Gansu girls still call­ing the shots

In an iso­lated pocket of North­west China, women have tra­di­tion­ally been dom­i­nant, with hus­bands as­sum­ing their wife’s sur­name and liv­ing with their par­ents-in-law, as Wang re­ports from Kangx­ian county, Gansu prov­ince.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA -

In most re­gions of China, women leave home to get mar­ried and then fol­low their hus­bands. How­ever, in many parts of Kangx­ian county in the north­west­ern prov­ince of Gansu, the re­verse is true: Tra­di­tion­ally, the groom moves in with his par­ents-in-law and his chil­dren take his wife’s fam­ily name.

“Al­though this tra­di­tion mostly pre­vails in the south­ern parts of Kangx­ian, it also ex­ists in a few other places nearby, such as Lueyang in neigh­bor­ing Shaanxi prov­ince,” said Li Wenkang, chair­man of the Kangx­ian Fed­er­a­tion of Lit­er­ary and Art Cir­cles.

Un­like most re­gions of China, where men tra­di­tion­ally play the main role in the fam­ily, women are usu­ally dom­i­nant in Kangx­ian, and they, rather than their hus­bands, are reg­is­tered as the head of the fam­ily on house­hold reg­is­tra­tion forms, ac­cord­ing to Li, who re­searches lo­cal cus­toms.

Sta­tus up­date

“The tra­di­tion has some ad­van­tages, such as help­ing to im­prove the so­cial sta­tus of women. With the de­vel­op­ment of so­ci­ety and the grow­ing in­te­gra­tion of these places with other parts of China, some mem­bers of the younger gen­er­a­tion are aban­don­ing the tra­di­tion, but it is still well pre­served in these ar­eas. Last year, I at­tended two wed­dings, and at the ban­quets I heard fam­ily mem­bers, both male and fe­male, dis­cussing the grooms’ new names so they will fol­low their wife’s fam­i­lies.”

In 1993, Liang Yan, 47, from Ningqiang county, Shaanxi, mar­ried Xu Guilan in Yangba, a town­ship in Kangx­ian.

Liang, who has three broth- ers, said his fam­ily was poor, so he came to Yangba to work as a brick car­rier on con­struc­tion sites.

“My par­ents didn’t ob­ject when I told them I was get­ting mar­ried in Yangba and would live with my wife,” he said. “They were ac­tu­ally pleased be­cause they knew I would have a bet­ter life there. On my wed­ding day, I took a bus from Ningqiang to Yangba, ac­com­pa­nied by dozens of my rel­a­tives, in­clud­ing my fa­ther and my broth­ers.”

Af­ter he mar­ried, Liang moved in with Xu and her par­ents. They both looked af­ter the older cou­ple, while Liang also grew tea and re­paired houses.

Fol­low­ing a brain hem­or­rhage in 2009, his mother-in­law could barely move or take care of her­self. She died in 2012, but dur­ing the last three years of her life, Liang spent a lot of time tak­ing care of her and help­ing her to move around the town­ship.

Al­most ev­ery year, he re­turns to his home vil­lage to see his par­ents, who are in their 80s and live with one of his broth­ers. How­ever, he al­ways spends Chi­nese New Year, tra­di­tion­ally the most im­por­tant fes­ti­val for fam­ily gath­er­ings, at his home in Yangba.

Rebels and re­cruit­ment

Of the town­ship’s 110 house­holds, more than 20 have hus­bands from ar­eas out­side Gansu, in­clud­ing nearby prov­inces such as Shaanxi and Sichuan.

“Some of them came here and got mar­ried be­fore the found­ing of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China be­cause they wanted to es­cape be­ing re­cruited to the Na­tion­al­ist army,” Liang said.

Li, from the Kangx­ian Fed- er­a­tion of Lit­er­ary and Art Cir­cles, said the tra­di­tion may be linked with the area’s iso­lated lo­ca­tion and the de­feat of the Taip­ing Re­bel­lion (1850-64) dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911), one of the big­gest peas­ant up­ris­ings in Chi­nese his­tory.

