from Journal of Women's History Volume 12, Number 4


Women's Life-Cycle Transitions in a World-Historical Perspective: Comparing Marriage in China and Europe Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner

Comparing Marriage Cross-Culturally

A number of years ago, we were involved in organizing a comparative historical conference on gender and kinship (our areas of specialization are Chinese and European family and women's history). Conversations that began at that conference resulted in a collection of coedited articles, but they also spurred the two of us to collaboratively teach a world history course in which family and women's history play key roles.1 We introduce students in that course to historical comparison by talking about marriage. In particular, we begin with a pointed comparison between the history of marriage in China and Europe based on research presented at the kinship conference.

Beginning in the late 1500s, women in northern Italy began to appeal to legal courts run by the Catholic Church when they got into disputes with their families over arranged marriages. Within the early modern Italian family system the father held a great deal of authority over his children and it was usual for the parents to determine when and whom sons and daughters married. Women and children held little power in comparison with adult men. But the Catholic Church's insistence that both parties enter into the marriage willingly gave some women an out—namely, an appeal to the Church court, claiming that the marriage their family wanted was being forced upon them without their consent. Surprisingly, these young women often won their cases against their fathers.2 In early modern China, by way of contrast, state, religion, and family were bound together under the veil of Confucianism. Paternal authority echoed and reinforced the political and the moral order. Religious institutions could rarely be called upon to intervene in family disputes. Therefore, young women (or young men, for that matter) had no clearly established institutional recourse in situations of unwanted marriage.3 So, despite the fact that paternal power was very strong in both early modern Italy and early modern China, specific institutional differences put young women at the moment of marriage in somewhat different positions.

We began with the presumption that however different the institution of ěmarriageî was in Italy and China, it nevertheless offered enough similarities that it made sense to speak comparatively about a category called ěmarriage.î Parallels in the two cultures between the institution of marriage and the moment in the woman's life course that it represented make comparison useful. Nevertheless, this particular comparison also isolates some of the particular features of marriage systems that are especially significant in addressing gender relations in a world-historical context. In China, the rules of family formation and family governance were generally enforced within the bounds of each extended family group. State and religious influences were felt only indirectly through family leaders as mediators or enforcers of state and religious law. Throughout Europe, beginning in the Middle Ages, the institution of marriage was altered first by the effort of the Catholic Church to wrest some control over marriage from the family by defining it as a sacrament, and then eventually by the struggle between churches and state authorities to regulate families.

This contest among church, state, and family authorities over marriage decisions turns out to have been a particular feature of European history that had consequences for many aspects of social life. A focus on the moment of marriage presents special opportunities for understanding connections between the operation of gender relations in everyday life and in the realm of broader political developments. Marriage is a familial institution, of course, but, to varying degrees, political authorities also have a stake in it because of its implications for property transfer, reproduction, religion, and morality—in short, significant aspects of the social order. In this essay, we compare one dimension of marriage—its timing in a woman's life cycle—in two contexts, Europe and China. We argue that variations in marriage timing have world-historical implications. We examine how a woman's status and situation shifted at marriage and then suggest some implications of comparative differences in the timing and circumstances of this change of status.

The Moment of Marriage in European History

One striking peculiarity of Central and Western European history between 1600 and 1850 was the relatively late age at first marriage for men and women compared with other regions of the world. The so-called ěWestern European marriage patternî was marked by relatively late marriage—that is, relative to other regions of the world where some form of marriage usually occurred around the time of puberty. In much of Europe, in contrast, men did not typically marry until their late twenties and women their mid-twenties. This practice of relatively late marriage was closely connected with the custom of delaying marriage until the couple commanded sufficient resources to raise a family. For artisans this traditionally meant having a shop and master status. For merchants it entailed saving capital to begin a business. In the case of peasant couples, this meant having a house and land and basic farming equipment. It was the responsibility of the family and the community to oversee courtship, betrothal, and marriage to assure that these conditions were met. This phenomenon was also rooted in the common practice of neolocality—the expectation that a bride and groom would set up their own household at or soon after marriage. This ědelayedî marriage has attracted the attention of European historical demographers. The delay of marriage meant, quite significantly, that most European women did not begin to have children until their twenties. But this marriage pattern also has significance in other realms as well. In particular, young people of both sexes experienced a relatively long hiatus between puberty and marriage.4

