Modern Weddings for a Modern China


A review of Balancing Rites and Rights: The Social and Cultural Politics of New-Style Weddings in Republican Shanghai, 1898-1953, by CHARLOTTE LUCIA COWDEN.

In her dissertation, Charlotte Cowden traces the evolution of new-style weddings between the last decade of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and the first years of Communist rule. A new-style wedding may vary in form, but to Cowden, it has to involve free choice of one’s own spouse and elimination of a dowry.  She places the introduction, popularization and codification of new-style weddings in the context of China’s struggle for modernity, considering the roles of Republican policies, market forces and popular practice in shaping weddings.

The dissertation consists of an introduction, four body chapters, conclusion, bibliography and twenty-five figures. The introduction intrigues the reader with two photographs, taken four decades apart. They illuminate the start and end of the tale of new-style weddings, and present the central question of the book: How did the Chinese wedding evolve from one characterized by family arrangements, lavish banquets, superstition and parental authority to one that was streamlined, efficient, frugal, politicized and strictly controlled by the Communist state in the 1950s?

State intervention in personal ritual is the primary concern of Cowden’s dissertation. Inspired by Henrietta Harrison, who has focused on public rituals and political symbols in the making of the Republican state and citizenship, Cowden demonstrates how the Nationalist state regulated personal practice that had once been defined by family hierarchy and managed by family authority. This dissertation also builds on Susan Glosser’s work, which has connected family reforms in China to national survival and state building. Cowden concentrates not on family dynamics but on the reform of wedding ritual, particularly the changing roles of brides, and the venues for marriageable women to exchange opinions. Cowden also considers the collaboration between New Culture intellectuals, the state (the Republican, the Nationalist and later the Communist), and the commercial sectors regarding what was originally a private matter.

New-style weddings started to take roots in urban centers around the turn of the twentieth century. But the state did not feature prominently until the Nanjing decade (1928-1937). Chapter 2 examines how reform-minded intellectuals advocated new-style weddings as an essential element of social reform in China. Around the turn of the 20th century, writers introduced knowledge about French and American weddings. They advocated a “uniform and streamlined” civil ceremony to replace the “familial, superstitious and the varied” old-style wedding (20). Photographed images publicized new-style weddings and provided examples for people to follow. Individuals with overseas education, decent employment, and high profile or political connections were pioneers in practicing new-style weddings, characterized by “choice, independence and economy” (43).

Chapter 3 introduces the weddings of two important political figures, Puyi and Chiang Kai-shek, which both took place in the 1920s. The author contextualizes the two weddings in the political dynamics and social changes under the banner of the New Culture Movement. Inspired by the New Culture intellectuals’ critique of the traditional Chinese family, urban youth – who were often readers of progressive, gender-specific magazines – engaged in discussions of love, the ideal spouse, and the wedding ceremony. Such discussiosn did not necessarily engender more freedom for young people, nor did it bring about fundamental change to gender roles within a relationship. The weddings of Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, and Chiang Kai-shek, who would soon head the Nationalist government, reflected the shifting trend of wedding customs (as well as politics) in the 1920s. Held in 1922, Puyi’s wedding was grand, highly visible, and designed to increase imperial power and legitimacy. Instead, every element of this wedding, including the photograph, reflected the outdated and awkward position of the imperial house. Chiang Kai-shek’s wedding five years later, however, produced the first modern “power couple” in China, who made full use of the wedding for political purposes. Chiang Kai-shek’s wedding was also remarkable in that it highlighted the potential marketability of new-style weddings, and changed how weddings were “framed, understood, discussed, produced and consumed in Shanghai” (78).

Chapter 4 explores the negotiations between the Nationalist state and market forces by treating Shanghai as a crucial site. In the wake of the 1931 Civil Code, the new-style wedding became a tool for political control and a thriving new business. The Nationalist state attempted to standardize wedding ritual, making it a model for civil behavior. Magazines gave advice to young people whose legal rights regarding marriage had been violated, and also to well-to-do families regarding wedding planning. The market had more to offer: a selection of different styles of wedding photos, cakes, dresses, and so on.  Cowden’s investigation of journal discussions on weddings, wedding planning and wedding expenses adds more pieces of wisdom to the fruitful studies of Shanghai in recent years. Though her research is mostly focused on Shanghai, Cowden points out the possibility of new-style weddings being spread to home provinces, by Native Place Associations, from this period to the early 1950s.

In Chapter 5, Cowden demonstrates how wedding customs were shaped by the Sino-Japanese War and the Nationalist government’s postwar political struggle. During the war, commercial wedding planners claimed the market in Shanghai, and weddings were much more affordable than before. After the Nationalist government returned to Shanghai in 1945, it attempted to tighten control. Group weddings were “integrated into a larger municipal ‘new life’ vision of a carefully regimented existence with little privacy” (126).  The Nationalist government failed to enforce effectively new-style wedding or marriage registration even among the working class in Shanghai, not to mention in areas beyond its control. In the 1950s, new-style weddings were eliminated as the Communists ascribed legal rights to the population, enforced marriage registration, and streamlined wedding ceremony in a frugal and politicized manner.

Cowden’s dissertation connects the reform of the state to the reform of personal ritual and civic ceremony, and sheds new light on gender roles and women’s position in the dynamics of new-style weddings. As the title suggests, the work also contributes to studies of legal reforms during the Republican period by exemplifying the discrepancy between law and custom – between legal rights ascribed on paper and social realities.

Core Lecturer
History Department
Seattle University

Primary Sources

Shanghai Municipal Archive
Shanghai Library
Journals and newspapers (Linglong, Funü zazhi, etc.)
Photographs of weddings in different periods
Publications and newspapers from France and U.S. on wedding customs

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2011. 186 pp. Primary Advisor: Wen-hsin Yeh.

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