10 commandments of marriage

Updated: 2013-10-04 11:09

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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Mother-in-law's vigilance in watching over her daughter's welfare may call for a feminist interpretation

In a family portrait, the image of the mother-in-law tends to be caricatured. This is true in both China and Western countries. In American movies and TV shows, the mere mention of her would open up the spigot of black humor as attempts to silence her or keep her away from the young couple turn into a wellspring of jokes. In China she is still an object of filial respect, but with mixed feelings.

For a young man to win the hand of his beloved, he has to undergo a series of tests, the ultimate one being the approval of her mother. In the traditional arrangement, the wife and his mother were almost born nemeses, with the young one in the role of the oppressed before morphing into the oppressor when she attains the status of mother-in-law. However, in a modern Chinese family this is less true simply because young couples and their parents rarely live under one roof now, thus reducing the chances of daily friction.

But the wife's mother is in a special position. She can call it quits before the young ones tie the knot. Well, unless they decide to elope, a notion that has never taken root in China. It would mean the breakup of the mother-daughter bond, a big no-no in any culture. So, what can the young man do except to please her old folks, especially her mother?

If I were consulted on this, my suggestion to the young man would be: Have a sweet tongue. Be nice and considerate. You're taking away her darling daughter, in name at least. And always take presents. But a recent online posting has rendered my advice into a joke. It lists the top 10 demands by a typical Chinese mother-in-law, and suffice to say, it does not include the fuzzy warmth and bribery tactic I had in mind. The conditions set by the mother-in-law are nothing short of brutally straightforward and materialistic.

10 commandments of marriage

1. The young man hoping to marry her daughter must have an apartment no smaller than 100 square meters. If he lives in a big city, that would equate to at least 20 years of his earnings, and that assumes he has a decent income.

2. He must own a car worth at least 200,000 yuan ($32,000; 24,000 euros).

3. A 100,000 yuan cash deposit in her name - no, not the mother-in-law's but the daughter's.

4. Hire a maid when she gives birth.

5. Have a grand wedding.

6. Buy only imported milk formula.

7. All his salary must be handed over to his wife.

8. All holidays must be spent visiting her parents, not his.

9. Plan at least one holiday a year.

10. And, certainly not least, be loyal to his wife.

The good thing is, the final demand does not involve money. The rest is possible only if the young man has rich parents. There is little likelihood he can independently earn enough to satisfy all of the first nine demands. I've heard of Indian parents squirming over the big dowry necessary to marry off their daughters. I don't know whether it's exaggerated or how widespread the practice is. In certain parts of China, or more accurately in some Chinese families, the chance to marry off a daughter is tantamount to obtaining a king's ransom.

The above list is no doubt a result of embellishment. Most young couples in China get help from both sides to start a new family. Although his parents tend to chip in more than hers, folks on both sides think and act for the sake of the young ones. There is no point turning the marriage into a corporate hostile takeover, leaving his family to pay off mountains of debt.

However, some regional customs are quite rigid on what exactly each side should bring to the new family, and the housing cost - already beyond the means of most young families in urban China - has essentially thrown a monkey wrench into a complicated situation. In a financially uncertain world, what can a mother do to ensure the long-lasting happiness of her daughter? You cannot accuse the mother-in-law of being selfish because none of her demands is for her; they are all for her daughter. She wants her daughter to be secure financially.

A romantic would probably cry out in despair. You see, of the 10 demands - or should I call them commandments? - there is no mention that he must love her daughter. Being loyal is not exactly the same as being in love, although they overlap a great deal. In a sense, this list speaks much of the environment of materialism we are living in. To a lot of people, financial wherewithal is the top quality that defines a man. Sure, good looks count. So do a good education and a great sense of humor. But if you cannot bring in the dough, the other things don't last, and that's not just the quirk of a mother-in-law, but the shared belief of many.

In a way, the mother-in-law is the ultimate feminist - with a Chinese twist of course. She staunchly guards the interests of one woman, her daughter. If she herself had defied her parents and married someone with no money, she would relentlessly use her own experience as a cautionary tale. Her effort to extract as much wealth as possible from his family is eerily similar to the work of a divorce lawyer in the US, preemptively arranged though and with more prescience than any marriage counselor.

Some of her requests, such as having a big wedding, are in the face-saving spirit of Chinese culture. But it may befuddle a few non-Chinese that she demands all his salary be handed over to his wife. Not a joint account, mind you, but essentially everything in her name. This is not a feminist fantasy. In some places like Shanghai, it is accepted as the norm. The husband gives all his earnings to his wife and, in return, he will get a monthly stipend as pocket money, for buying cigarettes and other things. This is not for the eventuality of a divorce, but rather, for depriving him of any potential misuse of funds. You may say that families with this kind of arrangement have placed women on a higher economic status because in traditional China, women rarely had access to the family's economic lifeline.

With the mother-in-law lording over everything, a young man in China can be driven to achievements or to depression. Love is a great driving force. With such practical goals, he may have more focus and more purpose. He may also be tempted to cut corners when he senses the near impossibility of them all. While having the world's second-largest GDP has brought better living to all in China, today's youngsters are operating in a pressure cooker. They have more choices and also more competition. They have more chances to succeed, but many of them fall backwards and become at-home recluses whose only link to the outside world is through the Internet. They live off their parents even if they are just scraping by. The 10 commandments of the mother-in-law will serve to further polarize the two camps, I suppose, by galvanizing some and eliminating others from the pool of the eligible - eligible for marriage and, beyond it, for an active lifestyle.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

10 commandments of marriage

(China Daily Africa Weekly 10/04/2013 page30)