Unmarried European youth played a distinctive role in economic, social, cultural, and political life through such institutions as guilds, village youth groups, and universities. For the most part, historians' attention to European youth has centered on young men. Major works on the history of youth in Europe, like theories of adolescent development, tend to center on the male experience as normative.5 Only when gender differences in youth are recognized and the history of young women is written will the broad historical significance of the European marriage pattern become clear. Contrast between European demographic history and that of other world regions suggests a comparative pattern of particular significance for girls: delayed marriage and childbearing meant that teenage girls were available for employment outside the familial household (either natal or marital) to a degree uncommon elsewhere. Household divisions of labor according to age and gender created constant demand for servants on larger farms; typically, unmarried youth who could be hired in from neighboring farms as servants filled this role. A period of service in a farm household, as an apprentice, or as a domestic servant in an urban household characterized male and female European youth in the life-cycle phase preceding marriage. Historians have noted but never fully explored the role young women played in European economic development, and in particular their role in the early industrial labor force.6

Late marriage had gender-specific cultural ramifications as well. Whereas it was considered normal and even appropriate for teenage men to be initiated into heterosexual intercourse at brothels, in most regions of Europe, young women were expected to remain chaste until marriage. Delay of marriage heightened anxiety over unmarried women's sexuality, especially the dangers to which young women were increasingly exposed as the locus of their labor shifted from home and village to factory and city. Premarital or extramarital sexuality was uncommon, and was rigorously policed especially in the period following the religious upheavals of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. In rural areas, church and community, in addition to the family, exerted control over sexuality. Moreover the unmarried male youth cohort of many village communities often served, in effect, as ěmorals police,î enforcing local customs.These young men regulated courtship rituals, organized dances that young people went to, and oversaw the formation of couples.Ý Sometimes, judging and public shaming by the youth group was the fate of couples who were mismatched by age or wealth or who violated sexual taboos. Some customs, at least symbolically, punished young men from far away who married local women, removing them from the marriage pool. Often, such a bridegroom had to pay for drinks in each village that the bridal couple passed through as they moved from the bride's parish church to their new abode—the longer the distance, the more expensive his bill.7

Once married, a couple would usually begin having children immediately. Demographic evidence suggests that for most of Central and Western Europe there was virtually no practice of contraception among lower classes prior to the middle of the nineteenth century.8 Women had babies about every two years (more or less frequently according to region and depending on such local customs as breast-feeding length and intercourse taboos). Even though completed family sizes could be large by modern standards, the number of children most women bore was still less than if they had married in their teens. And prevailing high mortality rates further reduced the number of children who survived to adulthood.

The Moment of Marriage in Chinese History

The Chinese marriage system was traditionally characterized by early age at marriage, nearly universal marriage for women, virilocal residence (a newly married couple resided with the groom's parents), concubinage for elite men, and norms which discouraged widow remarriage. From the sixteenth through twentieth centuries, Chinese men and women married much younger on average than did their European counterparts—late teens or early twenties for women and a bit later for men. A bride typically moved to her husband's family home, which was often in a different village from her own. The moment of marriage not only meant that a girl would leave her parents but that she would also leave her network of kin and friends, all that was familiar. Families chose marriage partners, and a matchmaker negotiated the arrangements. Nothing resembling courtship existed; the bride and groom would often first meet on their wedding day.

Because a newly married Chinese couple would typically reside in an already-existing household, it was not necessary for an artisan to become established, a merchant to accumulate capital, or a peasant to own a farm before marrying. Newly married couples participated in ongoing domestic and economic enterprises that already supported the groom's family. New households were eventually established by a process of household division, which typically happened at the death of the father rather than the moment of marriage (although it could happen at other points in the family cycle as well).

