An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Marriage Law 1950

Mar 29, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Apart from the land reform, the most important social change was the Marriage Law (Xin hunyin fa 新婚姻法) of May 1, 1950. Even if the emancipation of women had been an important theme among writers and intellectuals of the Republican era, the largest part of the populations adhered to the traditional way of marriage conclusion by matchmakers (meiren 媒人). Marriage was an important element of the social, political and economic networks in rural society. Its reduction to the individuals' decision therefore did not only contribute to the "lovers'" (airen 爱人) liberation from the burden imposed by their families, but also destroyed the linkages between clans and isolated individual persons, thus making it easier for the Party to control and mobilize them. To break up the long tradition of the clan system—which included the important aspect of ancestor veneration and the organisation of local self-administration (see lijia system—was no easy task for the CPC, and resistance was even found within the Party.

The new law forbade forced marriage, polygamy, concubinage, the adoption of young girls as future brides, and widespread infanticide (mainly by drowning), and encouraged the remarriage of widows. The minimum age of marriage war fixed at 20 for males and 18 for females (in the revision of 1981 it was raised to 22 and 20, resp.), and couples had to register and were urged to participate in the building up of a new society.

The Marriage Law also facilitated divorce. Exceptions from these rules were again made for the national minorities. In practice, economic dependency did not in all cases allow, for instance, secondary wives to leave their husbands. In 1951 and 1953 therefore, mass campaigns were carried out to popularize the new model of marriage among the people and the party cadres. Deng Yingchao 邓颖超, the wife of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai 周恩来, was particularly engaged in this issue.