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Chinese Matchmakers
of Tiānjīn & Táoyuán

Introductory Note:

Here follows the text of a 1997 conference paper in which I summarized my research related to the tradition of marriage brokering in China, both in the past, and up to the time of the conference. Insofar as possible, the text here is configured like the original conference paper.

Footnotes, for purposes of web page presentation, are inserted into the text shortly after the point of citation. Footnote markers are marked by boxes.

Chinese characters are returned to simplified form (red), since the research was largely conducted in mainland China. However for names of people or places in Taiwan, they are also provided in traditional form (blue).

Tone marks have been restored for all Chinese words, although omitted by the original editors as incompatible with the Academia Sinica style sheet.

DKJ

Go to abstract.

Chinese Matchmakers
of Tiānjīn & Táoyuán

David K. Jordan1
(Conference on Anthropological Studies in Taiwan
Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica,
March 21-23, 1997)

Footnote #1: Jiāo Dàwèi 焦大卫 Professor of Anthropology & Provost, Earl Warren College, University of California, San Diego. dkjordan@ucsd.edu & http://anthro.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan

Contents

Hongniang introducing a shy maid to a worthy lad.
1. Introduction
2. Matchmaking in the Canon
3. Matchmaker as Introducer and Negotiator
4. Matchmaking and Arranged Marriage
4.1.      A Note on Terms
5. The Ethnography of Matchmaking
6. Individuals Who Make Matches
6.1. Social Network of the Matchmaker
6.2. Motivations of the Matchmakers
6.3. Matchmaking & the Person of Hóngniáng
7. Who Needs a Matchmaker?
7.1. Betrothal & the Window of Opportunity
7.2. Professionals & the "Hard Cases"
7.3. Tiānjīn Matchmakers & Their Associations
8. Conclusions
9. Works Cited

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1. Introduction

My first fieldwork was done in the mid-1960s in the small village of Báo'ān 保安 / 保安 near Xīgăng 西港 / 西港, in Táinán County 台南县 / 臺南縣. I was assisted by a young man from a neighboring village, who commuted to Báo'ān on his bicycle each day. One morning he arrived looking pale and agitated.

"What is the matter?" I asked.

"My mother bought a piglet," he replied.

"What is the matter with that," I asked, puzzled.

"It is for my wedding," he answered in a low voice.

"You are getting married? Congratulations!" said I, with polite enthusiasm. "When will this be happening?"

"When the piglet grows up," he answered sadly.

"And who is the lucky girl?" I asked, still trying to ignore his seeming unhappiness.

"I don't know," he answered. "She hasn't been chosen yet. Only the piglet has been chosen."

My assistant had completed high school and had finished his army service, and it was clear enough that the next significant event in his life should be marriage. Accordingly a matchmaker had been hired to begin the search for his wife. And, of course, his mother bought the pig. Thus have young men and women been married in China for more than two millennia that we know about, and probably far longer than that if we but had the historical records to check. This paper is about that process, and in particular about the people who take the responsibility for finding suitable matches. It is based mostly on materials collected in and around Tiānjīn City in 1992, and some additional material collected in Taiwan in 1996. Reference will be made to all of these sources in the course of our discussion.2

Footnote #2: The research on which this paper is based began in the context of a directed reading course with Julie ROELOF, an undergraduate student, in which she and I jointly read and discussed some of the English ethnographic literature on Chinese matchmaking tried to develop some general statements about it. Her role in getting me launched on this topic is warmly acknowledged. Subsequently I had bibliographic help from two able UCSD research assistants, Amy ZLOT and TIAN Cheng 田成.

The principal field data on which this paper is based include tape recorded interviews with 18 matchmakers and a questionnaire survey of 112 randomly selected married people (34 male, 78 female) from urban Tiānjīn 天津市 (58) and from rural Jìxiàn 蓟县 (54) at the northern end of Tiānjīn Municipality. These materials were collected in collaboration with PĀN Yǔnkāng 潘允康 and ZHĀNG Wénhóng 张文宏 of the Institute of Sociology 社会学研究所 of the Tiānjīn Academy of Social Sciences (TASS) 天津市社会科学院 with the financial support of a Luce Foundation grant to UCSD and TASS for the study of civil society in China. This research was much facilitated by the Academy's gracious director, WÁNG Huī 王辉. I also owe an enormous debt to the Tiānjīn Women's Association 天津市妇女会 and especially to JĪN Lìyă 金丽雅 and DǑNG Wéilíng 董维玲 for invaluable assistance in introducing many of our most helpful informants. I am also grateful for important additional insight and material to LǏ Shìyú 李世瑜 of the Institute of History 历史学研究所 and the Popular Religion Studies Center 民间宗教研究中心 at TASS. Despite my obvious indebtedness to them, names of individual matchmakers interviewed have here been abridged or changed to render them unidentifiable.

An additional, very closely similar questionnaire survey of 100 married people (53 male, 47 female) from rural (50) and urban (50) areas of Táoyuán County 桃园县 / 桃園縣 in Taiwan were collected with the assistance of MA Yu-ch'eng (MǍ Yǒuchéng) 马有成 / 馬有成 and CH'EN Shih-jung (CHÉN Shìróng) 陈世荣 / 陳世榮, two M.A. students from the Institute of History, National Central University 国立中央大学历史研究所 / 國立中央大學歷史研究所 under the supervision of Professor Paul KATZ (KĀNG Bào) 康豹 / 康豹 and Institute Director CHANG Sheng-yen (ZHĀNG Shèngyàn) 张胜彦 / 張勝彥. I am most grateful to these collaborators for their expert assistance and their willingness to collaborate across the Pacific. The Taiwan urban respondents were from heavily urbanized portions of Táoyuán Shi 桃园市 / 桃園市, Zhōnglì Shì 中坜市 / 中壢市, Bādé Xiāng 八德乡 / 八德鄉, and Píngzhèn Xiāng 平镇乡 / 平鎮鄉. Rural informants were from two villages in Guānyīn Xiāng 观音乡 / 觀音鄉 and Dàxī Zhèn 大溪镇 / 大溪鎮.

The present work also makes use of materials I collected in earlier periods of fieldwork in Taiwan, beginning in 1966, and on some interviews, formal and informal, made during the course of travel in northern and central China in connection with other research.

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2. Matchmaking in the Canon

It is well to begin the discussion by referring to the Confucian canon, for it is here that we find references to matchmakers that are both early and influential. The Book of Songs, for example, one of the oldest sources in the canon, includes the comment, "How does one find a wife? Without a matchmaker one does not."3

Footnote #3: 取妻如何?匪媒不得 。 (Shī Jīng 诗经, bīnfēng fákē 豳风 伐柯.) Presumably qǔ is a specialized writing of qǔ , the form preserved here, and fěi represents an old usage or text corruption for fēi .

One of the most widely quoted phrases about matchmaking derives from a passage in the book of Mencius. Zhōu Xiāo 周霄 asks Mencius how it can be that virtuous people do not appear eager to serve in government, given that serving in government is a virtuous thing to do. Mencius answers that as a matter of the propriety one must wait to be selected for service, without exhibiting unseemly eagerness. He makes this point by means of a homey comparison:

Mencius answered: When a couple has a son, they want a wife for him, or when they have a daughter they want a husband for her. People all have this parental feeling. But if, without waiting for a parent's command and a matchmaker's word, [the young people] were to bore holes to catch a glimpse of each other or climb over fences to be together, then their parents and compatriots would all despise them. The ancients rarely did not want to serve in office, but hated to do so by an inappropriate path. Going by an inappropriate path would be like boring holes.4

Footnote #4: (孟子)曰:『丈夫生而愿为之有室,女子生而愿为之有家;父母之心人皆有之。不待父母之命、媒妁之言,钻穴隙相窥,踰墙相从,则父母、国人皆贱之。古之人未尝不欲仕也,又恶不由其道;不由其道而往者,与鐏穴隙之类也。』 (Mèngzĭ 孟子 Téng wéngōng xià 文公下 ch 3. Translation revised from Legge's The Chinese Classics v. 6, page 268 [Bk 3 Pt 2, ch 3].)