Daughters were groomed from birth for marriage. They were taught skills appropriate to their social class or the social class into which their parents aspired to marry them. (In the ideal Chinese marriage, the groom was in fact supposed to be of slightly higher social status than the bride.) The feet of upper-class girls (and some who were not upper class) were bound, since Chinese men found this erotic. Bound feet also symbolically, if not actually, restricted upper-class women's movement. Thus bound feet simultaneously enhanced the sexual desirability of upper-class women and served to contain their sexuality within domestic bounds.9

Virtually all Chinese girls became brides, though not all of them married as principal wives. (This contrasts with the European pattern where a substantial minority of women in most regions never married.) Upper-class men might take one or more concubines in addition to a principal wife. The relationship between a man and his concubine was recognized legally and ritually, and children born of these unions were legitimate. A wife had very secure status: divorce was almost nonexistent. A concubine's status, in contrast, was much more tenuous. She could be expelled at the whim of her ěhusbandî; her only real protection was community sentiment. Although only a small percentage of Chinese marriages (no more than 5 percent) involved concubines, the practice remained an important structural feature of the Chinese marriage system until the twentieth century. Concubinage also provides a partial explanation of why, despite the fact that marriage was nearly universal for women, a substantial proportion of men (perhaps as high as 10 percent) never married. Also contributing to this apparent anomaly was the practice of sex-selective infanticide, a common practice that discriminated against girl babies and, ultimately, reduced the number of potential brides.10

Once married, Chinese couples began to have children almost immediately, generally spacing births at longer intervals than did European couples. The reasons for this are not yet completely understood, although infanticide, extended breast-feeding, and the fairly large number of days on which sexual intercourse were forbidden all seem to have played a role in lowering Chinese family size.11

Early marriage in China meant that the category of ěyouth,î which has been so significant for European social and economic history, has no precise counterpart in Chinese history. Young Chinese women labored, to be sure, but the location of their work was domestic—either in the household of their father or husband. Female servants existed in China, but their servitude was normally of longer duration than the life-cycle servitude common in Europe.12 The domestic location of young women's labor in the Chinese context also had implications for the particular ways in which Chinese industries were organized, as we suggest below.

Patterns of Marriage in Europe and China

To sum up, then, there are differences of both timing of and residency before and after marriage that are particularly germane to the comparative history of young women. As demographic historians James Z. Lee and Wang Feng also have argued, ěin China, females have always married universally and early . . . in contrast to female marriage in Western Europe, which occurred late or not at all.13 Whereas, in the nineteenth century, all but 20 percent of young Chinese women were married by age twenty, among European populations, between 60 and 80 percent of young women remained single at this age. In traditional China, only 1 or 2 percent of women remained unmarried at age thirty, whereas between 15 and 25 percent of thirty-year-old Western European women were still single. (For men, the differences though in the same direction are far less stark.) As for residence, in the Western European neolocal pattern, norms and practices in many regions resulted in a pattern whereby newly married couples moved into a separate household at marriage; but concomitant with this was their delaying marriage until they could afford a new household. In China, newly married couples generally resided in the groom's father's household. In Western Europe, the majority of postpubescent young men and many young women left home in their teenage years for a period of employment. In the early modern era, such employment was often as a servant or apprentice in either a craft or a farm household, but, over time, that employment was increasingly likely to be in a nondomestic work setting, such as a factory, store, or other urban enterprise. ěYouthî was a distinctive phase in the life course of young men and increasingly of young women in Europe, although there were important gender distinctions. Such a period of postpubescent semiautonomy from parental households did not exist for Chinese youth, especially not for young women in traditional China. Young men more typically remained in their father's household and young women moved at marriage in their late teens from their own father's household to that of their husband's father.

Comparing the Moment of Marriage: Implications and Cautions

We would now like to discuss some of the world-historical implications of this important (if crude) comparison in the marriage systems of China and Western Europe. There are obviously many possible realms for investigation. For example, these patterns imply differences in young women's education, intergenerational relationships among women (especially between mothers and daughters and mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law), and household power relations. Here, we restrict our discussion to two areas of undoubted world-historical significance, namely economic development, on the one hand, and sexuality and reproduction, on the other.

