Love across borders is no mean feat, and if you’re reaching the stage of marrying into a Chinese family, congratulations. Getting legally married in China is a fairly straightforward process, but what lies beneath is a whole set of cultural expectations and gender stereotypes. Here are some issues you will no doubt meet before and after your union.
Getting registered as married in China is not too tough, even for a foreigner. You don’t need to book an appointment or bring any actual witnesses to your once-in-a-lifetime day. There is, however, a little bit of paperwork to go through, not to mention a visit to a monk or Fengshui master to pull a lucky day out of a hat, if your Chinese partner is the superstitious type.
Before you tie the knot, you’ll need to get the inevitable bureaucracy in hand. Documents you will definitely need are: a passport, a valid visa, your partner’s hukou book (if they’re a local resident) and their national ID card. Additionally, foreigners will have to visit their consulate/embassy to get confirmation of their unmarried status (an Affirmation of Marriage Status or an Affidavit, it’s called). The Affirmation of single-status can be done on the same day in most consulates. It should also come with a Chinese copy.
After that’s out of the way, you both need to get three official registration passport-like photos taken together, usually wearing white shirts against a communist red background. Red is the colour of love, after all.
Once all of the above is ready, you’re free to set off to the local Marriage Registration Office (婚姻登记所 - hūn yīn dēng jì suǒ). It’s worth getting your Chinese partner to check whether they’re actually eligible to get registered there, particularly if their hukou is not from the same city.
Once you arrive at the Marriage Registration Office, there may or may not be a queue, depending on how foreseeing your monk was. Once at the counter, it’ll only take about 15 minutes.
The whole process is reminiscent of applying for a visa. You’ll be sat down in an office while one of the staff carefully checks all your documents before handing you both your burgundy Marriage Certificate Books. There are no vows, no ceremony, no pictures. The only thing you’ll have to show for your union are your little burgundy books. Congratulations, you’re legally married.
The ceremony, of course ,is a whole different ball game. It’s worth bearing in mind that to much of the older generation in China, you’re not technically married until you’ve held the ceremony/feast. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher how you’re legally married, yet not actually married in a moral sense.
Chinese wedding ceremonies typically follow a very set format of a feast, speeches/performances and lots and lots of toasting. The bride might change her dress a couple of times, but there isn’t usually any party/dancing at the end. The groom will be expected to foot the bill, but everyone attending will give you a red envelope stuffed with cash, so you should be able to make a fair chunk of it back.
Whether you’re already married or are planning to marry a Chinese national, you’ll want to improve your guanxi with the in-laws. China continues to put a lot of stead in hierarchy, both in the workplace and in society in general.
The Chinese love their titles and place great importance on them. When speaking with the older generation, you generally want to be using the polite form of “you” (您 - Nín), even if you know them quite well, and refer to them using respectful titles such as: master (师傅 - Shīfu), boss (老板 - Lǎobǎn) and, an interesting one, oldie (老/大 - lǎo/dà). Throw in some dialectal kinship terms and titles of where they’re from and you’ll get extra likes. These work great with uncles and aunties with deficient Mandarin. If in doubt, ask your Chinese partner how their relatives like to be addressed.
In your long-gone unmarried life you might have been using your industrious work ethic as an excuse to avoid those horrible alcohol-infused family get togethers. Now you’re married and officially part of the family, you have to take part for the sake of the family’s ‘face’. When you’re out and about dining at restaurants, pouring drinks for others, offering toasts and complimenting the food will push you up that guanxi barometer.
In the lead up to the wedding, and forever after, you’ll get plenty of invasive questions about your work and salary, especially if you’re a man. Men bear all the burden of the financial side of marriage in China and, believe it or not, a fair few are married because they effectively bought a wife.
As a man, your wife’s parents will be on your back to buy a house, refurbish said house, or at the very least buy a car. China is very much a materialistic country whereby people are judged heavily on what they own and what they can physically show for their money.
Frankly, being married without your own home and car is considered a social shame, and Chinese men will find it very hard to find a wife without them. Note that everything must be new, because newness signals a prosperous future, so you’ll need to freshly refurbish the new home you just bought, because it wasn’t new enough for a newly-married couple. As a foreigner you might be let off some of this, however, as you’ll be assumed to be wealthy anyway.
Kids are the future (and also your best chance of a pension in China). Kids epitomise a happy marriage, so the in-laws will be on your back within a few months, interrogating you as to when you’re going to have kids. At the end of the day, Chinese in-laws need something to fulfill their post-retirement life – grandkids.
Filial piety is still very important here, and the male/husband’s duty is to look after his parents financially after marriage. If you’re a foreign man marrying a Chinese woman, then congratulations, this is one stone you’ve skipped over.
Traditionally in China, women are seen as marrying out of the family, while men marry into a family. Sexism at its most brutal. Note that if you’re a foreign woman marrying a Chinese man, there may even be an expectation that his parents move in with you and help take care of the inevitable baby.
Enjoy the ride, till death do you part, of course.
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