Mencius' casual reference to matchmaking is used to help his listener understand that it is normal and decent to prefer decorum over immediate gratification of desire: directly pursuing public office is condemned in the same way that decent people condemn young people who seek romantic entanglements rather than awaiting marital arrangements from the proper authorities. In the area of matchmaking, Mencius apparently assumes that his listeners take this to be self-evident.

One phrase in this, "a parent's command and a matchmaker's word," (fùmǔ zhī mìng, méishuò zhī yán) 父母之命媒妁之言 has become a fixed, proverbial expression, used by modern Chinese to refer to the entire institution of traditional Chinese arranged marriage. The expression itself is perhaps also informative, for it also stresses that the authority in a marriage choice rests with parents; the role of the matchmaker is as a source of information and advice, not authority.5

Footnote #5: If, from the earliest period for which we have records, matchmakers have been regarded as a normal and necessary part of marriage, then it is not surprising that they should have acquired a legal position. By Tang times the law specified that a marriage was not legal without a matchmaker (G.Y. Chén 1936: 147). In the Ming and Qing periods the law recognized marriage by "private contract" (sīyuē 私约), and thus a broker could sometimes be legally excluded. However matchmakers remained legally normative, and even under Republican law the registration of a marriage has required the chop not only of a witness (zhèngmíng rén 证明人) but also of the "introducer" (jièshào rén 介绍人) who brokered the match, often the same person.

Who were these matchmakers? It is difficult to generalize across time, space, and social class, and great variation was apparently always possible. In dynastic times a matchmaker might be a friend or relative of the bride or groom or might be a professional or semi-professional entrepreneur who made it his or her business to find mates for a fee. Moreover there seems always to have been a continuous gradient between amateur and professional matchmaking, with most marriages apparently falling towards the amateur end of the gradient.6 However it has been the professional matchmaker, operating for money, and sometimes accomplishing a prodigious number of unions. who dominates popular stereotype.

Footnote #6: As Arthur Wolf has reminded us in a series of publications, marriage in China takes many forms. Wolf & Huang (1980:2) differentiate three broad categories, according to the nature of the rights over a woman: There are major marriage, which is the ordinary form, minor marriage which involves a child bride raised as an adopted daughter-in-law (tóngyǎngxí 童养媳) , and uxorilocal marriage. Minor marriages account for 40% before 1925 in the Taiwan census records used in the study, but rapidly decrease thereafter. Among my 1996 Taiwan survey respondents, it appears that only one was involved a minor marriage.

The stereotype is a harsh one. The professional matchmaker is the object of proverbs, tales, and theatrical performances. Nearly always female, she is represented as a tireless but unscrupulous professional, who spends each day collecting information about possibly marriageable children. Because she lives on her tips, she is eager to clinch a match as soon as possible, and her greed often leads to matches being made with more concern about getting the job done quickly than about how good a match really is. Bittersweet jokes often turn on deceptions practiced by lying matchmakers who mate scarcely marriageable children to gullible but perfectly marriageable ones in order to get a quick commission or because of a bribe by the family of the undesirable mate.7 One western writer sums up the image as "… the middlewoman, a person whose reputation for truthfulness is known to be bad, and whose sole aim is to get the marriage preliminaries settled so that she may pocket her fees and perquisites." (Macgowan 1909: 231.)

Footnote #7: "A matchmaker's mouth speaks misleading nonsense," (méi rén zuǐ hú lěi lěi) 媒人嘴胡累累。 / 媒人嘴胡累累。 says a Taiwanese proverb. (Wèi 1992: 42). "Among ten matchmakers, there are nine liars," (shí méi jiǔ kuáng) 十媒九诳。 / 十媒九誑。 says another (Ruăn 1989: 8).

There is little direct evidence for the reality of the stereotype. Indeed one writer argues that in the countryside, the matchmakers must usually be quite honest lest they lose credit among the local people (Mă 1981: 240). But, like the stereotype of the cruel landlord, the greedy money lender, or the medical mountebank, the unscrupulous matchmaker is a stock figure unlikely to be dislodged from the popular imagination.

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3. Matchmaker as Introducer and Negotiator

The matchmaker's job had two parts: mate selection and inter-familial negotiation. While mate selection dominates the stereotype, and is of greatest interest to a social scientist, negotiation is no mean art. The canonical Yílǐ 仪礼 refers to six "rites" that make up a marriage, presided over by the matchmaker, and it seems that most Chinese weddings throughout subsequent history have made at least a nod toward fulfillment of the six rites. In fact, most of the rites have to do with engagement and its negotiations, that is, with matters that were the business of the matchmaker.8

Footnote #8: These are enumerated in the Yílǐ (Hūnlǐ) 仪礼‧昏 [婚] 礼, the Lǐjì (Hūnyì) 礼记‧昏[婚]义, and the (non-canonical) Báihǔtōng Délùn (Jiàqǔ) 白虎通德论‧嫁娶. The Canonical six rites and three documents include:

Rite 1: "Submitting a betrothal gift" (nàcǎi 纳采) from the groom's family to the bride's family. (Accompanying Rite 1 is Document 1, the "engagement document" [pìnshū 聘书].)

Rite 2: Formally "asking the [girl's] name" (wènmíng 问名), specifically, requesting the girl's "eight characters" (bāzì 八字), the providing of which constitutes a positive answer by the girl's family.

Rite 3: "Accepting felicity" (nàjí 纳吉) refers to the groom's family bringing the girl's eight characters to a lineage temple or to a fortune teller to decide if it is appropriate for the boy to marry her. (A bad divination may still be used as the pretext to break off the negotiations.)

Rite 4: "Accepting the brideprice" (nàzhēng 纳征) refers to the acceptance of a gift, usually including money, by the bride's family. A marriage arrangement is essentially finalized by this act. (Accompanying Rite 4 is Document 2, the "gift document" [lǐshū 礼书].)

Rite 5: "Selecting the day" (qǐngqī 请期), that is the most auspicious day. It must be agreed upon by both families. Normally the groom's family proposed two dates about a fortnight apart, and the bride's family selected one. (The critical issue here, although never overtly mentioned, was to avoid the bride's menstrual period, since a marriage established with a menstruating bride was regarded as profoundly infelicitous. In the words of a Tiānjīn proverb, "If a red horse gets upon the bed, the family will be ruined and people will die." (Hóngmǎ shàng chuáng, jiā bài rén wáng. 红马上床,家败人亡。)

Rite 6: "Welcoming the bride" (qīnyìng 亲迎), specifically, for a groom to proceed to the bride's house and escort her back to his own family's house. (In connection with Rite 6 came Document 3, the "transfer document" (yíng shū 迎书).

Vannicelli (1943: 265) reports that the "ordinary interpretation" of the canon was that the duties of the matchmaker, whom he refers to by the term bīn , came to an end at this point. Bīn means "guest" At least in Tiānjīn, "great guest" (dàbīn 大宾) is the polite term applied to a matchmaker as participant in the wedding feast and other events of the day itself.

Because the negotiations potentially included agreements over the transfer of considerable wealth, tact and finesse were clearly necessary for successfully mediating the concerns of all the parties involved.9

Footnote #9: Ruăn (1989: 158) cites a provocative proverb: "One who can arrange marriages can scold both sides; one who cannot is scolded by both sides." (Huì zuò méi de mà liǎng tóu, bù huì zuò méi liǎng tóu mà. 会做媒的骂两头,不会做媒两头骂。 / 會做媒的罵兩頭,不會做媒兩頭罵。)

Although it was usual for both introduction and negotiation to be undertaken by the same person, that was not necessarily the case. It was not at all uncommon (and is even commoner today) for two families or two marriageable people to be introduced by one person and for the formal negotiations of the marriage to be overseen by someone else. A young person with wide social contacts among unmarried youths might propose a candidate, for example, but lack the experience to mediate the premarital negotiations, which would be turned over to someone more effective at this. Indeed, we shall see that today some couples fall in love, dispensing with the introducer altogether, but engage a matchmaker purely to pursue the complex negotiations involved. I have the impression that, in general, professional matchmakers normally combined the roles, while friends and relatives may more often have divided them. This may still be the case, although the introducer role has perhaps become more casual. Thus analytically we should distinguish the introducer from the negotiator, although in this paper I shall put exclusive emphasis upon the introduction function, since I have collected more data on this.