Kangx­ian, which sits on the bor­der with Sichuan and Shaanxi, is lo­cated deep in the moun­tains. Farm­ing can be la­bo­ri­ous work in the pre­vail­ing con­di­tions, so an in­flux of men was nec­es­sary to en­sure the sur­vival of lo­cal fam­i­lies, ac­cord­ing to Li.

Some lo­cals be­lieve the tra­di­tion has its roots in the de­feat of a num­ber of Taip­ing sol­diers in neigh­bor­ing Sichuan.

To es­cape be­ing caught and ex­e­cuted by the rul­ing dy­nasty, some of the sur­vivors es­caped and hid in the iso­lated re­gion. To main­tain a low pro­file, many de­cided to marry and take their wives’ names.

Ac­cord­ing to Li, the tra­di­tion was at its height be­fore the PRC was founded in 1949, but so­ci­etal changes mean it is be­com­ing less dom­i­nant.

“Up un­til the late 1970s, women en­joyed an in­dis­putably dom­i­nant role in the fam­ily,” he said. “Dur­ing fam­ily ban­quets they al­ways sat in prom­i­nent po­si­tions, and if a mar­riage failed, they took the ma­jor share of the prop­erty.”

In re­cent years, China’s ur­ban­iza­tion pro­gram has seen huge num­bers of young peo­ple move to big cities, so the old tra­di­tion is not as strong as be­fore.

“In the past, grooms took their wife’s fam­ily name on their wed­ding day, but in re­cent years it has be­come vol­un­tary, so men can re­tain their own names, as long as both fam­i­lies are happy for them to do so,” Li said.

Han Yang­min, a pro­fes­sor and ex­pert in folk cus­toms at North­west Univer­sity in Xi’an, cap­i­tal of Shaanxi, said the be­lief that men are su­pe­rior to women is weak in Kangx­ian, and it is ac­cepted that they will live with their wife’s fam­ily af­ter mar­riage.

“Many par­ents who only have daugh­ters or whose daugh­ters do not want to leave are happy to find a sonin-law who will live with them,” he said. “In such fam­i­lies, hus­bands and their par­ents-in-law usu­ally get along very well.”

The cus­tom is also preva­lent in a few rel­a­tively iso­lated ar­eas in North­west and South­west China, such as the prov­inces of Shaanxi and Yun­nan, he added.

“For ex­am­ple, in parts of Shaanxi, poor men who can­not af­ford a dowry will live with their wives and be­come mem­bers of the fam­i­lies. The man looks af­ter his par­entsin-law and in­her­its their prop­erty, and his chil­dren take their mother’s fam­ily name.”

In an­cient times, a man who lived in his wife’s home usu­ally had a lower po­si­tion in the fam­ily hi­er­ar­chy, but so­ci­etal de­vel­op­ment has seen cus­toms evolv­ing, and men and women are be­com­ing equal in many places, he said.

Brighter prospects

In 1990, Wang Kaicai, a 49-year-old na­tive of Song­gou vil­lage, got mar­ried in Yangba, the town­ship that in­cludes the vil­lage of the same name.

Wang said his par­ents sup­ported his de­ci­sion be­cause they knew his prospects would be brighter in the town than in Song­gou, which was so iso­lated and im­pov­er­ished that un­til 2005 it had no sealed road to con­nect it with other vil­lages.

On his wed­ding day, Wang left Song­gou ac­com­pa­nied by more than 30 rel­a­tives, and ar­rived at his fiance’s fam­ily home in a ve­hi­cle they had sent. He only brought a few pieces of fur­ni­ture, such as ta­bles and chairs, as a dowry, he said.

His two daugh­ters, who are in their 20s, are study­ing in Xi’an and Chengdu, cap­i­tal of Sichuan. Wang said he will not get in­volved in their fu­ture mar­riages, but he hopes they will live close to him and his wife, if pos­si­ble.

“Af­ter they marry they can fol­low their hus­bands if they wish, but I hope at least one of them will live near us so we can be cared for when we grow old.”

Con­tact the writer at wangx­i­aodong@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

PHOTOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Friends and fam­ily gather for a post-wed­ding ban­quet in Kangx­ian county, Gansu prov­ince.

A groom is car­ried to his wed­ding in an elab­o­rate sedan chair in Kangx­ian.

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