Marriage and Family in Chinese and Marriage Cultures
Marriage is an institution shared by Chinese and American cultures. Marriage is defined as, “the civil status, condition, or relation of one man and one woman united in law for life” (Black’s Law Dictionary, 1979).
Family is considered a collective body of any two persons living together in one house as their common home for the time (Black’s Law Dictionary, 1979).
As is evident from the legal definitions of marriage and family, the two are interrelated to the degree that it is difficult to discuss one without consideration of the other. For this reason, the topic chosen for this analysis is “marriage and family,” rather than “marriage” or “family” in Chinese and American cultures.
The objective is to describe the traditional Chinese culture and American culture in terms of similarities and differences regarding the social institutions marriage and family and the functions of the family.
Variations in marriage and the family composition can be found in many aspects of this structure. The purpose of this report is to compare and analyze Chinese and American marriage and family patterns in terms of selection of a marriage partner, kinship patterns, and the impact of industrialization and urbanization on the family.
Similarities Between the Two Cultures
The similarities between the two cultures regarding the roles and functions of marriage include: (1) marriage becomes a kinship group; (2) the marriage represents a family; (3) the family has primary responsibility for the socialization of its children; and (4) the family has responsibility for the fulfillment of certain basic needs (i.e., food, shelter, and clothing.).
However, the nuclear family that consists of husband, wife, and their offspring is a stereotyped image of the family that does not hold across both cultures nor throughout history.
It is important to point out that these social institutions are relatively permanent, organized systems of social patterns which embody certain unified behaviors for the purpose of satisfying and meeting, the basic needs of a society.
Generally, the social functions of marriage and the family include: (1) replacement of members from generation to generation through reproduction; (2) care and protection of children, the infirm, and the elderly; (3) fixing social placement and establishing status as passed through social inheritance; and (4) economic security as provided by the basic unit of economic production and consumption.
Selection of Marriage Partners
The dominant marriage institution in the traditional Chinese extended family is monogamy. Marriage is regarded rather than as a social arrangement between two families, rather than two individuals. The husband and wife form a union whose importance revolves around the perpetuation of lineage, through the male members.
Marriage is arranged by heads of the families and concluded by the marriage contract. The signatures of the heads of the families, not the marriage couple, are required on the contract.
In the selection of the mate, the families consider such factors as wealth, scholarship, position, age, personality, temperament, and health (Queen, 1974).
In the American society, there are few formal rules dictating whom a person may or may not marry, but there are informal expectations that are maintained. A person is normally expected to marry within his or her race, religion, and social class.
Mate selection is generally based on free choice of both parties. The characteristics that one normally looks for in a potential mate include similar age, race, socioeconomic status, and education. Romantic love appears to be a natural and necessary prerequisite to marriage (Ogden, 1986).
Kinship refers to the large network of people who are related to each other by common ancestry, by marriage, or by adoption, called the “extended family.”
In American cultures, a rather strong nuclear family pattern exists such that the larger kinship groups do not have a major impact on marriage and family structure.
Often, this nuclear family pattern results from high levels of urbanization and industrialization. As societies move from agrarian to industrialized, the patterns of marriage and family also chance. As the family moves from a unit of production and consumption to a unit of consumption, it is not necessary to have large numbers of children and other relatives available for work assignments Also, smaller families in urbanized and/or industrialized societies suffer fewer financial hardships, as each family member has different economic functions.
However, the middle-class nuclear family represents only 15 percent of all American families. The traditional family in which the father earns the wages and the mother remains at home to care for her husband and children has been replaced by several family structures.
For example, wage-earning, housewives and working mothers, nonworking fathers, absent mothers, absent fathers, widows, remarried parents, unmarried parents, childless couples, step-parents, and so on are common (Ogden, 1986, 222).
In Chinese cultures, the extended family structure is a predominant pattern. The Chia-Chang (i.e., extended family) is often composed of three or more generations living under the same roof and presided over by a head, or patriarch.
Peasants and workers are likely to have smaller families organized around the nuclear unit of husband, wife, and children.
The value orientation of the traditional Chinese family tends to follow the “familistic” pattern. This is “a form of social organization in which all values are determined by reference to the maintenance, continuity, and functions of the family group” (Queen, 1974, 100).
Family solidarity and individual security are by-products of a social system which imparts to each member a well-defined set of role expectations. Each family is viewed as an administrative unit that reports to the machine of the state. The individuals are responsible to the central government.
Impact of Industrialization and Urbanization
Although industrialization and urbanization have an impact on family structures, perhaps the entrance of significant numbers of American women into the workforce generated chances in the family structure. Since 1950, the number of married women in the labor force more than doubled, whereas the number of families maintained by women, nearly tripled (Ogden, 1986, 29-31).
The traditional Chinese family is moving away from the patriarchal, patrilineal, patrilocal, extended structure. This movement from the “traditional” to “transitional” has been developing in recent decades. This transitional movement has generated more nuclear family units and has produced marriage and family structures similar to the traditional American family unit.
Movements away from traditional society have occurred due to geographic mobility and the weakened dependency on the family for production and consumption (Queen, 1974).
Perhaps as cultures move from agrarian societies to urbanized, industrialized societies, the functions of marriage and the family shift to a self-contained economic unit of consumption.
If this is the case, then the Chinese pattern of extended, patriarchal kinship patterns will be replaced by the nuclear family.
It does appear that the basic functions of the family hold across Chinese and American cultures, regardless of degree of urbanization, kinship patterns, or mate selection processes.
It also appears that the family is the primary institution for providing the personal, social, economic, and emotional needs of family members.