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4. Matchmaking and Arranged Marriage

In purest and most stereotypic form, a traditional Chinese matchmaker arranged a marriage between a girl and a boy in two families of roughly equal social status. The two families might have been unacquainted (or only distantly acquainted) with each other, but they were each likely to benefit by their new association through the happiness of their children and/or through the potentially useful contacts they established as affines. Approximate equality of social status was a rule of thumb and still is, summed up in the phrase "doors matching, households facing" (mén dāng hù duì 门当户对). The underlying logic is differently explained by different informants, but always recognizes the universal discomfiture of persons of one social class linked in kinship to those of another. The Canon is perhaps more rigid than were most parents in insisting that the tie was between families, not between individuals, but either way, traditionally the welfare of the married couple was considered to be best served by relying on the wisdom of their parents in making the decisions. In particular, initial "love" was ideally at best a minor consideration in most matches, and was sometimes even regarded as a source of undesirable distortion in the process of mate selection or marital adjustment.

Today, of course, love, or anyway the term "love," dominates engagement and marriage. And contemporary social scientists contrast "love marriage" with "arranged marriage" or "blind marriage." In fact, the situation is potentially much more complex. Theoretically, we can imagine several slightly axes of variation between love marriage and blind marriage. In theory a potential match:

may be:
1. arranged by one's self arranged by a hired stranger
2. endorsed/constrained by no-one endorsed/constrained by parents
3. with a known mate with an unknown mate
who is:
4. selected by one's self selected by a hired stranger
5. someone one desires someone one dislikes

These need not distribute identically. For example, a marriage can be arranged by others (1b) but with a person whom one knows (3a) and likes (5a), or can be arranged by oneself (1a) with an unknown mate (3b, the proverbial "mail-order bride"). A mate chosen by others (4b) can be liked (5a) or disliked (5b). A match arranged by oneself (1a) can receive the endorsement of happy parents (2b). One can arrange (1a) (or agree) to marry a disliked mate (5b) because the social costs of remaining unmarried are unbearable.

Further, each of these polar distinctions is in fact a gradient. The "others" who arrange a match (1) can be more or less intimate acquaintances, or more or less trusted. The potential mate (3) can range from an utter stranger to a person known since childhood, and can be enthusiastically desired, considered acceptable, or the cause of anxiety or rejection (5). And importantly, a marriage can be less extreme on one gradient than on another. Parental approval, for example, is hardly likely to be withheld merely because a potential spouse is known or loved.

Thus studies which contrast "love marriage" and "arranged" marriage often confound a good deal of variation in the reality of the situation.10 One village woman in Báo'ān rejected five or six potential husbands before finally agreeing to marry a man she had known for years, who was the son of a friend of her father's. The match was arranged, but she had veto power over it, at least for a while. The groom was known, but not very well.11 Clearly a good analysis should include more than only two stereotypic extremes.

Footnote #10: Thus Blood (1967), for example, writing of marriage in Japan, found it useful to distinguish among three types of marriage initiation: (1) Pure miai marriage was defined as (a) observing traditional formalities, (b) relying on other people's initiative and judgment, (c) lacking premarital interaction, and (d) lacking of love. (2) In contrast, the pure love match was defined as the opposite of each of these. The over-rigid dichotomy immediately forced him to introduce two intermediate categories (3) quasi-miai, and (4) quasi-love matches. Importantly, matchmakers took part in all but the second of these types.

Footnote #11: Requiring multiple matchmaking attempts is relatively uncommon today. In the questionnaire surveys referred to above, 51 respondents (35 women, 16 men) in the Tiānjīn group were married by their first matchmaker, but 52 (37 women, 15 men) had more than one matchmaker (3.8 for women, 4.3 for men). In the Táoyuán survey six women and 14 men said they were married by their first matchmaker; 15 women and 4 men had more than one matchmaker (an average of 6 for women, 3 for men). The small "sample" sizes render these figures statistically insignificant, as is the case with nearly all of the numbers I shall cite from these surveys. But it is clear enough that the stereotype of marriage arrangement simply being a matter of picking a matchmaker and following his or her instructions is not accurate. It probably never has been.

Croll (1981), for example, seeks to take account of some of this variation in her division of modern Chinese marriages into four general "models": Model 1: Marriage is initiated by the parents, usually negotiated through a matchmaker. Model 2: Marriage is initiated by the parents but the young people's consent is necessary before the parents finally conclude the arrangements. Model 3: Marriage is initiated by the young people, but with the consent of the parents. Model 4: Marriage is initiated and arranged by the young people and the parents' consent is not necessary. While four models are better than two, I would argue that even four fail to model the amount of variation that is significant.

In general, most Chinese marriages today are probably further right on all of the axes of the figure above than most American or European marriages are, but are further left, on the whole, than they were a century ago. This reality of course does not prevent popular thinking about marriage from continuing the binary division, from confounding all variables, or from representing a unitary "modern" marriage as though it stood in a single polar opposition to an equally unvarying entity described as "traditional" or "blind" marriage.

In mainland China today "blind" matches are illegal, and the law requires that the parties declare that they are entering into marriage of their own free well before a match can be contracted. Most informants tell me that the law requires that the parties "love each other" before they can be married. A phrasing I heard more than once from matchmakers contrasted traditional marriage, in which one should "first wed, then love" (xiān jiéhūn, hòu liàn'ài 先结婚后恋爱), with modern marriage, in which one must "first love, then wed" (xiān liàn'ài, hòu jié hūn 先恋爱后结婚).

However the universal expectation of marriage, the weakness of a tradition of courtship, and widely shared expectations about the nature of the marriage bond itself provide constraints on mate selection that often result in this "love" being something quite foreign to the troubadour-drenched traditions associated with the word as it is normatively used in English. Many Tiānjīn informants tell me that in China today all marriages are "love marriages," but then continue to explain that potential mates can easily fall in love in the course of one or two brief encounters arranged by semi-professional matchmakers, a concept of love that seems very alien to my American students.12

Footnote #1: "… A 1955 report on Marriage Law implementation admitted that 'in the extensive rural districts … the conditions for adequate communal life and avenues for social intercourse' are lacking. As a result, 'most marriages are still being contracted after both parties were introduced to each other by third parties.' The report hastened to explain that as the bride and groom gave their previous agreement to the marriage it was to be regarded as a marriage of free will and not to be confused with the old and outlawed practice of arranged marriage." (Stanford 1956: 161.)

Still, today's marriages are quite unlike those described by some of my elderly informants, who report that, like my Báo'ān research assistant, they did not know they were to be married until shortly before the event, and that they did not see their new spouse (always a stranger)13 until the wedding itself, an extreme they refer to as "packaged" or "monopolized" marriage (bāobàn hūnyīn 包办婚姻).14. Packaged marriage strikes them as very different from the still arranged, but no longer blind marriages of the present.

Footnote #13: An elderly informant in southern Shānxī 山西 told me that she was so embarrassed by her marriage to a total stranger than she dared not look at him, and even passed him on the street a month later without recognizing him.

Footnote #14: The polar opposite, essentially marriage by elopement without the knowledge of anyone except bride and groom, is not the norm in any society, to my knowledge, but is perhaps not far from the norm in societies in which parents are informed of a marriage rather than consulted.

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4.1. A Note on Terms

In general, most Chinese marriages today involve one or more matchmakers, typically friends or relations of the parties involved. The matchmakers face the same problems they always have: finding appropriate mates, and gracefully mediating the necessary technical negotiations. For present purposes, a "matchmaker" is anyone who engages in matchmaking, especially matchmaking that results in marriage, and especially a person who does this repeatedly and enthusiastically. Thus any marriage to which parties were introduced with the intent of marriage is here construed as to that extent an "arranged" marriage, and it is possible to talk about the nature of the arrangement and the character of the matchmaker. In particular, it is not convenient to limit the term "arranged marriage" to the "blind" marriages of yesteryear, for doing so defines too many matchmakers out of our examination; for the same reason it is not convenient to reserve the term "matchmaker" to those who do this work for money.15

Footnote #15: Evolving linguistic nuances are such that this may or may not exactly correspond with the generic Chinese term méirén 媒人. For the mainland it seems to correspond closely with jièshàorén 介绍人 (or in the case of the most professional individuals, with hóngniáng 红娘). For Taiwan perhaps it corresponds most colloquially with a verb: a "matchmaker" is a person who happens to zuòméi 做媒 / 做媒. There are, of course, many alternative terms and associated euphemisms. One matchmaker I interviewed consistently referred to each arranged marriage as a "happy match and harmonious union" (jiéwéi liángyuán 结为良缘). Some English writers prefer other terms: marriage broker, go-between. I have not found it useful to try to draw distinctions among such terms.

