Is it Offensive to Ask a Chinese girl about her Marriage Status?

(Last Modified: 2019-07-09 18:51:35    Author: jinyu)

In one of our free Chinese lessons, the speaker in the video asked a question: "你结婚了吗? (nǐ jié hūn le ma)" [Are you married?]. Some of you may be surprised that how come such a distaste-provoking topic can be illustrated as a sample sentence. This article gives social and cultural reasons for it, as well as related language knowledge.

cover img for asking about marriage

Women's Social Status of all ages

Throughout Chinese feudal history, couples got married not because they did love each other but for the sake of their parents' command. Marriage, at that time, was deemed as a fixed ritual, by which couples execute their parents' orders in such a ridiculous way that the bridegroom and his bride may not meet each other before the wedding.

Here is a quote from one of the classic Confucian works - Book of Rites:

男女非有行媒,不相知名;非受币,不交不亲。
("nán nǚ fēi yǒu xíng méi, bù xiāng zhī míng; fēi shòu bì, bù jiāo bù qīn")

[A man and a women shall not know each other's name unless at the help of a matchmaker; they cannot communicate or contact each other unless betrothal money has been received.]

Those Confucian canons were devoutly believed by ancient Chinese, and the above norm was no exception. That is to say, men and women were not allowed to choose their spouses freely, but were suggested by their parents and 媒婆 (méi pó) (a professional matchmaker, normally acted by old women).

However, the social status for ancient Chinese women were much lower than that of men, because of the intrinsic social concept that "男尊女卑 (nán zūn nǚ bēi)" [women were inferior to men], as well as situation of polygamy. Some of them were luckily be " (qī)" [wives], which played major role in a group of female partners; some were purchased or punished as " (qiè)" [concubines]. About this special role and their relations, here are some quotes:

妾,音踥。接也。得接于君子者也。
("qiè, yīn qiè. jiē yě. dé jiē yú jūn zǐ zhě yě.")

[Concubine is pronounced as "qie" in Chinese Pinyin, which means combining. A concubine is served for having intercourse with a noble man.]

-- 康熙字典

以妾及客女为妻、以婢为妾者,徒一年半。
("yǐ qiè jí kè nǚ wéi qī, yǐ bì weí qiè zhě, tú yī nián bàn.")

[A person who let a concubine to be wife, or let a servant be concubine shall be punished by one and a half of imprisonment.]

-- 唐律疏议·户婚

聘则为妻,奔则为妾。
("pìn zé wéi qī, bēn zé wéi qiè.")

[Wives are those betrothed, and concubines are those eloped.]

-- 礼记·内则

男女之别,男尊女卑,故以男为贵。
("nán nǚ zhī bié, nán zūn nǚ bēi, gù yǐ nán weí guì.")

[The difference between men and women is that women were inferior to men, hence it's valuable to be a man.]

-- 列子·天瑞

In brief, ancient Chinese women were in a passive situation for their marriages. They were not even allowed to talk to strangers openly, let alone answering the question of her personal marriage.

In 20th century, when the Chinese imperial history has came to an end and the western concept of love was imported, China has been to a new era that everyone was encouraged to marry by virtue of love, rather than of family or social pressure. The new love concept emphasizes mutual admiration, intimacy, and appreciation between both parties.

last Chinese emperor

At the same time, polygamy has been abolished along with the Chinese feudalism. With the rise of feminism which was generated in the May 4th Movement, women were no longer regarded as men's affiliate, as every man could have no more than one spouse. Meanwhile, the chance of love-triggered marriage increased.

As the establishment of PRC, women now are totally liberated from the discrimination or misunderstanding. They are totally equal to men, as girls are unlimited to normal education, the same job opportunities or to the same social status. Parents arranged marriages may still exist in rural areas, but is definitely breaching of the New Marriage Law.

registered divorce from 1999 to 2017 in China

The above data (registered divorce from 1999 to 2017 in China) is a good resource to understand Chinese women's degrees of marital freedom increases by time.

Will they Answer?

The answer is yes. Most of the Chinese women will give an explicit response for that question, the reasons are:

  1. It's a normal topic here. Generally speaking, Chinese are prone to gossip during their spare time. Talking about each other’s families is one of the usual topics. Questions like "How many siblings do you have" or "What are your parents' jobs" are frequently mentioned in daily dialogs between colleagues or acquaintances. As long as knowing to shift the subject in time when some speakers perform sensitively, one will not encounter problems usually.
  2. It's hard to conceal. Marriage status information is everywhere: resumes, employee tables, social media, reports and papers. Most of the Chinese people even tell this to others casually, as certain marriage status works as a competitive advantage for job application, project performing, or even house purchasing.
  3. It's hard to refuse. In Chinese culture, asking about personal issues is generally deemed as a kind of friendly care, especially when the questioner is an elderly or a leader. Refusing to answer or to ignore such questions is commonly regarded as disrespect.
  4. It's not a secret for them. Although more and more unmarried girls are trying to protect themselves against exposure of their marriage status, they are not able to stop their parents' marriage-urging calls, or to decline the affectionate solicitude from their groups (companies, relative or friend circles).

Chinese Idioms about Marriage

  • 相敬如宾 ("xiāng jìng rú bīn")
    Definition: to respect each other like treating guests. It is used to describe that husband and wife are behaving harmoniously.
  • 比翼双飞 ("bǐ yì shuāng fēi")
    Definition: to fly together with wings combined. It is used to describe good living and working relations of a couple.
  • 如胶似漆 ("rú jiāo sì qī")
    Definition: adhered together as strong adhesive applied. It is used to describe close relationship of a couple.
  • 天作之合 ("tiān zuò zhī hé")
    Definition: a heaven-made match. It is commonly used to praise great wedding.
  • 破镜重圆 ("pò jìng chóng yuán")
    Definition: a broken mirror joined together again. It is used in metaphors for reunions or reconciliations of couples.
  • 百年好合 ("bǎi nián hǎo hé")
    Definition: being allied for hundreds years. It is used to bless those newlyweds.
  • 两相情愿 ("liǎng xiāng qíng yuàn")
    Definition: a situation where both parties are agreed.
  • 媒妁之言 ("méi shuò zhī yán")
    Definition: the introduce of a matchmaker.
chinese marriage