abridged history of cousin marriage in china

maybe it’s not even that. it’s more of a basic (edit: and tentative!) outline of the history of cousin marriage in china:

3rd century b.c.

– cross cousin marriage practiced: so that’s either father’s sister’s daughter marriage or mother’s brother’s daughter marriage.
bilateral cross cousin marriage: that’s two clans or lineages swapping brides back-and-forth [pgs. 629-30]:

“Granet also discusses cross-cousin marriage in ancient China…. Granet cites evidence to show that two clans would stand in a reciprocal relationship such that the members of one clan would always marry members of the other…. There were many clans which presumably, if Granet is correct, were arranged in pairs by this system. The women of the two clans would be particularly eager for its continuance, as it would bring their own kin into their husband’s clan….

“The evidence from terminology for cross-cousin marriage in ancient China is very complete.”

624-907 a.d.

– cousin marriage possibly banned during the tang dynasty (the tang code dates to 624 a.d.) [pg. 43]:

“The clause in the T’ang Code is sometimes expanded to include prohibition against cross-cousin marriage…. The clause seems to indicate only parents’ cross-cousins [so first-cousins once removed – hbd chick], not one’s own cross-cousins; if so, the interdiction is against inter-generation marriage rather than cross-cousin marriage. But the T’ung tien seems to show that during the T’ang period marriage with cross-cousins and mother’s sister’s daughter was actually prohibited.”

1364-1644 a.d.

– cousin marriage is prohibited in the ming code [pgs. 43-44]:

“Legal prohibition, however, came rather late, the first definite clause being found in the Ming Code. Since enforcement of this law proved rather difficult, in the Ch’ing [Qing] Code this interdiction was invalidated by another clause, immediately following it, which allowed such marriages.

“Footnote 41: G. Jamieson: Translations from the General Code of laws of the Chinese Empire, Chapter 18: ‘A man cannot marry the children of his aunt on the father’s side, or of his uncle or aunt on the mother’s side, because though of the same generation, they are within the fifth degree of mourning.” But a little later in the Li, it reads: ‘…In the interest of the people it is permitted to marry with the children of a paternal aunt or of a maternal uncle or aunt.'”

1644-1912 a.d.

– qing dynasty reverses cousin marriage ban (see above).


– cousin marriage prohibited in the Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China.

in the 3rd century b.c., according to the erya, the terms for cross-cousins (father’s sister’s daughter and mother’s brother’s daughter, i.e. the ones you could marry) were the same, and the terms for the other two types of cousins (father’s brother’s daughter and mother’s sister’s daughter) were distinct. at some point in time, i don’t know when, the terms shifted so that all the cousin types had the same name except the father’s brother’s daughter, i.e. the only one no one married [see feng]. a similar shift in cousin terminology occurred in germanic languages in the 1100-1200s. cousins used to be differentiated in germanic languages, but following (by a few hundred years) the ban on cousin marriage by the church, all cousins came to be referred to by just the one term.

so, at several points in chinese history, the emperors tried to put a stop to cousin marriage, but they never managed. the fact that there were laws against it means they thought, for whatever reasons, that it was a problem, so i’d guess that the practice was probably pretty common. common enough for the emperors to want to stop it anyway. you’re not supposed to marry your cousin in china nowadays — since 1980 — however, see this from an article published in 2001:

“Although the marriage rules that prevailed during the dynastic era of China’s history generally tolerated such marriages (Li 1950:99-100), they have been prohibited for genetic reasons in both mainland China and Taiwan since the 1980s (Tao, Wang, and Ge 1988:313; Liang 1995:14). In practice, however, this type of marriage continues in a great many villages (Wu, Yang, and Wang 1990:330).”

who knows what the frequencies of any of these cousin marriages were at any given time.

previously: cousin marriage in china

(note: comments do not require an email. chinese wedding, 1930s.)



  1. Interesting post – I didn’t know there was a history of familial inter-marriage in China, as a practice it’s much more common nowadays in Arab nations, which is why almost all of those countries now require a genetic blood test for couples prior to marriage.


  2. “In the interest of the people it is permitted to marry with the children of a paternal aunt or of a maternal uncle or aunt.’”

    heh, i’m guessing that translates as “after riots.”


  3. @ihtg – oh, interesting! thanks!

    i wonder what charlemagne’s motivation was — just ’cause those were the prevailing ideas of his day or did the edict have something to do with inheritance/wealth issues? and i wonder if/how well it was enforced, if at all. kinda tough to enforce if jews were getting married in a synagogue (or wherever in those days), unless there was some civil license you had to get (i don’t think so). i wonder.

    i also wonder what the “seventh degree” means here, ’cause there were two different calculation systems floating around at the time — a roman one and a german one. the church eventually settled on the german one, but i don’t recall exactly when. the roman eighth degree, for instance, was the german fourth degree which is first cousins, so it makes a difference which one is being referred to here.


  4. I think the article is implying that Charlemagne’s motivation was to bring Jews under the auspices of Christian-style marriage regulations, in hopes that they would eventually just become Christian.


  5. @ihtg – “I think the article is implying that Charlemagne’s motivation was to bring Jews under the auspices of Christian-style marriage regulations, in hopes that they would eventually just become Christian.”

    well, that didn’t really work. (~_^)

    if he wanted that to happen, he should made sure that everybody inter-bred — christians + jews. that’d be one way of doing it, anyway. maybe.


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