At the opposite extreme from individual matchmakers we find the commercialization of matchmaking into multi-employee bureaux with standardized application questionnaires, computerized files, videotaped interviews, and financial guarantees. This type of institution, apparently disjoint from traditional Chinese models, is as readily found in Taiwan as in America, and is incipient in mainland China.16 Because I am interested in the continuities between the present and traditional matchmaking, such establishments are not part of the present study. 17

Footnote #16: Apparently some such agencies even specialize in obtaining rural mainland wives for Taiwanese men judged unmarriageable by local standards.

Footnote #17: In our surveys of married people, none of the respondents had apparently used such a service.

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5. The Ethnography of Matchmaking

Ethnographic accounts that I have located are curiously thin on the subject of matchmaking. But brief as they are, they suggest tremendous variation.

Young people are described as having no role whatever in traditional mate selection, or only a modest role (as in the Taiwan custom of "looking at each other"), but in most areas a son (Levy 1949: 87) or in some cases a daughter (Tseng 1931: 284, q. by Schak 1974: 30) might sometimes be consulted or given a choice between two equally eligible potential mates.18

Footnote #18: In Taiwanese traditional marriage a matchmaker is involved from the beginning, but the first step is to "look at each other" 對 看. The prospective groom accompanies his family head and the matchmaker to the home of the prospective bride, where she serves them tea in the course of the visit, and they thus get an early chance to see her (Mă 1981: 399). An expansion of the groom's role in arranged marriages may be evolving in this general direction in rural Guangdong (Watson 1985: 158), although whether it begins as early in the process as this is unclear. But in other areas too the bride or groom sometimes were consulted or given a choice in some matches.

Usually the matchmaker is described, even today, as an important participant in decision making,19 sometimes a mere formality in a decision already made by the groom's side (Mǎ 1981: 9, 256), the girl's side (ibid. 256), or both families involved (Hutson 1921:14, Tcheng 1884: 31). The actual process may be described as initiated by the boy's side (Fei 1939: 41, Levesque 1969:97) or the girl's (Lang 1926: 37) or either (although a matchmaker was inevitably essential if the girl's side initiated the negotiations —Mǎ 1981: 256). Or the matchmaker herself or himself could raise the idea with either or both sides (Kulp 1925: 170, Lang 1926: 37).

Footnote #19: Shào (1989: 30) describes the matchmaker as critical to modern marital decision making. Due to the "feudal" heritage and the promotion of "freedom of love" 自 由 戀 愛, we are told, in the countryside a marriage decision is now based on the consensus of three parties: (1) the parents, (2) the matchmaker, and (3) the boy and girl. Mosher (1983: 177), after a detailed description of remarkably sex-segregated rural life in rural Guangdong in the early 1980's, argues that today a matchmaker may be necessary because the chronic shyness of the young people themselves makes courtship and dating (still?) virtually impossible.

Matchmakers are described as normatively men (Kulp 1925) or women (Levesque 1969: 97, Wolf & Huang 1980: 71, Lín 1992:133), friends, relatives (Lin 1947, Chao 1948:126, Wu 1936:39), servants (Ball 1926: 71), or unrelated "professionals" (Feng & Shryock 1950: 428). They may normatively operate singly (the usual way) or in pairs (Feng & Shryock 1950) or groups (Mǎ 1981:369). Often, but by no means always, the job is especially associated with elderly women, valued for their networks and diplomatic skills today (Harrell 1981: 207, Wolf 1972: 112-113), even as they were when local elders recommended that elderly women be the matchmakers of choice in the Yuan dynasty (Ruăn 1987:92).

Different ethnographies place different stress on the importance of locating eligible mates as opposed to undertaking the negotiations for economic exchanges between the two families. Lin (1947) describes the use of a range of kinsmen as matchmakers, whose responsibilities were as much to convince parents of the worth of matches proposed by the young as to initiate the matches or negotiate the exchanges.

And variations from family to family in the same village seem to be nearly as great as variations from province to province. There is, in other words, no strictly "typical" matchmaker.

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6. Individuals Who Make Matches

Most married people in Tiānjīn can name without difficulty the person who introduced them to their spouses, and the introductions were normally made with the explicit expectation that marriage might result. In the Tiānjīn survey, 109 of the 112 informants offered at least some information about their matchmakers. And 65 of them indicated that they had played matchmaker to others (an average of 2.9 times).20

Footnote #20: For Táoyuán the numbers were strikingly lower: 38 people provided information about a matchmaker, and only 26 had themselves tried to make matches, but an average of 5.9 times. On the other hand, only 46 of the Tiānjīn informants claimed to have had the satisfaction of having their introductions actually result in marriages (an average of 1.7 times per respondent), while all 26 of the Táoyuán respondents claimed such success (an average of 4.2 times). If these numbers were to be believed, the smaller and less matchmaker-dependent Táoyuán group would have to be credited with producing 109 successful introductions, compared to the Tiānjīn group's 78!

In other words, it appears that Chinese rarely decide to marry people they happen to meet or happen to know, but rather people who are introduced as prospective mates. (although some in fact may be known in advance in other contexts). As young Taiwanese man explained to me in 1967, "You don't want to marry somebody you already know, because you already know what is the matter with her."

6.1. Social Network of the Matchmaker

The person optimally placed to make such an introduction is someone whose social world differs from that of each of the prospective mates in such a way as to include the other. In traditional rural China, a number of aspects of life defined different social networks for different people. For example, the greater mobility of men, combined with their representing the family in inter-village contexts, tended to give men geographically broader social networks than women had. On the other hand, rules of virilocal residence usually resulted in a woman spending many years in each of two villages: the one into which she was born and the one into which she married. This positioned her well, arguably better than a man, to envision viable matches spanning these two villages.

The village "women's network," well documented by Margery Wolf for Taiwan (1972, especially ch. 3), led to women having extensive knowledge of each other's family life within their local areas. Village women in particular worked together with their neighbors on a daily basis, knew their neighbors' families, and watched their neighbors' children growing up. As the children grew, they knew each other, of course, and girls came to be involved with women's work projects and to participate to an extent in the same women's network. Even a very young girl would have quite complete information about neighboring families, including information about their potentially marriageable children.

At marriage a woman would be torn from the network of her native village, but would take with her a good deal of knowledge about that village and its inhabitants. As she gradually worked her way into the "women's network" of her new village, she was optimally suited, we might imagine, to propose matches between children of the new village and those of the old one. Martin Yang does not propose this as a general phenomenon, but he describes it for the village he studied in Shandong, where he tells us that

it is very common for a daughter-in-law to suggest a cousin, or a girl from her own parents' neighborhood, as a wife for her younger brother-in-law. A married daughter may enjoy acting as a matchmaker between her own brother and a girl from her husband's neighborhood. (Yang 1945: 117)

A man's world spanned over greater distance, but the contacts he made with people were in the nature of one-to-one contacts and business deals involving other men, but not their families, and certainly not their children. He might be acquainted with many men from many other districts, but probably knew few details about their family situations.

Professional matchmakers were not always female, but stereotypes about them are always female, and most seem in fact to have been women. Unlike most women, "professional" matchmakers did travel around. Elderly informants say that many worked as door-to-door vendors of jewelry or other goods, who stopped for tea and chat, and presumably managed to take indirect advantage of the same women's network that placed the recently married well to suggest matches. Similarly Mǎ (1981: 240) mentions peripatetic spinning-machine mechanics who visited home workshops as frequently serving as matchmakers. In many cases it probably would have been difficult to decide whether a particular woman was a matchmaker who did peddling to sustain her social network, or a peddler who did matchmaking because of her social network. Unfortunately, the recorded cases allow us to draw no firm conclusions about this. The preponderance of women among matchmakers could have many causes, But their ability to tie into "women's information" from several networks in the course of their rounds was surely an important resource for them, one that would have been less available for men.

