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1.3 Man and Wife

Confucius provided a list of strict rules to define the nature of the relationship between a man and wife. By modern standards those rules seem almost laughable in their bias against women, and yet the relationship between a man and his wife is still influenced by Confucian thought.

The acceptance or even promotion of polygamy for men can be seen as one of the most dramatic examples of how Confucian values have changed over the years, at least on the surface. At times in China’s history, a man’s success was measured by the number of wives he had. Since 1949, however, polygamy has been illegal.

Illegal, yes. But that does not mean the sentiment behind the acceptance of polygamy has disappeared.

Modern Chinese society is much more accepting of male marital infidelity than is the West. A relationship between a successful older married man and an attractive and single younger woman is seen to be somewhat of a natural fit, with the man exchanging security through his wealth for the pleasures and status of the woman’s companionship. Indeed, a man who routinely returns home on time to his family every night would be seen by some as unsuccessful and without the means to entertain a younger woman.

Becoming an older man’s mistress is less frowned on in China as well, since a mistress would have been a second or third wife under the Confucian system of the past.

For a woman, the Confucian values that enter into the marriage are those that stress loyalty and support for her husband. Two Chinese sayings illustrate this: “A woman becomes a hen after marrying a rooster,”2 and “Follow the man you marry, be he a fool or a crook.”3 The value of wifely loyalty is paramount and is praised in Chinese society, even when at times it would seem self-destructive to Western eyes.

Another holdover of ancient Confucian values is the insistence by many in Chinese society that the man is responsible for being the financial pillar of the family. Despite the large number of women in the workforce in China, with countless examples of success in their careers, it is still rare to see a woman marry a man who could be seen to be below her in station. Instead of marrying a man of her own age who earns less or who is less successful in his career, many successful Chinese women prefer to marry a man 10 or 20 years older.

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