as a mother, not a woman anymore, which usually means their sexual life comes to an end. The new mother is said to take more interest in the child instead of the man. In most families, children sleep with the parents or just the mother. In the latter case, the father has his own room so that he will not wake his wife and children up when he goes to or comes back from work. In the Japanese culture, women usually stop working if they get pregnant. Men prefer that their wife stay at home once married, and women almost always want to spend as much time as possible with their children. While, in most Western countries, nurseries and kindergartens are free, which allows women to work, nursery schools are few and expensive in Japan, because women are expected to educate the children when they were young. Paternity leaves do not exist in Japan, and paid maternity leaves are not encouraged; therefore, wives usually stay home if they get pregnant in Japan. In most Japanese families the husband hands over his paycheck to his wife who then gives him an “allowance” for pocket money and generally takes charge of the day-to-day management of the household’s activities and expenses. The home and domestic responsibilities have been the center of Japanese women’s activities since the 1890s (Morley, 40-43, 71).
Women in China had a moral duty in marriages: to produce a son to continue the descent line of the husband. In Confucian thought, sons were particularly important because they were the ones who took care of their parents as they aged, arranged a proper funeral, and then performed the ritual sacrifices to honor their deceased parents and other ancestors (Edwards, 70). A wife’s only way to gain power in the family is to give birth to a son. As the son grows up, the mother’s power increases, particularly after he marries and brings a wife to the family. In traditional times, a man whose wife did not bear a son can bring secondary wives or concubines into the house if he could afford it (Broude, 50). Wealthy men often had several concubines and Chinese emperors had large harems of concubines to ensure numerous children for the royal family.
By the early 1970s, Chinese government regarded fertility control as a key national development responsibility (Edwards, 74). Throughout the 1970s contraception was free, work units were instructed to give paid leave for women who had undergone sterilization or abortion procedures. Although the government could enforce the One Child Family Policy with some degree of success they could not easily change the cultural preference for boys.
The relationship between husband and wife in Chinese marriages was an unequal one. A wife was subordinate to her husband, whom she was obligated to serve and to whom she owned respect. Traditional Chinese people always say raising a girl is like raising for some other family, because once she is marriage, she is the property of the other family. In her husband’s home, the wife was also obliged to do housework. Women from rich families bind their feet so they will not be able to work.
In-law relationships play a big role in a marriage as well. A Chinese bride traditionally has been expected to be submissive to her in-laws, and her husband’s mother supervises her household work. Chinese wives are required to show deference to their mother-in-laws. If she disobeys, her husband can beat her on behalf of his mother and a man will take his mother’s side in any disagreement between her and his wife (Broude, 312). While much has improved in the status of women in China the continued practice of female infanticide demonstrates that women are valued less than men.
As China’s economic development brings women greater independence, women tend to ask for changes within a household. United Nations sponsorship of the International Women’s Year in 1975 forced the Japanese government to initiate policies to end sex discrimination (Edwards, 221). These changes create conflicts between the husband and wife. In China, where rapid economic growth is creating new hopes and fears and where government interference in personal lives is receding daily, many Chinese people say one of the most profound changes in the society is the increase in divorce. “The divorce rate in China’s capital city, Beijing, leapt to 24.4 percent in 1994, more than double the 12 percent rate just four years ago” (Faison).
Classes and status in the societies are reflected through the lives of women in both China and Japan. Clearly, men and women were not equal in traditional Chinese and Japanese societies, and women were the subordinate roles in a household. However, these traditions are changing constantly as the societies grow. While some traditions are still practiced in modern times, women’s role in marriages and societies are improving tremendously.
Broude, Gwen J. Marriage, Family, and Relationships: a Cross-cultural Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1994. Print.
Edwards, Louise P., and Mina Roces. Women in Asia: Tradition, Modernity, and Globalisation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2000. Print.
Faison, Seth. “Divorce in Modern China.” New York Times [N.Y.] 22 Aug. 1994. Print.
Morley, Patricia A. The Mountain Is Moving: Japanese Women’s Lives. New York: New York UP, 1999. Print.
Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist., Louise Lamphere, and Joan Bamberger. Woman, Culture, and Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1974. Print.
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