Thus we find an array of arrangement practices for which the participants may or may not have been aware of the subtle motivating logic. My suspicion is that those engaging in the practices were quite aware of the working of the system, of its logic, and how to use it best to their advantage, even if they might not have noticed its systematic properties. Some implications arise, however, which were almost certainly not generally perceived, but which we may find it interesting to note.

In the case of "Taitou" (Shāndōng 山东), for example, the fact that Taitou women tended to create additional matches between their natal and postmarital families -if Yang is right that the practice was common- could be expected to lead to a system of bride-trading between the paired villages. The affiliation between villages might not be intentional, but would be the natural result of the surname exogamy rule and the nature of a woman's social contacts and familial obligations. Such links might then complement links based on surname solidarity and cultivated by men in connection, for example, with feasting and religious festivals. I have argued elsewhere (1989) that such alliances would have exerted a mild but relatively constant force toward peacekeeping in rural areas. Marriage networks of the kind that may be implied in Yang's brief comment about marriage arrangement in Taitou would have similar implications, were it but possible to explore them.21

Footnote #21: Mitchell (1972: 235n) notes such a pattern in rural Guangdong, but sees it as a self-conscious arrangement that poses an additional obstacle to marriage arrangement rather than as a product of marriage choice: "It is also likely that villages had exchange relationships whereby young girls were provided each other as wives for their young men. These were exchange relationships between lineage groups and they evidently put severe constraints on the younger people with regard to the eligible individuals they could consider for marriage."

In fact, however, although most ethnographers describe matchmakers as women, few suggest that young women were frequently involved. The greater leisure and experience of middle aged and older women appears to have more than offset any advantage that might accrue to the comparative village newcomer. And the greatest advantage accrued to women who had occasion to pay home visits throughout a region.

Perhaps complementarily, marriage forms lacking in respectability might require finding spouses in more distant places, and would call for a male matchmaker, with his substantially greater mobility. We should therefore anticipate male matchmakers in cases of concubinage, for example, or daughter-in-law adoption.

It is important to point out that there is nothing magical about the sex of the matchmaker; what matters is the ability to collect marital data from a social network that is different from that of the parents of two potential mates. Today complex social networks are widely available to most people in China, and it is not surprising to see little significant difference in the sex of matchmakers.22

Footnote #22: In the Tiānjīn questionnaire, matchmakers of urban respondents were evenly divided between male and female; sixty percent of the matchmakers of rural respondents were female. In Táoyuán 27 of 38 respondents' matchmakers (71%) were female.

Today such a social network can occur, for example, when high school or university students graduate and then take positions in work units. As they come to know unmarried workmates, they are able to imagine them matched to unmarried former schoolmates. This source of potential matches is as available to young men as to young women, and it is not surprising to find that introductions by former schoolmates are an important way in which Chinese today find mates.

6.2. Motivations of the Matchmakers

One can only guess at the motivation of matchmakers. The stereotyped traditional matchmaker was assumed to be motivated by the hope of turning a quick profit, and the gratuities offered to a matchmaker certainly could play a role in motivating this activity in a chronically cash-strapped traditional community. MǍ Zhīsù suggests that a matchmaker's career may begin by being asked to help with a marriage arrangement by a few friends, but later on, because of the income from this kind of work, he or she tends to become professional. (Mǎ 1981: 240.)

In fact, we know frustratingly little of how much traditional matchmakers made; in many cases it was probably very little, but some clearly did very well.23 Wolf & Huang (1980: 268) estimate the matchmaker's fee in Taiwan in 1900 at about 5% of the brideprice. Levesque (1969, 97 & 103) suggests figures for Taiwan Hakka that would put it at about 4% of dowry. On the other hand Fei & Chang (1945: 259) provide one example in which the fee was equal to 80% of the (admittedly very poor) brideprice. How often, if ever, the total income was the equal of the legends that grew up about it is hard to say.

Footnote #23: One Tiānjīn matchmaker cited a local proverb describing traditional marriage brokering: "After three couples, you can live to a ripe old age." (Sān duì yǐhòu nǐ kě cháng shòu. 三对以后你可长寿。) Ruăn (1989: 158) quotes a similar proverb, "Be a matchmaker once and you can eat for three years." (Zuò yī cì méi, zhuǎn hǎo shí sān nián qīng cài. 做一次媒,转好食三年清菜。 / 做一次媒,轉好食三年清菜。)

However monetary rewards do not appear to be the motivation for most matchmakers today. The Tiānjīn matchmakers I interviewed were unanimous in denying that they received any money at all for their services. But they were inarticulate (or unconvincing) in explaining what motivated them. Most just said that they simply liked doing it, and left it at that. What seemed to emerge between the lines in our discussions were several other elements: an element of puzzle solving, a bit of a thrill from vicariously participating in a marriage different from one's own, the sense that others are in one's debt for something important to them, a delight in exhibiting one's command of a broad social network, and a sense of accomplishment and of contributing to social good, for to be without a spouse was uniformly regarded by them as tragic.

Despite the negative stereotype of the professional matchmaker, there are positive cultural supports for matchmaking as well. Chinese society particularly celebrates the ability to introduce partners to a marriage. We have seen that both traditional and recent law and ritual provided a place for the matchmaker in the bridal procession and the marriage celebration. One Tiānjīn informant, not a professional matchmaker, but a man who prides himself on the occasional introductions he has arranged, cites the Tiānjīn proverb, "Four times a matchmaker and you can pass over the golden bridge [into Heaven]" (sì cháng méi guò jīnqiáo 四常媒过金桥).

6.3. Matchmaking & the Person of Hóngniáng

The rise of non-blind marriage in our own century has been accompanied by increasing use of the term hóngniáng 红娘 to designate a matchmaker. Hóngniáng (which literally means "red maiden") was originally the name of a chambermaid in the story of The Romance of the Western Bower (Xīxiāng Jì 西厢记), where she is responsible for arranging communications and trysts between her mistress, who is temporarily living in a monastery with her widowed mother, and a young scholar who briefly takes up residence in the same monastery. Hóngniáng does not in fact arrange a marriage so much as a premarital affair (although in fuller versions of the story the lovers are in fact married in the end).24 The point is that Hóngniáng seeks to unite two people who were destined to love each other, and she does this with determination and ingenuity, even against rumors of the man's infidelity, against opposition by her mistress' bother, and against a host of political and military obstacles. She is thus the pivotal figure in a romantic love story. Perhaps significantly for her positive image, Hóngniáng did not collect a fee for her services.

Footnote #24: The novel is by Yuán dynasty writer Wáng Shífǔ 王实甫, but incidents from the story have become standard repertoire pieces in various theatrical traditions, and the character is readily recognized by people who have not read the novel. Many of the tales associated with this cycle of stories circulate without specific reference to the original source. Schak's informants apparently told him several variants of stories from the Western Bower circulating as independent romantic love stories (Schak 1974: 40-41).

The story of Hóngniáng provides perhaps the most strongly positive image of matchmaking to be found in Chinese literature, and hóngniáng has come to be a polite term for matchmakers in general. Of course, not everyone understands the original reference. One Tiānjīn matchmaker specifically denied being a méirén, the traditional term for a matchmaker. Méirén was for her much too contaminated with the smell of blind marriages of generations past. There are no méirén in China today, she insisted. She was, she proudly told me, not a méirén, but a hóngniáng, bringing joy to her clients.25

Footnote #25: Since niáng means "maiden," detaching the name Hóngniáng from its literary foundation creates the minor problem of what to call a male matchmaker if one avoids the term méirén. He is a hóngdàyé 红大爷 "red elder", I was told by one matchmaker, a term that more literate people found extremely entertaining, apparently in part because of its illiterate literalism, in part because of its seeming confusion with the near homonym hóngyè 红叶 "red leaf," yet another romantic term for a matchmaker. (In the Tang dynasty an aggrieved palace maiden wrote her troubles on a red leaf and threw this into the moat. A young scholar found it and sent her a reply in the same way. Some of the servants were later married off by imperial orders, and the girl was assigned to the scholar; they lived happily ever after when they discovered that they had been the secret correspondents.)

