What Can We Learn From Ancient Chinese Views of Marriage?

By: Erin Cline

November 13, 2014

From the earliest times, marriage was widely valued and celebrated in Chinese culture. The third century BCE Confucian thinker Mengzi (Mencius) refers to being husband and wife as “the greatest of human roles.” Several Chinese philosophers suggest that being loved and cared for within the context of a marriage helps couples and their children to lead happier, more satisfying lives. Ancient wisdom has a lot to tell us about what it takes to maintain a meaningful commitment over a lifetime. What might we learn from these millennia-old philosophies that could be helpful to married couples today?

To start, Chinese philosophy appreciates the role of the individual in the relationship. Early Confucian texts such as the Book of Rites prescribed identical or analogous but distinct activities for wives and husbands, and to some degree, separate spaces for each. Traditional Chinese views of marriage also maintain that the roles of husbands and wives should be complementary, like the correlate pairs of yin and yang. Unfortunately, over time, Chinese thinkers began to associate husbands with yang and wives with yin and privileged yang over yin. Such views contributed to practices that limited women’s potential and degraded them severely.   

However, originally, yin-yang polarities were not tied to gender at all, and when Chinese thinkers first began to draw analogies between yin and yang and male and female, these analogies were used loosely and did not disparage the female, as later texts did. Indeed, early Confucian views of marriage are more favorable to wives than later ones. Early texts recommend that women marry when they are in their early twenties—a contrast to the childhood marriage practices of later China and much of the world—and maintain that women should receive a proper education prior to marriage. Women in ancient China were regarded by early Confucian philosophers as moral agents fully capable of possessing at least many of the same virtues as men. Many of the women depicted in stories and anecdotes from classical and Han China are confident and effective agents, celebrated for their remarkable influence over their husbands, sons, daughters-in-law, and society.   

These early Chinese views of the complementary roles of husbands and wives suggest some interesting ways of thinking about marriage, and help to clarify why the Confucians thought marriage was good for us. Each person, male or female, has many aspects and traits of character, and one might argue that to varying degrees and in different ways, these aspects and traits express qualities that are associated with yin and yang. This means that spouses can contribute in distinctive and complementary ways to their shared goals. For instance, married couples might work to arrange their lives—including the division of labor in and outside of the home, as well as parenting responsibilities—in ways that draw upon each individual’s strengths, so that the roles of each spouse complement those of the other. A Confucian would also insist that spouses should each take on tasks that further cultivate their virtues and abilities, as well as their sensitivity to and appreciation for each other. This type of view can be faithful to the ideal of yin-yang complementarity without accepting the sexism that defines later yin-yang gender analogies.   

Spouses who seek to embrace yin-yang complementarity might take turns performing the same tasks, but their approaches will differ. For example, when playing with their children outdoors, one parent may encourage athletic activities while the other parent may encourage observing wildlife. Both types of activities involve engaging with one’s child and encouraging a love of outdoor activity. Appealing to yin-yang complementarity, traditional Confucians argued that it is good for children to have parents who differ in complementary ways. One parent might be comparatively strict (yang) while the other is comparatively lenient (yin), and likewise for intellectual (yang) and emotional (yin), organized (yang) and spontaneous (yin). Of course, it could be disastrous if two parents embodied extreme forms of opposing traits or tendencies; this would be to differ in un-complementary ways. Confucian complementarity requires parents to agree on fundamental aims and values while drawing upon each other’s differing strengths. Doing this successfully takes work, and from a Confucian standpoint it is essential for both parents to reflect upon themselves continuously and work to improve areas where they tend to be, for instance, excessively strict or not strict enough. But they should not aim to be exactly the same.   

These are lessons that translate quite easily in a contemporary setting. None of the complementary traits I mention above need to be associated with either gender, even if traditionally they have been. Fathers and mothers may perform these tasks equally well depending upon their individual backgrounds, abilities, tendencies and interests, and the roles of same-sex couples could be just as complementary as those of heterosexual couples. Since essential female or male characteristics do not define the two parental roles, each mother’s role and each father’s role will tend to be distinctive in different ways. From a Confucian perspective, children benefit from engaging with both parents and from exposure to a wider range of approaches and activities, and the parents also benefit, not only in lessening one another’s burden, but also in the meaning and fulfillment that comes from sharing fully in the joys and challenges of caring for each other and their family together over the course of a lifetime.

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What Can We Learn From Ancient Chinese Views of Marriage?