> topics > History

Old marriage documents serve interdisciplinary research

WU ZHILING | 2020-01-09
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 
Marriage documents of the late Qing and Republican Era are valuable to legal studies, folklore, economics, everyday life history and stylistics. Photo: FILE
 

 

Marriage documents are original written materials of ceremonial, contractual and credential natures, held by marriage partners and generated when marital relations begin or are terminated. They are considered living fossils documenting how marriage has evolved. 
 
Marriage documents can reflect the development of rites and law and reveal the relationship between marriage subjects, between parties involved, and between social morals and state law. The late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China saw dramatic changes in social ethos, culture and ethics in China. As the earliest  direct written proof in this regard, marriage documents can show us marriage’s relationship with rites, law, customs and so forth. 
 
In China, marriage customs are rich in ethnic minority regions. Researching social order from the perspective of the inheritance and evolution of marriage documents can unveil real conditions of social life and order in folk society and deepen our understanding of society, economy, law and culture in the late Qing and Republican period. 
 
However, studies of marriage documents face multiple difficulties. For one, many of them have been lost. Few have been preserved for a long time, especially for more than three generations. For another, marriage documents are extremely scattered. A single document is hardly valuable to academics. Yet if marriage documents are brought back to the historical contexts they were in, their value to legal studies, folklore, economics, everyday life history and stylistics is evident. 
 
 
Legal studies 
The marriage system stipulated in the law of the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republican Era basically followed the Draft Civil Code of the Qing Dynasty that was formulated in the late Qing but was not formally implemented. 
 
The Draft Civil Code of the Republican Era drawn up in 1925 still upheld traditional marriage, retaining the article that marriage should be decided and arranged by parents and matchmakers. 
However, the Civil Law of the Republic of China enacted in 1929 emphasized that the male and female parties are entitled to get engaged by themselves and wed in an open ceremony with more than two witnesses. 
 
It should be noted that the new marriage system allowed by the Civil Law of the Republic of China was largely carried out in urban areas. Official marriage documents produced by the government also prevailed in towns and cities. In most of the rural areas, people got married in the traditional way, and folk marriage letters were the main certificates. 
 
During the late Qing and Republican period prior to the 1930s, getting married was primarily a folk behavior without immediate government intervention. Thereafter, the government tried to exert control over marriage, but the effects were limited. 
 
Folk marriage practices and state laws influenced and interpenetrated each other. In the Republican Era, the government paid much attention to the construction of the marriage system and respected some civil customs, but conflicts between state laws and folk customs still loomed large. Studying the relationship between state laws and folk customs can be conducive to examining changes in the contractual philosophy of marriage documents, exploring folk legal traditions in China and revealing traditional social life and order among the people at the time. 
 
In addition, by studying illegitimate marriage documents and those tried in cases by the Supreme Court (Dali Yuan), we can further our knowledge of government intervention in marriage, clarify the building of the marriage system during the Republican Era, analyze the conflict between marriage practices and civil law, and investigate the development of the marriage system and localization of Western legal resources, thereby promoting research on marriage law in the Republican Era and providing reference for improving the Chinese marriage system. 
 
 
Folklore 
During the late Qing and Republican period, regional conditions varied greatly in China. There were huge differences in conventions and folk customs between urban and rural areas, and between ethnic regions. 
 
With the introduction of Western ideology, civilized, liberal and group marriages became new trends, marking the transition from traditional to modern weddings. During the transition, traditional ritual documents, such as proposals and betrothal letters in the Six Etiquettes (proposing, birthday matching, betrothal gifts, wedding gifts, choosing the wedding date and the ceremony itself), turned into new documents, like matchmaker invitations, wedding ceremony tickets and marriage witness invitations sent by the fathers of the couple-to-be. 
 
The evolution from traditional to modern marriage documents can deepen the research on people’s compliance with etiquette and customs and their violations of marriage practices, and it can offer theoretical resources for building good marriage customs in the contemporary age. Gathering and protecting the historical marriage documents of the late Qing and Republican period and rescuing physical archives of the documents will also enrich folk collections and reinforce the construction of distinguished historical archives. 
 