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7. Who Needs a Matchmaker?

Normative marriage age has varied in the course of history, across space, and by social class. There is variation is the comparative ages of husbands and wives, and variation in marriage age from one individual to another. (As we shall see in a moment, there is even greater variation in the age of betrothal, for logically betrothal can come very close on to marriage, or many years before; thus age at betrothal, even more than age at marriage, can be of importance to matchmaking.)

Something of the complexity of the situation is captured in the following description of Ding Xian (Shanxi) as described by Gamble (1954: 385):

Fourteen and 16 were the ages when the largest number of boys were married. Sixteen and 18 were the most popular ages for the girls. Some boys were married when they were only seven years old. Twelve was the youngest age for the girls. About 1.5 per cent of the women were over 25 when they married. Occasionally one was over 30, but in our study of 5,2555 families there were only three unmarried females over 22 years of age. About one percent of the men were over 40 when they married. … The average age at marriage, in two groups of families, was 17.2 and 18.7 for the males and 17.7 for both groups of females. … The size of the family income had a great influence on the age at which the sons were married.

Some other late-XIXth- and early-XXth-century estimates are:

A more extensive survey examined the mean ages of women in rural Anhui and divided them into cohorts to estimate age at (first) marriage, with means ranging from 18 to 21, gradually rising from the earliest to the most recent marriages, peaking in the early 1980s, and dropping again after that (presumably in response to the efforts of matchmakers after the end of the Cultural Revolution) (Yang 1990: 144).

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7.1. Betrothal & the Window of Opportunity

In contrast to marriage, betrothal may come quite early. It was not uncommon in some areas for matches to be made at ages of 8 to 10 (Kulp 1925: 170), 6 to 7 (Fei 1939:40), or even in anticipation of birth, the so-called "betrothal while pointing at the stomach" (zhǐ fú wéi hūn 指服为婚) (Hutson 1921: 14, Gamble 1954: 379, Lowe 1941: 191). For the rural district of Weihaiwei (Shandong), for example, a Chinese chronicler quoted by Johnston (1910: 167) observed that "betrothals are arranged when the principals are still in their swaddling-clothes." This practice was considered normal in Weihaiwei, but the out-of-town chronicler is critical of it, and comments that "(owing to deaths and other causes) marriages often fail to take place … babyhood is certainly too early a time for betrothals." (Ibid.)

Similarly In "Kao Yao," southwest of Kūnmíng 昆明 (Sìchu:an 四川), Cornelius Osgood notes that a one-year old could be spoken for, and "most betrothals occurred at the age of ten or eleven, by which time it was expected that such matters would be settled." (Osgood 1963: 276.) In other areas we can observe initial negotiations that take place long after they would have been "settled" in Kao Yao. From the biography of Old Madam Yin, it appears that her engagement at sixteen was not at all unusual (Pruitt 1979: 86). In "Westtown" (Yúnnán 云南), studied by Francis Hsu in the early 1940s, betrothals were preferred for seven- and eight-year-old children, but Hsu notes that "betrothals at sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen years are by no means rare" (Hsu 1948: 87). Hsu's study is in fact unusual in the wide range of betrothal ages

Whatever the absolute ages that represent its two ends, at the beginning of the window of opportunity, parents can afford to sit back and await incoming offers (if any). As Feng & Shryock note for Yíchāng 宜昌 (Húbĕi湖北), "While the child is small, the parents [do not] take an active part in such negotiations, waiting for someone else to take the initiative." (1950: 346.)

Roughly the same observation was made by Martin Yang for the village he calls "Taitou" (Shāndōng 山东). Here, "if the description of the boy's family is not particularly appealing," the girl's mother can refuse the matchmaker's offer in good conscience, provided that "the girl is still young, say twelve or thirteen years old" (Yang 1945: 106).

Thus, would-be matchmakers, whoever they might be, could make suggestions at this point, but without much probability of success unless a proposed mate represented a truly unusual opportunity. The situation changed, however, at the other end of the "window of opportunity." Yang continues:

If, however, the girl is already twenty years old, … then she [the mother] would probably say: "By all means, please help us to make this match. Day and night her father and I worry about finding her a p'o-chia [post-marital family] … If the boy is good-natured and the family has enough to eat, I would say the match is perfect. (Yang 1945: 106)

The following "first-hand" account of such a parent comes from Tretiakov's "autobiography" of his Sichuanese friend, Tan Shih-hua (Dèng Xīhuá 邓惜华) (Tretiakov 1934: 185f.):

The engagements of my comrades, fifteen-year-old boys, were being announced and celebrated one after another. … Every such engagement was an insult to my step-mother. At night she would cry. During the day time she would run to our relatives complaining of our poverty and our misfortune. She was ready to humiliate herself before the go-between, who occasionally came to our house to find out if there was a chance to engage me to some girl in Sian-Shih or in a nearby village. My step-mother's answer was tearful and pathetic: "We are poor. We are ready to marry Shih-hua to any girl who would consent to marry him. You should ask the parents of the girls, and not our needy family, which hasn't enough money for three meals a day. Ask them if they would care to have us as relatives."

Timing inside the "window of opportunity" determines whether or not the matchmaker has the upper hand. Early on, a family can afford to be picky. As time goes by, preferences are simplified, proprieties are set aside, and eventually a certain air of desperation can come to dominate the process. For example, convention dictates whose side is supposed to make the first move. Almost universally that is left to the groom's side. But we may speculate that as time pressure increases, convention can give way to practicality, and the family of an undesirable girl, may be reduced to taking more direct action before their daughter becomes entirely unmarriageable by passing beyond the appropriate age.

Even poverty, which can delay marriage when there is a choice, must cease to be an excuse as the child gets to the end of the "window." The peasant woman "Ning Lao Taitai" in Pruitt's account began the arrangements for her seventeen-year-old daughter's marriage, even though "her father said that we did not have money enough to make a wedding … The time had come for her to marry and start her own family" (Pruitt 1945: 153).

Y.L. Wu (1936-37: 813) points out that a good deal of shame could be involved for parents whose children waited too long. "Most queer will it be considered if boys and girls are unmarried when they come to twenty, and the parents will be greatly ashamed of not having performed their duty." With shame may come not only compromise in the expectations for the spouse, but a certain desperation in the methods employed.

One hint that such a process may frequently have been at work comes from the work of Daniel Harrison Kulp in "Phenix Village" near Cháozhōu 潮州 (Guăngdōng 广东). Kulp itemizes three distinct ways in which the initial steps could be taken:

  1. matchmakers could go to families at their own initiative,
  2. fathers could call in matchmakers on behalf of their sons, and
  3. fathers could call in matchmakers on behalf of their daughters. (Kulp 1925: 170)

Kulp does not distinguish the circumstances of these three kinds of cases. It is tempting to suspect that when matchmakers approached the family on their own initiative when children were young, while in the second and third situations the children were most likely reaching the end (or at least passing the optimum point) of marriageable age, and the parents felt an obligation to take action on their behalf.

Conversely, very early betrothals appear to be associated with particularly obvious or desirable matches, which both sides may desire to "tie up" before the opportunity slips away (e.g., Lowe 1940: 4-5). When the match is especially suitable, it takes little subtly to be a matchmaker, for all parties are enthusiastic from the beginning. In his study of Kao Yao, for example, Osgood found that some very early betrothals between preferred cousins were so obvious that use of an intermediary became superfluous. Osgood writes: "a betrothal was almost compulsory if a boy had a maternal cousin no more than three years younger." (1963: 276.)

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7.2. Professionals & the "Hard Cases"

We have already noted that matchmaking is a common avocation in China, and that a startling number of matches had been made by respondents in our two surveys, especially in the Táoyuán survey, even though a minority of Táoyuán respondents reported having experienced arranged marriages themselves.

