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Book review: Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Urban China

‘Wives, Husbands and Lovers’ is a scholarly look at how marriage in traditionally Confucian societies is changing

By Enru Lin  /  Staff reporter

Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Urban China, edited by Deborah S. Davis and Sara L. Friedman.

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes divorce. It’s a tired joke about the American marriage institution, which sees couples joining for companionship, declining to have babies and getting divorced at a rising rate.

Over the last 20 years, the same trends have begun to characterize Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, three societies discussed together in Wives, Husbands and Lovers because they share a Confucian legacy. But while marriage in the East does resemble its US counterpart, this new volume offers a scholarly account of a distinctly quirky state of the union.

Edited by Deborah S. Davis and Sara L. Friedman, Wives, Husbands and Lovers is 12 English-language essays, mainly by top local academics presenting original research.

Chapters have the diction and copious statistics of academic writing, though at the core, each is an intriguing story about a small particular.

One chapter explores Shanghai youth attitudes toward premarital sex (a very conflicted embrace). In another, ethnographers record Hong Kong men’s updated definition of a “good guy” (eg. he gives the wife his paycheck, he admits his mistakes) in an era when it’s become common to cross the border into mainland China for business and pleasure.

Although the volume generally strikes a dry tone, it’s interwoven with comic accounts of things people do in the name of love. In When Are You Going to Get Married?, Zhang Jun (張珺) and Sun Peidong (孫培棟) probe the “parental matchmaking corner” of People’s Park in Shanghai. On weekends, parents arrive with a sheet of paper filled with details about their single children, who are predominately women. Then they wait — for other parents to come by and inquire — or they walk around and browse.

Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Urban China

Edited by Deborah S. Davis and Sara L. Friedman

344 pages

Stanford University Press

Paperback: US


Some observers have said this practice is an old Chinese matchmaking tradition reactivated to deal with the rising ranks of “surplus women” (剩女) — a derogatory term for unmarried women born in the 1970s or earlier.

Zhang and Sun, however, in a whirlwind journey through census data and interviews with parents, claim that in reality women have the advantage in the Chinese marriage market, as men still outnumber women due to the one-child policy. Parental matchmaking isn’t an old social mechanism triggered by actual bad odds, they say. Instead, it is a novel phenomenon driven by the one-child policy (urban parents have poured unprecedented investment into their daughters) and by a uniquely socialist anxiety that the state is not intervening enough in the dating scene.

INCREASINGLY LAX LAWS OF ATTRACTION

Chapters are grouped by geography and as you move through China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, you get a clear sense that legislation on romantic relationships is loosening in all three.

Davis, in a long introduction to the China section, writes that the People’s Republic of China has been on a steady retreat over the last 20 years, enacting freeing changes to rules about marriage “unilaterally with little role for citizen input.” Gone are the days of mass dating events, and since 2002, registering a marriage or getting a divorce has not required written permission from the village head or employer.

Law in Taiwan, too, has adopted a progressive approach to marriage and family, though mainly due to the bottom-up influence of social movements, writes Taiwanese law professor Grace Kuo (郭書琴).

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