 
Economic history 
In the Republican Era, betrothal letters and marriage certificates issued by government authorities gradually emerged in many parts of China. According to such official documents as Interim Regulations of the Ministry of Finance of the Nationalist Government on Stamp Tax and Regulations on Affixing Stamps on Personal Certificates, betrothal letters were not effective unless affixed with stamps. Official marriage documents and the implementation of a stamp tax played a positive role in promoting gender equality. 
 
For example, in the late Qing Dynasty and the Beijing Government period of the Republican Era, a stamp tax was imposed on marriage documents to prevent early marriages. However, the government failed to take into account folk customs, so the practice of early marriage was not eliminated, but many other problems arose instead. 
 
The Republican government also tried to enforce official marriage documents, but those documents and the related stamp tax were so expensive as to meet strong resistance from rural societies with rooted traditional customs. Purchasers were few and far between. 
 
The process, method and effect of implementing official marriage documents as well as the public response are important windows to review the traditional-to-modern transition of the marriage system. Moreover, the rise and fall of stamp taxes for marriage documents partly mirrored fiscal and economic changes in different government periods. 
 
 
Everyday life history 
The raw content of marriage documents and folk letters of the Republican Era can represent rich marriage life scenarios in modern times. From marriage documents we can know about what people did and thought in daily life, as well as their collective mentality, values and beliefs. 
 
Marriage documents had the feature of contracts. For example, below the marriage and remarriage certificates were formulaic words such as “Words of mouth being no guarantee, a marriage certificate is hereby given,” followed by the signatures of the matchmaker(s) and the person presiding over the wedding. 
 
The establishment of a marriage relationship was a behavior of a family, even a clan, managing domestic affairs. In the middle of the Republican Era, group marriages emerged in such places as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hankou. The mayor served as the marriage witness, whose name would be included in the marriage certificate, signifying government intervention in family and personal matters. The embedding of the will of the government into people’s daily lives through weddings and marriage documents also promoted the transition of marriages from traditional to modern ones. 
 
In folk marital relations, many marriage documents didn’t conform to rites but were legal, such as those involving child brides, concubines and sons-in-law by adoption. Such marriages reflected the choices some people were forced to make under the great pressure of survival. 
 
Among Republican-era documents discovered in Huizhou in modern-day Anhui Province, illegal marriage contracts, in which some men sold or pledged their wives, specified the price of the sold and the obligations they should assume after marriage. These contracts mirror the pressure of survival facing the lower strata of society in abnormal marriages and the extreme gender inequality in marital relations in traditional Chinese society. 
 
Therefore, studies of marriage documents should consider sociocultural history and explore the lives and livelihood of the middle and lower strata of society from everyday life perspectives, so as to dig out new research value. 
 
 
Stylistics 
Apart from legally binding marriage contracts, correspondence was also a genre of marriage documents in the Republican Era. As practical private writings, regular correspondence between couples-to-be constituted their promise regarding marriage. The letters are of great stylistic significance. 
 
Following the traditional six etiquettes, the letters were concise and graceful with plenty of allusions. They showed strict use of terms of address and polite and self-deprecating expressions. In terms of form, different types of letters had one, two, four or six folds. 
 
With the popularization of new customs, new marriage letters came into being, which featured serious content, neat yet rigorous phrases, but few allusions. The vocabulary was specific to the times. Many expressions are valuable linguistic data that can help examine the evolution of Chinese vocabulary in modern times. 
 
The interpretation of marriage documents, which integrate rites, laws and contracts, entails the full utilization of historical materials like physical letters, official archives and everyday folk books to review them on multiple levels and from multiple disciplines in both the Chinese and Western contexts. Marriage documents can reflect relationships between history and reality, judicial practices and folk customs, and local society and state systems, thus extending into new research areas. 
 
Wu Zhiling is from the School of Humanities at Hunan City University. 
edited by CHEN MIRONG