It seems likely then, that in general easier matches, those occurring near the middle of the window of opportunity or toward the beginning of it, should be the ones most likely to be handled by friends and relations of the family, while professional matchmakers would be called in for the "hard" cases, cases typically falling toward the end of the "window of opportunity" or after it has effectively closed.26

Footnote #26: As marriage moved later and later, it not only became more difficult to arrange, but apparently grew less and less respectable, and matches were made at great distances, presumably in part because of the shame involved, the matches being treated somewhat as were cases of concubinage and daughter-in-law adoption or the recruitment of prostitutes. Johnston reports, for example, that in turn-of-the-century Wēihǎiwèi 威海卫 (Shāndōng 山东) some rural bachelors commissioned marriage brokers to fetch brides from poor families in the city. These were the men whose families couldn't afford wives for them when they were younger, and who were not desirable husbands. The girls sought were married as private individuals effectively bought by their husbands, and nobody apparently established effective or usable social ties with their affines, if they even knew who they were (Johnston 1910: 211). Nearly a century later this practice apparently continues as part of a growing trade in women (and occasionally men) that is only beginning to be studied (Gates 1996).

It has proven difficult to confirm this in the questionnaire data I have collected so far. All respondents were asked to identify their relationship with their matchmaker. Blocking together parents, family, and relatives as most intimate, colleagues and fellow students as having the most useful social networks for the purposes, and friends and acquaintances as the most distant group, one gets three classes of matchmakers. These can be compared with men and women above or below the mean marriage age for their sex and location. The result in every case (male and female, Tiānjīn and Táoyuán, rural and urban) is in the predicted direction: older marriages are arranged by work colleagues and fellow-students, not by relatives and neighbors. But the small numbers in both samples prevent the results from coming up to a satisfactory level of statistical significance.

In my interviews with Tiānjīn matchmakers, great emphasis was laid by them on the difficulty of the cases they got. Rarely, to hear them tell it, did they arrange marriages for handsome, happy, intelligent youngsters with charming and wealthy families. Such matches happen easily at the hands of friends and relatives who easily see the potential such people offer to be desirable mates. Instead the matchmakers of my interviews speak of seeking mates for the dull, the damaged, and the delinquent. Their most typical example was a person well past normative marriage age, and indeed some of them seemed almost to specialize in such cases.27

Footnote #27: The minimum legal age of marriage for women in mainland China today is 20, and for men 22. Mean age at marriage in our survey is 24.8 for 76 women and 27.1 for 34 men. (In the Táoyuán survey it was 24.3 for 47 women and 26.3 for 53 men.) The law requires that marriages be initiated by the bride and groom and entered into of their free will and mutual consent. The window of opportunity to find a mate probably opens a little before the minimum age, although active courtship is by no means encouraged. It closes gradually toward the high 20s, when most potential mates are already "taken." (The standard deviation for the Tiānjīn survey was about 4, for the Táoyuán survey about 3.5.)

To some extent, "older" unmarried people are a special problem in mainland China because of the disruptions that Communist political life has periodically imposed upon the social scene. The return of urban youths who had been "sent up to the country" during the Cultural Revolution, for example, brought many who had not married on a normal schedule.

Indeed, it was in response to such cases that several matchmaking associations were founded in the early 1980s, when the pressures of the Cultural Revolution were at last ended, and its costs were still much in evidence. It is useful to turn briefly to some specific matchmakers as examples.

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7.3. Tiānjīn Matchmakers & Their Associations

Mrs. Lài: The Company Matchmaker. Mrs. Lài, a woman of forty-something, effectively specializes in over-age matches. She began matchmaking in 1984 and in the eight years between that time and our interview had introduced something over sixty couples. She was brought to our attention as the most successful matchmaker in her work unit, the Tiānjīn Mechanical Industry Administrative Bureau. Official encouragement led to her conducting a survey of all unmarried people 28 or more years old in the work unit. Initially she recruited work-unit matchmakers to operate in teams of two to try to find matches for all these "old" employees. The program was sufficiently successful that other individuals and work units also approached her for advice or assistance. Mrs. Lài is proud of about a 25% "success rate" for her introductions.

Mrs. Zhū: City-Wide Organizing. Mrs. Zhū, in her late 50s, is the head of the Tiānjīn Municipal Trade Union Matchmakers' Association 天津市工会红娘协会, headquartered in the First Workers' Palace of Culture. Mrs. Zhū began work in the textile industry in 1946 at the age of 12 and gradually advanced through a series of positions in a cotton mill and a garment factory and in the associated workers' associations founded in 1949 and 1950. She served terms as section head for the textile workers' union (of about 200,000 members) and as Chairman of the Tiānjīn Municipal Fellowship of Labor Union Chairmen 天津市工会主席联谊会, a largely social organization. She was active in matchmaking in these groups, due, she told me, to the wide social network they created for her. Upon her retirement in 1990 she was a founding member of the Union Matchmakers' Association.28

Footnote #28: Another founder of the organization had been head of a union of department store workers, where she had been an active matchmaker. Union office-holding background seems pervasive in this particular association.

Although the Union Matchmakers' Association was formally founded only in 1990, Mrs. Zhū describes her matchmaking "work" as beginning in the late 1970s with the retirement of the cohort of the textile workers who had been unmarried workers in 1949 and whose post-1949 lives had been filled with work and political indoctrination requirements that made marriage on a normal schedule impossible. That, anyway, was how she phrased it. It is easier to suspect that the disruptions of the Japanese occupation, of the civil war, and of the early Communist period had made marriage difficult, demographically, financially, and ideologically, and that these women (and no doubt many men) had simply passed beyond the "window of opportunity" and could no longer easily find mates.

Normative retirement age was fifty, and at retirement the still active women of this age cohort were seen as particularly lonesome and tragic. Mrs. Zhū and others became active in finding matches for these retirees, and in 1980 the federation of trade unions started a small research program to determine the extent of the problem. It was estimated that about 20,000 Tiānjīn textile workers potentially fell into this category, so in 1981 a number of women organized to try to find husbands for all retiring and retired single women. In 1982 they undertook to expand this to all textile workers 25 or over who were still unmarried. They set up committees at the level of the individual company (1000 or so employees) and work group (10 or more employees). In 1983 they took on the general problem of finding mates for people normally regarded as unmarriageable. These included particularly three categories: (a) very short men, who are regarded as undesirable mates, (b) deaf mutes,29 and (c) elderly people. In this last category they this time targeted especially elderly men too timid or introverted to arrange things for themselves.

Footnote #29: Mrs. Zhū did not mention people with other physical disabilities. Since she was limiting her attention to employed industrial workers, it is possible that few of them were among her clients. As we shall see below, disabled people do make use of matchmakers, exactly as we might expect they should.

Perhaps in part because of the scale of their efforts and in part because of their association with the system of established labor organizations, they were quite successful. The papers reported on their efforts, and they had requests from outsiders for spouses and from other trade unions (e.g., in Beijing) for advice.

When the Association itself was founded in 1990, it was classed by the government as a "mass organization," which for practical purposes means that it has a good deal of autonomy but little financial support.30

Footnote #30: Financial support was about RMB ¥10,000 a year, we were told, which converted to US$2000 or so in 1992, about $1250 at the time of this writing, a trivial amount given the scale of its operation.

At the time of our interview in 1992, the organization included about 1400 formally associated matchmakers. It was divided into 55 sub-units of various kinds. The subordinate units received between RMB ¥50 and RMB ¥500 from the central organization, depending on their size, to sponsor such activities as registration, collective weddings, postage, introduction "events" for clients, and so on. At the top there is a small steering committee. Under this comes the "organization of matchmakers" (hóngniáng zǔ 红娘组), which is further subdivided into smaller district chapters. The organization seeks to confront matchmaking problems collectively. For example the fact that women marry slightly younger than men means that the depressed birth rate produced by the early years of the cultural revolution made for a shortage first of girls as the boys born in the early 1960s came to marriageable age, then (predictably) of boys as the post-CR "baby boomers" become marriageable girls-first.31 This was destined to produce special challenges as matchmakers explained the odds to their clients and tried to encourage matches of slightly older girls to slightly younger boys.

Footnote #31: The use of female infanticide or sex-linked abortion to skew the sex ratio after the adoption of the one-child policy has of course begun to produce far more complex results, which the matchmakers we interviewed have not yet had to confront.

