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Wives, Husbands and Lovers: Marriage and sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan and urban China

Wives, Husbands and Lovers: Marriage and sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan and urban China

Martin Lavicka01 Jul 2015Leave a comment


Written by Adam Horálek

Davis, Deborah S., Friedman, Sara L. (eds., 2014): Wives, Husbands and Lovers: Marriage and sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan and urban China. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong. ISBN 978-988-8208-41-8. 326 p.

China has experienced not only the quickest economic development but also a very significant and rapid social transition. Between 1945 and 1980, in only 35 years China experienced one of the quickest demographic changes in the world. Nowadays, China faces similarly rapid and massive changes in a social and cultural dimension as well. These changes not only affect the system of values but also demographic reproduction of the population or general population reproduction strategies such as family planning. Most scholars focus on the People’s Republic of China and in a demographic and economic meaning they try to compare the future of China, its challenges, opportunities and threats with those Japan has already faced in the past. However, there is an even more interesting “mirroring” of China’s prospective future, the comparison with the “other Chinas” – Taiwan and Hong Kong. Especially in the demographic development and social values of demographic importance the comparison is more than essential.

Between 1980 and 2005, in just 25 years, the average age of first marriage in China changed by men from 25 to almost 26 years but by women from less than 20 to almost 24. In the same period in Hong Kong it has changed from 29 to 33 by men and from 25 to 30 by women and in Taiwan from 25 to 32 by men and from 24 to 30 by women. In 2010 in Taiwan, 88 percent of men and 77 percent of women aged under 30 with a college education were still single. Five years before for Hong Kong, the figures were very much the same. On the contrary, in the PRC, in 2005 only 47 percent of men and 30 percent of women aged below 30 were single. Not only have the Chinese everywhere tended to postpone their marriages, but they have also tended towards less reproduction, have become more tolerant to other forms of cohabitation of people in their private lives such as non-married couples, same-sex couples, etc., and finally have tended to less tabooize sexual life which also advances the government’s plans to prevent venereal diseases.

The book Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and urban China, edited by Deborah S. Davis and Sara L. Friedman is one of a few cases which delve deeper into the understanding of not only demographic but also sexual and social changes in the values of the Chinese in all three “locales”, as Martin K. Whyte would call it. The book is a compilation of several papers written by specialists on each topic, divided into three sections along the border line – PRC, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Despite the title of the book, where urban China is on the last place, the order of these sections is different and the stress and volume of parts prove that the focus on changes in the PRC is the core of this book.

The different stage of demographic, social and sexual development in all three locales is reflected in the content of each section. Whereas in China, the major shift is in the role of the family, its position, stage of development, etc., in Hong Kong there is contemporary focus on alternative families and equal opportunities discourse including transgender, same-sex marriages, etc. In the introduction the editors stress that deinstitutionalization of marriage and sexuality is the core process in all three Chinas. They also compare the Chinas with the situation in the United States and despite differences and a totally incomparable environmental situation they argue that “… there are parallels between the key shift … in the United States and those emerging recently in these three Chinese societies…” (Davis – Friedman 2014: 3). Also, by analyzing the media topics regarding demography, family, sexuality and individuality, they argue that what the media stress, resonates “… with more general anxiety about the fate of marriage in contemporary Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the PRC.” (Davis – Friedman 2014: 1).

In the chapter Love, Sex and Commitment by James Farrer, the author discusses attitudes of young urban Chinese to love and marriage and he argues that still today even in urban China the link between love and marriage (and sex in particular) is still very strong due to the Confucian legacy inherited from parents. This results in a much more traditional reproduction of social institutions such as marriage and also results in much younger and longer marriages than in the other two Chinese societies. However, as Yong Cai and Wang Feng explore in a later chapter on the (re)emergence of late marriage in Shanghai, there is a significant increase in the average age of first marriage in Shanghai over the last six decades, but with a very uncertain course in the last two decades. This can be understood as a result of changes in the economic environment, where earlier marriages were a form of dealing with increasing economic stresses on young individuals and couples. “It appears that these structural changes have now arrived as personal choices and self-fulfillment are increasingly the driving motivation behind changes in marriage in China.” (Davis – Friedman 2014: 114). Even though there are very similar developments in marriage strategies among urban Chinese in the PRC, the author refuses to deliberately link the course with the one in western countries. It may follow the Japanese, or maybe the Taiwanese path. As Jun Zhang and Peidong Sun conclude, as a result of all the above mentioned, “individuals of different generational, gender, and class backgrounds now have greater freedom to renegotiate the meaning of marriage but within the new pressures of a highly competitive market economy and the state’s rigid limitations of the one-child policy.” (Davis – Friedman 2014: 138).

In Hong Kong, on the contrary, the situation is a bit different. Not only due to the impact of British colonial history, the legal system, etc. but also due to the more cosmopolitan way of life and different demographic stage. Kwok-fai Ting in her chapter on five decades of marital experiences in Hong Kong found that, although marriage is still highly desired by Hong Kong residents, men and women express different levels of satisfaction with it. In her highly statistical analysis she discovers that despite significant changes, marriage is still very popular compared to similarly cosmopolitan cities in the west. What is probably more interesting is the conclusion, that people in a marriage are in general happy and satisfied with their relationship and that marriages are very stable once taken. As the author compares her results with the study on Taiwanese marriages by Shen, the stability and happiness of Hong Kong marriages can be also linked with their geographical limitation (whereas in Taiwan a much higher percentage of marriages are geographically separated.

As Ruoh-rong Yu and Yu-sheng Liu describe in their chapter on Change and Continuity in the Experience of Marriage in Taiwan, the general demographic trends are here very similar to the other two societies. Despite the fact, that marriage is still very stable and popular in the population and protected and supported by the government, there is a significant increase in the number of divorces in Taiwan which can be partially explained by the stress created by “cross-strait” migration and separation of Taiwanese families. Taiwan is also a very good conclusive example of alternative marriages and cohabitating models. Due to the Guomindang’s legacy in Taiwan, the law regarding sexual minorities and cohabitating variations is very rigid. However, as it is a general rule in all three societies, there is, in Taiwan since 1987, in the PRC since 1998 and in Hong Kong since the 1980s, quite a significant trend of the non-implication of the law against individual trajectories of cohabitation. As a support example can be used the gay pride in Taipei, regarded to be the biggest in all Asia.

The book provides eleven studies in three Chinese societies focusing on marriage and sexuality. Simultaneously, all studies deal with the major demographic changes in the region which are the partial cause and partial result of these societal changes. In general, there is very much a process of individualization and, as the authors argue, deinstitutionalization of marriage and sexuality but with very stable and resistant social institutions such as marriage. Instead of diminishing these social institutions, there is a major trend in their incorporation, modernization and individualization. It is a very valid reading for all people interested in the demographic and social changes in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. Also it should be mentioned that despite the number of contributors, the book is not an anthology but a very well organized and internally coherent text leading the reader through the time and space of changes in the marital and sexual behaviors in this part of the world.

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