The question of why the Industrial Revolution, or, alternatively, the emergence of industrial capitalism, occurred first in Europe, has been and remains salient for both European and world historians.14 R. Bin Wong explores this question in his innovative comparative study of economic development in Europe and China. Wong argues that there were rough parallels in the dynamics linking demographic expansion and economic growth in China and Europe until the nineteenth century. Both economies were expanding on the basis of growth of rural industrial enterprises in which peasant families supplemented agricultural work and income with part-time industrial production. What the Chinese case demonstrates, Wong argues, is that this so-called protoindustrial form of development may be viewed as an alternative route to industrialization rather than merely a precursor of factory production. Indeed, Charles Tilly has suggested that a prescient contemporary observer of the European economy in 1750 would likely have predicted such a future—that is ěëa countryside with a growing proletariat working in both agriculture and manufacturing.15

While Wong's study is devoted to comparative examination of the economic roots and implications of varying paths to industrial development, he also connects economic and demographic growth. In particular, Wong mentions the link between marriage and economic opportunity: ěin both China and Europe, rural industry supported lower age at marriage and higher proportions of ever married than would have been plausible in its absence. This does not mean that ages at marriage dropped in Europe when rural industry appeared, but the possibility was present. For China, the development of rural industry may not have lowered ages at marriage or raised proportions married as much as it allowed previous practices of relatively low ages at marriage and high proportions of women ever married to continue.16 What Wong does not explore is the way in which these ěprevious practicesî that connected the low age at marriage with both virilocality and a relatively high commitment to the domestic containment of daughters and wives also had implications for patterns of economic development. In a comparative account of why Chinese industrial development relied heavily on domestic production, the fact that the young female labor force in China was to an extent far greater than that of Europe both married and ětiedî to the male-headed household needs to be part of the story. This pattern of female marriage and residency held implications for entrepreneurial choice that helped to determine the different paths toward industrialization in Europe and China. World-historical comparison, taking into account aspects of gender relations and marriage and kinship systems, highlights their possible significance for economic development, a significance that has not been given proper attention by economic historians. Indeed, it is arguable that the family and marital status of the young women who played so significant a role in the workforce (especially those employed in the textile industry, which was key to early industrial development in both Europe and China) were major factors in the varying paths to development followed in China and Europe in the centuries of protoindustrial growth and industrialization.

A second set of implications concerns sexuality and reproduction. Again, we are aided by another recent study, which, in a fashion parallel to Wong's, uses Chinese historical evidence to call into question generalizations about historical development based on a European model. In their book on Chinese demographic history, Lee and Wang argue against the hegemonic Malthusian (mis)understandings according to which the family and population history of China has been seen as an example of a society's failure to curb population growth by any means other than recurrent disaster (by ěpositiveî rather than ěpreventiveî checks in Malthusian terms). They note the important difference in marriage systems that we have just described, but they dispute conclusions too often drawn from the Chinese historical pattern concerning overpopulation. Instead, according to Lee and Wang ěpersistently high nuptiality . . . did not inflate Chinese fertility, because of . . . the low level of fertility within marriage.17

This second example points to another important realm for which the age at which women marry has great consequences. But the findings reported by Lee and Wang also caution scholars against leaping to comparative conclusions about one society on the basis of models established in another, even while their claims still suggest the value of comparison. We should not presume that since Chinese women were married universally and young, they therefore had more children or devoted a greater proportion of their time and energy to childbearing and child rearing than did their later married counterparts in Europe. Although the evidence is far from definitive, it nevertheless indicates that total marital fertility may have been somewhat lower in China than in Europe until the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. The factors in China that produced this pattern included relatively high rates of infanticide, especially of female infants, as well as different beliefs and practices about child care and sexuality. For example, babies were apparently breast-fed longer in China than in Europe (a pattern in turn related to the domestic location of women's work), which would have both increased infants' chances of survival and also lengthened the intervals between births. In the realm of sexuality, pertinent factors include both prescriptions for men against overly frequent intercourse, and coresidence with a parental generation whose vigilance included policing young couples' sexual behavior.18

These two examples are meant to suggest how looking at women's life cycles comparatively both enhances our understanding of the implications of varying patterns for women's history and also suggests the very broad ramifications, indeed world-historical significance, of different ways of institutionalizing the female life cycle.


We would like to thank our colleague David Good for his comments on this paper.

1 Mary Jo Maynes, Ann Waltner, Birgitte Sřland, and Ulrike Strasser, eds., Gender, Kinship, Power: Comparative and Historical Studies (New York: Routledge, 1996).

