By Qin Sun Stubis
There was a time when marrying for love was beyond most people’s wildest dreams, and many cultures relied on matchmakers to find suitable, lifelong partners. Chinese matchmaking, for instance, is almost as old as the ancient civilization from which it evolved.
During the eras of dynasties and feudalism, a proper girl from a good family had bound feet. The smaller her feet, the bigger her virtues. Her freedom extended only to the four walls of her residence. Besides youth and physical beauty, her most important assets were her innocence and purity. She depended on her parents, who in turn, relied on a matchmaker to find her a husband. Only on her wedding night would she get a glimpse of the man with whom she’d spend the rest of her life.
Marriage then wasn’t about love or passion, but family honor and obligation. The fundamental philosophy behind pairing a couple together dwelt on four simple words: 门当户对 (men dang hu dui – “from similar households and equal families”). And, match-makers used those words as a golden rule to measure and match new couples.
For those who sought romance, fighting to break through forbidden boundaries of social status and wealth often ended as tragically as a Chinese Romeo and Juliet. In one popular folktale, two young lovers who tried, and died, came back as a pair of butterflies to keep each other company after death, something they couldn’t do when they were alive.
Though matchmaking was officially abolished as a profession in 1949, this age-old custom continued to thrive in red China. Ironically, it was Communist Party leaders who began playing the role of a 红娘 (hongniang or “red mother”), who paired shy and innocent young socialist devotees as life partners and signed their marriage licenses under Mao Tse-Tung’s portrait. A socialist marriage was not about romance either, but work and devotion to the Party.
Much has happened since the 1980s. With the lifting of the Bamboo Curtain came many political and social reforms. Gone are the days of equal wealth and revolutionary conformity. Young Chinese have finally gained more control over their own lives. Instead of studying Mao’s quotations, they pursue careers and schemes to get rich, and they’re also free to date, fall in love, and tie the knot with the one of their dreams.
So, it would seem that after 5,000 years, love finally conquered all and broke free from tradition, except that anxious parents, eager to contribute to the prosperity of their families, are now taking over the profession of matchmaking.
New stories report how they’re reviving the old social norms and standards to match and measure in search for that perfect future son-and daughter-in-law.
A few days ago, I happened to bump into one of those matchmaking crusaders. I was on the phone with a friend in Shanghai, whose only daughter had just graduated from an American university, returned to China, and got a great job offer.
She was very pleased with her daughter’s achievements, but is worrying that she is getting old (in her late twenties) and not putting in enough time in search of a suitable husband. “She has an American degree and makes good money,” my friend said. “She needs to find her match with a young man whose family background is close to ours. And, I’ll find her one.”
It seems as if matchmaking in China is catching fire again.
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A longtime columnist of ours, Qin lives in Bethesda, MD.