Dec 4 2017

Marriage Migration in Rural China: Daughters Have a Price Tag

*By Jason Hung

The Chinese government launched economic reforms in 1978 which has been seen as a hallmark of urbanization among coastal areas, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. Since then, urbanization and suburbanization progress in inland China have been lagging behind. The regional gap has exacerbated the income and wealth disparities between urban and rural China.

Due to the lack of economic and cultural reforms in rural China, the conservative, rigid, male-centered patrilineal family system is deeply embedded in rural household units where virilocal marriage is popular. In other words, family property is often inherited equally among all sons. Married daughters and their descendants are no longer regarded as members of her natal families. These married women have no obligation to take care of their natal parents nor do they inherit any property from their natal families. Thus, many natal families in rural China seek opportunities to acquire “compensation” for raising a daughter. The natal parents commodify their daughters by tagging them with a “bride price”. [1] [2] Through negotiation, prospective brides’ parents would bargain, reach a consensus, and make a deal with any prospective grooms’ parents from urban areas. Once the transaction terms and conditions are mutually agreed upon, those females from rural China are “sold” to their prospective grooms for an arranged marriage in urban China, and become migrant wives. [3]

Brides’ safety and national security could be at stake

Marriage migration is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the brides’ parents are able to earn a decent amount of payment from the grooms’ families. This helps relieve the financial burden from the brides’ side, since most families in rural China are living in destitution. This arranged marriage, or shall we say an economic transaction, advances upward social mobility for rural families. On the other hand, however, both the personal safety of the brides and the national security of China could be at stake.

Since most of these rural females have no social network with individuals from urban areas, they move beyond the security network of their kinship lines once they migrate for marriage. If they encounter any difficulties, or threats, imposed by the grooms or their families, these females have no one to whom they can reach out. Rural-urban migrants often encounter substantial cultural differences in urban China, which could possibly engender conflicts between migrant women and their new families. Additionally, Lanmei Ma et al. (1995) and Tianqi Xu et al. (1992) argue that these grooms are often older and poorer men in urban areas. Some may be mentally or physically handicapped. [4] Migrant brides then become responsible for looking after their husbands – men they are unfamiliar with – for the rest of their lives. [5]

From China’s perspective, human traffickers, drug dealers and other criminals have been taking advantages from arranged marriages to transport prostitutes, drugs and other illegal belongings. The United Nations Women has enacted Article 15 and 16 of The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women to help control this migration flow and to prohibit any arising illegal activities. In line with the anti-arranged marriage international convention, the Chinese Communist Party has outlawed arranged marriages in the New Marriage Law (1950). Nevertheless, arranged marriages remain one of the most prevalent forms of marriage in rural China. [6] [7] By 1990, the number of marriage migrants already exceeded four million. As reported in Trends and determinants of female marriage migration in contemporary China (2010), Hu Ying et al. discovered that 12.06% of individuals in China who are married, are in fact female marriage migrants.

Calls for Border Controls and Demands for Rural-Urban Equalities in China

Marriage migration is therefore an issue that demands state intervention, since marriage migration has been used as a cover for a range of crimes, including illegal migration, sex exploitation (especially women exploitation) and human trafficking. Border controls are in demand to tackle any ‘fake marriages’ and ‘illegal marriages’. While some women and their natal families are willing to engage in ‘fake marriage’ to obtain legal residence status in urban areas, the broader social and national security concerns should override any personal, yet illegal, interests. [8] Marriage migration and ‘fake marriages’ are undesirable byproducts of rural-urban income disparity. While the government demands tightening security measures for stricter border controls, they should also prioritize suburbanization and urbanization of rural China. In doing so, the enjoyment of better social welfare systems and facilities in rural China could become an alternative, and legitimate, means for upward social mobility, rather than the practice of marriage migration.


[1] Bossen, Laurel (1994), “Zhongguo nongcum funu: shime yuanyin shi tamen liuzai nongtianli? [Chinese peasant women: What caused them to stay in the field?]”, In Xingbie yu Zhongguo [Gender and China], ed. X. Li, H. Zhu and X. Dong, Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, pp. 128-54.

[2] Honig, Emily and Hershatter, Gail (1988), “Marriage”, In Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980s, ed. E. Honig and G. Hershatter, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 137-66.

[3] Wang, Jianmin and Hu, Qi (1996), Zhongguo liudong renkou [China’s Floating Population], Shanghai, China: Shanghai Caijing Daxue Chubanshe, p. 287.

[4] Ma, Lanmei, Chen, Zhongmin, and Du, Guizhen (1995), ““Dui “wailaimei” hunyu guanli qingkuang de diaocha yu sikao [Investigation and contemplation of the fertility management of female immigrants]”, Renkou yanjiu [Population Research], 10 (1), pp. 56-8.

[5] Xu, Tianqi and ye, Zhendong (1992), “Zhejiang wailai nuxing renkou tanxi [Analysis of female inmigrants in Zhejiang], Renkou xuekan [Population Journal], 2, pp. 45-8.

[6] Croll, Elisabeth (1984), “The Exchange of Women and Property: Marriage in Post-Revolutionary China”, In Women and Property – Women as Property, ed. R. Hirschon, London: Croom Helm, pp. 44-61.

[7] Shen, Tan (1996), “The Process and Achievements of the Study on Marriage and Family in China”, Marriage and Family Review, 22(1-2), pp. 19-53.

[8] Humbeck, Eva (1996), “The Politics of Cultural Identity: Thai Women in Germany” In Women of the European Union: The Politics of Work and Daily Life, ed. M. D. Garcia-Ramon and J. Monk, London: Routledge, pp. 186-201.

Author Bio

Jason Hung is a final year Sociology and Quantitative Methods student at the University of Warwick. In 2017, Jason Hung was a visiting scholar at UCLA and was a research assistant at Warwick. Jason Hung also works as a featured human rights writer for Oxford Human Rights Hub, RightsViews (Columbia University) and Warwick Globalist.

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