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When Were Marriages Between Cousins Banned in China?

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In my previous blog post, How Degrees of Kinship Are Calculated Under Chinese Law?, it was mentioned that cousin marriage is banned by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Marriage Law. In fact, the ban has not been there for very long: it officially appeared in the Law when it was revised in 1980.

Marriage between first cousins was generally allowed during most of China’s dynastic era. However, there were exceptions. The primary exception were marriages between patrilateral parallel cousins — the children of two male siblings. Such marriages were strictly prohibited. They were seen as those between siblings because they bore the same family name. But marring the child of one’s paternal aunt, maternal uncle or aunt was generally accepted in Chinese history. (Zhaoxiong Qin, Rethinking Cousin Marrige in Rural China, 40(4) ETHNOLOGY 347 (autumn 2001).

Cover of QING, SUN WEN HUI QUAN BEN HONG LOU MENG, collected by the Library of Congress. Photo by author.

Written in the 18th century during the Qing Dynaty, my favorite Chinese classical novel is Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber, also translated The Story of the Stone). The story is centered on Jia Baoyu, the male heir of a wealthy noble family, and his two female cousins: Lin Daiyu, daughter of his paternal aunt whom he loved most but who died at a young age; and Xue Baochai, daughter of his maternal aunt whom he eventually married. Apparently, at that time marrying the child of your aunt or maternal uncle was not a problem at all and sometimes even preferable, because the marriage would further strengthen the tie between the two families.

The first PRC Marriage Law was adopted in 1950, one year after the establishment of the PRC. It allowed for people to “follow customs” with regard to marriage between relatives within five degrees of kinship.  (PRC Marriage Law (promulgated May 1, 1950), 1949–1950 ZHONGYANG RENMIN ZHENGFU FALING HUIBIAN [1949–1950 LAWS AND DECREES OF THE CENTRAL PEOPLE’S GOVERNMENT] 32–36).

When the 1980 PRC Marriage Law entered into effect on January 1, 1981, it banned all marriages between first cousins (art. 6(1)). The purpose of the ban was to avoid birth defects that stem from consanguineous marriages  — in this case, children born of first cousins. The one-child policy, which was introduced right before the passage of the 1980 PRC Marriage Law, might have also played a role. When the draft legislation was introduced to the National People’s Congress, it was explained that because of the implementation of the one-child policy, “there would be fewer children,” and therefore more attention should be paid to “the quality of the population.” Thus, marriages between close relatives were banned.

Daiyu weeping over fallen blossom (QING, SUN WEN HUI QUAN BEN HONG LOU MENG 78). Photo by author.

The original ban on marriages between cousins maintained in the current Marriage Law as revised in 2001 (art. 7(1)). It remains in effect so that first cousins — as third degree relatives under the PRC Marriage Law — are still prohibited from marrying each other in China.

To identify sources of Chinese law in our collections, please visit the Library of Congress online catalog or submit questions through Ask the Librarian.

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