2 Lucia Ferrante, ěMarriage and Women's Subjectivity in a Patrilinear System: The Case of Early Modern Bologna,î in Gender, Kinship, Power, 115-30. For related evidence about gender and patriliny in early modern Italy, see Christiane Klapische-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

3 See the articles in Rubie S. Watson and Patricia Buckley Ebrey, eds., Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), especially Susan Mann, ěGrooming a Daughter for Marriage,î 204-30.

4 The classic article delineating Western European marriage patterns is John Hajnal, ěEuropean Marriage Patterns in Perspective,î in Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography, ed. D. V. Glass and D. E. C. Eversly (Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1965), 101-40. For further discussion of general historical trends in European marriage, see Jack Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and Michael Mitterauer and Reinhard Sieder, The European Family: Patriarchy to Partnership from the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Karla Oosterveen and Manfred Hörzinger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

5 A pioneering psychological framework useful for youth history is Eric Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1950), although it is restricted to the male psyche.Philippe Aričs, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family, trans. Robert Baldick (New York: Knopf, 1962); and John R. Gillis, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770 to the Present, expanded ed. (New York: Academic Press, 1981) have been reissued but not revised to incorporate female experiences. The institutions that are most typically the focus of historical youth studies, such as youth groups, universities, apprenticeship organizations, and gangs, were male strongholds well into the twentieth century.

6 Women's work has been the focus of much innovative and important scholarship in European history, but the emphasis tends to be on connections between women's work and family and gender relations rather than the particular issue of the role of female labor forces in economic change. One exception is Maxine Berg's research, which takes this as a major problem. See Maxine Berg, The Age of Manufactures, 1700-1820: Industry, Innovation, and Work in Britain (London: Routledge, 1994).

7 For descriptions of and sources about marriage customs in Europe, see Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann, Die Familie: Geschichte, Geschichten, und Bilder (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1976).

8 The one major exception is that in several regions of France there is evidence of family limitation not only among elites but also among peasant populations beginning at the end of the eighteenth century or the beginning of the nineteenth. For a discussion of this phenomenon and its historical analysis see Angus McLaren, Sexuality and Social Order: The Debate over the Fertility of Women and Workers in France, 1770-1920 (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983), chap. 1.

9 On the practice of footbinding, see Dorothy Ko, ěThe Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Footbinding in Seventeenth-Century China,î Journal of Women's History 8, no. 4 (1997): 8-27.

10 As many as 10 or even 20 percent of newborn female infants, varying in different regions and classes, were killed in early modern China. One- to five-year-old girls also died more frequently than their brothers. James Z. Lee and Wang Feng, One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 45-51.

11 For a general discussion of evidence and debates about sexual practices and breast-feeding, see Lee and Wang, One Quarter of Humanity, 47-51. On the practice of infanticide and its role in reducing family size, see ibid.; and Ann Waltner, ěInfanticide and Dowry in Ming and Early Qing China,î in Chinese Views of Childhood, ed. Anne Behnke Kinney (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995), 195-217.

12 Our knowledge about recruitment and labor conditions of female servants in the Ming and Qing dynasties is still fragmentary. For a discussion of what is known, see Susan Mann, Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997), 38-44. For a discussion of women and work, see ibid., 143-77.

13 Lee and Wang, One Quarter of Humanity, 65.

14 After we had completed this article, a colleague suggested that we look at Jack Goldstone's ěGender, Work, and Culture: Why the Industrial Revolution Came Early to England but Late to China,î Sociological Perspectives 39, no. 1 (1996): 1-21. Goldstone makes much the same argument we do about the crucial role of women's labor in the differing processes of industrialization in England and China.

15 Charles Tilly quoted in R. Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997), 40.

16 Wong, China Transformed, 37-38.

17 Lee and Wang, One Quarter of Humanity, 8.

18 Lee and Wang, One Quarter of Humanity, 90-92. Lee described the policing of sexuality in a talk in which he referred to the ěCut that out!î thesis of marital fertility. Since the mother-in-law often shared a room with her son and daughter-in-law, she was able to discourage sexual activity that interfered with the household strategy of keeping the number of children small. James Lee, ěOne Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realityî (paper presented at the University of Minnesota Early Modern History Colloquia Series, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 19 April 2000).