Sometimes it’s difficult to tell why things take longer than they should. Laziness is always a possible explanation, but I’m not sure psychologists have quite reached a basic understanding of laziness. Or perhaps they have, but I’m just too…pressed for time…to track down their findings.
A lackluster student was once challenged by his professor with, “Are you afraid of hard work?” “Not at all,” he answered, “I generally avoid hard work, but it’s out of laziness. Fear has nothing to do with it.”
Yet I sometimes think that fear does keep people from seeking a job, tackling a project or writing a scholarly paper. I wonder about myself. Would I would write more quickly if I didn’t face a kind of nervousness over being judged on the words I put on paper?
For the past six weeks I’ve struggled with an article on the emotion and meaning of swearwords and slang. I’m happy with the result which is almost ready to send off to the publishers, but I was hoping to finish this article in June so I could go on to another essay about the end of arranged marriages in China. The China paper will have to wait, given the approaching fall semester, but in the meantime, here’s the gist of it.
The End of Arranged Marriage in a North China Village
For several summers in a row I visited a northern Chinese village that I will call Pine Hill and interviewed elderly men and women whose weddings took place just before and after arranged marriages were outlawed in 1950. I wanted to understand how the promotion of love-based marriages by the Chinese Communist Party affected the young men and women of the New China.
Pine Hill Village - Main Street
The first two things I discovered were that, even though the government had done away with arranged marriages, most rural parents had not. Fathers, in particular, were unwilling to let their children choose their own husbands and wives. Arranged marriages continued to be the norm in Pine Hill for over a year after the 1950 Marriage Law had made them officially illegal.
Pine Hill Peasant Home
But almost everyone I interviewed told me about a particular couple who changed everything when they got married (in 1951, as I recall – I’m too “pressed for time” to consult my notes right now).
I’ll call the boy Lin Jiefeng and the girl, Wang Meili. The father of Miss Wang (family name first in China) refused to let her marry young Mr. Lin, even though the two were hopelessly in love and his parents had approved the match. The couple had actually fallen in love under the auspices of the Communist Party, since they had worked together in the village communist youth league where they first met. Previous to the rise of the Communist Party in Pine Hill, young women would have been kept in their homes as virtual prisoners and would never have been allowed to meet and spend time with village boys. The Communist party youth league changed all that for Miss Wang, Mr. Lin and thousands of other young Chinese so that by the 1940s love was blossoming all over the hills of “liberated” China like poppies after a summer rain.
So, as the story goes, one day, after months of arguing fiercely with his daughter, Mr. Wang lost his temper. His tantrum was triggered by his overhearing neighbors gossiping about his daughter’s determination to “follow her heart” against her father’s wishes. He went home, confronted his daughter, and, while pounding the floor with a heavy pole, loudly demanded that she never see Lin Jiefeng again.
In tears, she ran outside and into the house next door where her aunt lived. The father followed, but the aunt stood in the doorway and tried to calm him down. While she did so, Meili climbed out of a back window and ran to the house of her beloved Jiefeng. The image of Meili running through the village with tears streaming down her cheeks is a vivid one in Pine Hill, even today. Quite a few of the aged peasants I interviewed claimed to have seen the crying Meili, and some said they also saw her father coming after her later with his heavy pole in hand. But to no avail. Jiefeng’s family took Meili into their household, and the marriage went ahead in accordance with the new law and in spite of Meili’s father’s stubborn resistance.
But then the story got bigger. The local communist authorities got wind of Meili and Jiefeng’s tale and publicized it widely as an example for young people in villages all over the county. Newspapers helped spread the word. As a consequence of their marriage, the great wall against love marriages, in place for centuries in rural China, crumbled into dust almost overnight in Pine Hill County. Meili is happy to report that her father was eventually reconciled with his daughter and son-in-law.
Happily Married for 60 Years - And with a Story for the Ages
What we see today in the Chinese countryside is a kind of semi-arranged system. Because young people sometimes have trouble meeting prospective mates (particularly given that in some villages almost everyone is related to everyone else), parents often step forward to help their children hook up (so to speak).
But the parents can only introduce and encourage. By law and now by custom, they are not allowed to force their children into arranged marriages. Sadly however, there are still some parents in various obscure corners of rural China who manage to coerce their children into unwanted marriages.
A typical semi-arranged scenario is the one I recorded in Shandong province in 1994. Here, a peasant mother of my acquaintance introduced her son to a nice young lady from a neighboring village whose family she knew. When the couple met, they decided they liked each other, and eventually decided to get married. And so they did, complete with a ceremony in which the young man led his new bride into his home with a long red silk cloth, just as his father and grandfather had done in generations before. But this time the bride could choose to drop the cloth and walk away had she wanted to. She did not.
A Shandong Lad Leading His Bride to Her New Home
Maybe next fall I’ll get a chance to write this all up as a formal publication. Courage permitting.
More Scenes from More Marriages
Hong Kong Wedding Couple from British Colonial Days (1974)
A Must for a Chinese Wedding, Colonial or Not
Bowing to the Ancestors and Other Spirits - Old School Ritual
A Christian Wedding in Beijing, with Wedding Singer (2007)
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