Love was tricky in ancient China – marriage was often decided by parents or even the government and single women had to tie the knot by a certain age.
e should feel grateful for having more freedom to find the person we want to be with than people had in ancient China, where marriage was often decided by parents or even the government. And during some periods, such as the Jin Dynasty (265-420), marriage policies could go to extremes. Single women had to get married by a certain age. If a female was still single at 17, there would be a forced marriage with the involvement of local administrators.
But such extreme policies were rare. Ancient Chinese had more subtle ways to encourage people to find a spouse. As early as the Zhou Dynasty (c11th century to 256BC), officials in charge of people’s marriages appeared. The Rites of Zhou (Zhou Li), a Chinese book on organisational and bureaucracy theory from the middle of the 2nd century BC, recorded the creation of this kind of officer. During the Three Kingdoms (220-280), Southern frontiers in China had official matchmakers too.
The traditional complicated engagement processes before marriage were also simplified by the policies of the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) governments, to encourage more people to get married quickly.
Official matchmakers became more professional, appointed by the government and even with certificates of authority later in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
And in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), there were many such matchmakers in Xinjiang, where large numbers of male criminals and farmers were sent for land reclamation. And to help them settle down, official matchmakers would help them find spouses.
Yet not all of them were lucky enough to marry someone, due to the small number of women in the area.
Opportunities during festivals
Ancient Chinese still had certain freedoms to get married with people they liked, rather than being completely manipulated by their parents or government.
In the spring and autumn period (770-476BC), there was an annual mid-spring meeting on the third day of lunar March that gave unmarried people a chance to get to know each other.
In The Rites of Zhou, it is recorded that men and women who fell in love during this meeting could get married freely without their parents interfering. On this day, unmarried females would come out and had fun near the river bank. Each single man would let his cup of wine run down from the upper reaches of the river. And the woman needed to take the wine if a cup stopped before her. Once she and the cup’s owner were satisfied with each other, they could talk to each other later.
Lantern Festival was another opportunity for single people to meet. On the night of that day, unmarried men and women would meet at the flower fair and lantern-decorated street.
Ouyang Xiu, a poet from the Song Dynasty, depicted a woman’s longing for the man she met during Lantern Festival in his poem Yuan Xi: “Last lantern festival, the flowers fair decorated with lights were daylight bright. We met after dusk when the moon rose behind willow trees. This year the moon and lanterns are still the same, yet you are not here anymore. I am sad, with tears shed on the sleeves of my spring coat.”
However, some people enjoyed being single. According to an epitaph in the Forest of Stone Steles Museum in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, a hermit whose surname was Liu from the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), was one of them.
Liu spent most of his time collecting and appreciating calligraphy and paintings. He said he would like to marry someone, but if he could not find the one he really loved, he would rather be single.
Some ancient Chinese women chose to look after their parents instead of getting married. In Zhan Guo Ce, an important text of the Warring States Period (475-221BC), refers to Beigong Yingerzi, who willingly spent her life taking care of her elderly parents. Yingerzi later became the synonym for filial women.
And a certain number of men and women preferred a silent single life in monasteries as monks, nuns or Taoist priests. Princess Jinxian and her little sister Princess Yuzhen from the Tang Dynasty chose to be Taoist priests. Their father, Emperor Li Dan, spent a large sum of money to build Taoist temples for his beloved daughters.
By Li Hongrui