the chinese have been marrying their cousins since at least the third century b.c. — not everybody all of the time, of course, but they have had a preference for it. specifically, they’ve had a preference for mother’s brother’s daughter marriage (see also here), and they’ve avoided the really inbred arab form of father’s brother’s daughter marriage.

luke asked if han chinese clans would regularly swap brides in what is known as bilateral cross cousin marriage (see also here). i’m not sure, but i don’t think so — at least i haven’t read anywhere that that was a common practice. it was back in the third century b.c., but that’s a long time ago. perhaps it has been done in more recent times, too, but like i said, i haven’t seen anyone referring to it. i’ll be keeping an eye out for more info on this, tho. (^_^)

traditionally, marriage in china was exogamous in that you weren’t supposed to marry someone with the same surname. in other words, you had to marry someone outside the patrilineage (this is the exact opposite of what the arabs do). in addition, you were also supposed to avoid all relatives within the “fifth degree of relationship,” i.e. four generations of paternal and maternal ascendants, four generations of ego’s own descendants, and five generations of the descendants of the ascendants mentioned. that’s a really broad set of prohibitions almost rivalling that of christian europe. that means no uncle-niece marriages, no first- or second-cousin marriages — maybe even further out, i’m not sure (haven’t worked it out). however, there was a big exception to this rule and that was for cross-cousins (mother’s brother’s daughter or father’s sister’s son). it was okay to marry those cousins for some reason, so the chinese did, in fact, inbreed.

in 1950, the communist government tried one of their little social engineering projects (in addition to all the others) to try and get rid of the feudalistic familial attitudes that were especially prevelant in the countryside. they instituted a new marriage law which, except for incest, allowed anyone to marry anyone even without parental consent. i guess they thought that, in their brave new world, chinese folks would just strike out on their own and marry between urban and rural areas and between classes or whatever. i’m not entirely sure how that all worked out, but i don’t think the government was satisfied with what happened since they instituted a new marriage law in 1981 which banned cousin marriage. my guess is that what happened between 1950 and 1980 when the marriage laws were loosened was that cousin marriage rates, to the horror of the commissars, probably increased. the strength of village clans apparently increased in the 1970s — perhaps this social engineering scheme of theirs backfired.

here are some excerpts from The Politics of Marriage in Contemporary China originally published in 1981 which gives a little info on traditional marriage patterns in china as well as what’s happened more recently (up until 1981 obviously)…

pg. 3:

“In traditional China, marriage had been destined to accomplish both these aims. The old definition of marriage had described the purpose of taking a wife as the begetting of children to ‘worship at the ancestral temple and continue the family line’. The other main purpose of marriage was to establish alliances advantageous to the interests of the descent group of the respective parties as a means of socio-economic and political mobility. The Book of Rites, dating from the second century A.D., which was held to embody the rules defining correct social behaviour, declared that the purpose of marriage was to unite two families with a view to harmonising the friendship of two lineages….

pgs. 80-81:

“Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the government has aimed to create an open marriage system in which the only group of persons unequivocally proscribed as marriage partners are those to whom the incest taboo applies. The new Marriage Law attempted to remove as many restrictions as possible from the marriage field in order to establish a broad field of eligible mates and increase the range of choice for each individual. The marriage prohibitions outlined in Article 5 of the Marriage Law thus reduced the number of kin restrictions in a society where the number of prohibitions has been so large that surname exogamy was once the rule. Previously a person was forbidden or at least discouraged from marrying another of the same surname no matter how distant the relationship or different the zu, or lineage. Since the number of surnames has been estimated at approximately 500, this rule had succeeded in substantially circumscribing the field of eligibles. The new Marriage Law of 1950 reduced the exogamous group to lineal blood relatives. In contrast to the Ching dynasty (1644-1911) and the Nationalist Civil Codes (1930), affines were now exempt from this rule. Similarly, collateral relatives by marriage were not included in the new reduced list of prohibitions. As to prohibiting marriage between collateral relatives by blood beyond that of brothers and sisters born of one or both parents, but within the fifth degree of relationship, the law allowed the question to be determined by custom. This concession to custom was probably designed to accommodate the cross-cousin marriage.

Within the prohibited five generations on the maternal side an exception was made from Ching times for the marriage between biao, cousins of different surname, such as children of mother’s brother and father’s sister. These biao cousins, as opposed to cousins of the same surname, tang cousins, were permitted to marry, and, it seems, may have been encouraged to marry in various historical periods and in certain geographical regions of China….

the ching dynasty lasted from 1644 to 1911, but there is evidence that the chinese were marrying their cross cousins in earlier times — egs. third century b.c. and during the ming, and possibly even the tang, dynasty — so i don’t think the author here is correct in saying that mother’s brother’s daughter marriage in china dates from the ching dynasty.

A number of filed studies suggest that different forms of cross-cousin marriage were allowed, preferred or discouraged and that matrilateral and patrilateral marriages were not always similarly categorised. The findings of these field studies can be presented as in table 10. It is based on summaries provided by Osgood (1963). In educational materials published after the promulgations of the new Marriage Law, Chen Shaoya and Li Zuyin argued that biao cousin marriage was now allowed and that there was no need to maintain the prohibitions against intermarriage between collaterals. Socio-economic conditions would increasingly remove the conditions encouraging biao cousin marriage and in the meantime the matter could be left to custom….

“The government planned to broaden the field of eligible marriage partners not only by reducing the number of kin prohibitions, but also by abolishing socio-economic criteria as factors governing the choice of marriage partner. After 1911, legal restrictions no longer prohibited marriage between persons of certain classes or social status, but, despite this legal change, village studies in the 1930s and 1940s suggest that families negotiating a marriage had continued to be guided by the old maxim that ‘wooden doors should match wooden doors and bamboo doors with bamboo doors’. According to a study of lineage rules and a number of field stuides this rule of homogamy was more particularly interpreted to mean that there should be hypergamy for daughters….”

pg. 86:

On the whole there seemed to be a marked preference for local girls….

The data from the other communes visited in Guangdong reinforce the impression that most brides are recruited from within the same commune, although in the larger villages with more than one surname, a few of the wives came from within the village…. In one commune the majority of the wives came from a neighbouring commune, but in fact their villages of origin were closer in actual distance than most of the rest of the same commune. In urban Guangzhou, in each of the dozen households interviewed where wives had recently been recruited or were about to be recruited, brides had previously lived nearby…. It can be observed in China too as elsewhere that there is some coincidence of spatial and social distances, but the operation of both new and traditional norms defining the criteria on which ‘choice’ should be based point to the location of preferential mates within a field of eligibles already bounded by surname exogamy and residential propinquity.”

so in the twentieth century, even if marriages weren’t between cousins they were geographically endogamous. this means that the mating patterns might’ve also been rather biologically endogamous — in marrying locally, people might’ve, in fact, been marrying their fourth- or fifth-cousins or something like that.

previously: cousin marriage in china and cousin marriage rates in modern china and abridged history of cousin marriage in china and china today…

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