We interviewed some suburban matchmakers who had founded their own small association, affiliated with Mrs. Zhū's city-wide one, and then withdrew after a year because they did not feel they sufficiently benefited by the contacts it gave them, and because they begrudged the small yearly fee. Despite its scale and its name the Union Matchmakers' Association by no means takes in all of Tiānjīn's most active matchmakers.

Mrs. Chén: The Importance of Networks. Mrs. Chén, who was in her mid-sixties at the time of our interview, was "sold" by her parents at the age of 14 (in about 1940) as an adopted daughter-in-law and was married not long afterward. She eventually ran away to wed her present husband and become a Communist cadre in Tiānjīn. She spent her working career in the new Women's Association. In 1948, when she was serving as head of the association and had a particularly large social circle of acquaintances, she happened to arrange a marriage between two cadres. This worked out well enough that it launched her career as a matchmaker. After her retirement she continued to use her connections to facilitate more matches, particularly among Communist cadres. In 1992 she and four other matchmakers whom she had met founded a hóngniáng association (hóngniáng xiéhuì 红娘协会). The local Association for Old Cadres (lǎogànbù huì 老干部会) provided a room for them to use. Mrs. Chén claimed to have introduced something over 100 couples in her career, attributing her success in large part to her very large and complex social network (fànwéi 范围, which, as we would predict based on our earlier discussion, allowed her to keep track far better than most people of prospective mates.

Like Mrs. Lài, Mrs. Chén regarded her clients as the "hard" cases, often what she called "old youths," (lǎonián qīngnián 老年青年, i.e., people over 30, and hence living in a world in which most other people of an appropriate age are already married. The important thing in matching them, she stressed, was social class: a cadre should never marry a non-cadre, for that way trouble would surely lie. The lack of cadre status was to Mrs. Chén a serious shortfall in one's marriageability, one not easily manipulated by matching it against another defect. Mates must be of "matching doors and facing households," after all. Mrs. Chén took that particularly seriously.

Mrs. Liu: Matchmaker as Entrepreneur. One matchmaker who operated largely outside of the organizational world just described was Mrs. Liu. Hailed by a former mayor as Tiānjīn's "Premier Matchmaker" (hóngniáng zhuàngyuán 红娘壮元), Mrs. Liu, a mother of four, was in her early sixties at the time of our interview and had introduced, she told us, over 10,000 couples, of whom about 10% were "successes" in that they got married.32 (Of those only 3 were later divorced, to her knowledge.)

Footnote #32: An April, 1991, People's Daily article gives the figure of 18,500 introductions and 1,060 weddings. A July, 1992, newspaper article reported 21,500 introductions and 1200 weddings. If one took them both seriously, that would be 3000 introductions and 140 weddings in 15 months, or 7 introductions per day and a wedding every third day, which seems prodigious.

Like several other matchmakers, Mrs. Liu began matchmaking in about 1980, when she was still working in the factory from which she had just retired when we interviewed her. About 1980 she was approached by a widowed neighbor looking for a handyman. As it happened, she knew just the person, and went to work on the matter. The handyman and the widow's daughter fell in love, and Mrs. Liu was celebrated as the clairvoyant if perhaps inadvertent matchmaker. She rapidly developed a clientele within her factory, where the introduction of returning youths from Cultural Revolution assignments in rural areas presented a population of unmarried people in quest of (or anyway in need of) mates. Once retired, she founded an organization called the Hóngniáng Association of the Hexi District Workers' Association of Tiānjīn City 天津市河西区区工会红娘协会. By far the dominant and most prominent member, she appeared also to be responsible for most of their matches. She charged RMB ¥10 per registration to cover bookkeeping and administration costs and operated from her home. It was evident in our interviews at the Union Matchmakers' Association that Mrs. Liu and her competing local association were something of an embarrassment to them.

In her interview Mrs. Liu, like other matchmakers, was quite emphatic that many of her successes were with people who were hard to match. She proudly claimed never to have turned down a client, since she believed that everyone ought to have a family and a mate. But she was quite frank about some people being damaged goods. Before the interview she prepared lists of some of her most challenging types of cases, and of some "representative" solutions to this vexing problem. The cases included members of minority groups (particularly Hui), people who were crippled or lame, released petty criminals, people too tall or too short33 or too fat or too old -her oldest was born in 1915- or divorced.

Footnote #33: Her tallest male was 195 cm (6'5"), her shortest 156 cm (5'1"); her tallest female was 185 cm (6'1"), her shortest 145 cm (4'9").

In general, when someone was "defective," she would pair that person with someone else who was also "defective." So a deaf person could expect to be paired with a lame one, for example. Or a released prisoner could expect to be paired with someone too old or too short or too fat.

One list included specific examples of such pairings culled from her files:

Male Female
arm missing deaf
scald scars fat
short one glass eye
prior child infertile
very old (b 1916) very old (also born 1916)
lisps crooked mouth
stutters fat

Mrs. Liu was proud of these pairings. They represented a certain poetic justice to her perhaps, but they were also monuments to her skills in persuasion, in making people see what possibilities were and were not realistic for them. And she was proud that these marriages that did not terminate in divorce. Each of these "defective" mates was the kind that the old jokes about matchmakers warn us about. But the matches had a certain realistic reciprocity to them The old jokes tend to overlook that.

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8. Conclusions

There is far more to be drawn from these interviews than I am able to outline here. In general, I am impressed by the cultural continuity I find in the conviction that all people sooner or later must be married, and in the joy that it gives at least to some people to be the agents by which mates are matched. Other traditional motifs also abound: marriage is rarely with someone whom one has known for a long time; it is nearly always with somebody who is proposed by other people as prospectively a good match. Marriage requires negotiation skills that may be beyond the range of most people seeking mates. Negotiation is carried on between families of the two prospective mates, not merely between the mates themselves. Neighbors, friends, and relatives are the matchmakers of first resort, with professionals taking on the "harder" cases that pass the mean marriage age and its "window of opportunity." Optimal matchmakers are those who are positioned to participate in more than one social arena, and they tend to match people from one arena to those in another. And so on. Blind marriages are gone, it is true, but the problem of finding a desirable mate for oneself is not seen as all that different from the problem of finding a desirable mate for one's child, and the job of the matchmaker is hardly finished merely by the demise of blind marriages.

I am impressed too by the self-consciousness of the logistic challenges on the part of the matchmakers and by their earthy practicality meeting their challenges, including ready utilization of modern organizational forms.

It might be tempting to see the "officialization" of mainland matchmaking in labor unions and work units as the long arm of the state intervening in private affairs, for there is no doubt that these are in the end state and party agencies. In fact, however, that is probably a misinterpretation. The impetus to match boy A with girl B does not originate with the state, but with the individual matchmaker who sees the unmarried life as inherently (and very traditionally) tragic. Far from state interference in private life, I suspect we see the opposite: the long arm of the traditional matchmaker co-opting the organs of Communist social organization to accomplish entirely traditional ends in quite a traditional way, but with a level of organizational sophistication much greater than was possible in earlier times. It has not been so much state agencies that have got into the matchmaking business, but rather strong-willed matchmakers that have made state agencies one arena for their activities.

With much wider participation of both women and men in an enormous range of social activities today, there is less need for matchmakers to find appropriate mates, and there is perhaps less direct economic dependency of the older generation upon the marital choices of the younger. This is particularly true in Taiwan, where arranged marriage, even in the generously extended definition of it used here, seems rapidly to be giving way to a system of courtship, moving ever further toward the "left side" of the figure presented earlier.

But the need for matchmakers has hardly disappeared. Even love matches tend to entail a matchmaker sooner or later, and expectations about courtship and marriage are such that for many individuals marriage would be difficult or impossible without the professional help of a matchmaker. (Americans, who pride themselves on a tradition of dating that largely excludes parents have independently developed a tradition of dating services, after all.)

Demographers tell us that, with the ability to detect the sex of a child in utero, we look ahead to drastic sex-ratio imbalances across Asia, exacerbated in mainland China by the one-child policy. As the "imbalanced" generation comes to marriageable age, the resort to matchmakers will likely increase as millions of young men and their families find they are unable to locate mates for themselves. The matchmakers are unlikely to be up to the task, since the problem will lie in basic demography, but they will try to do what they can, for better or worse. This could result in a substantial increase in their level of organization, in their importance, and, alas, in the underground activities of the unscrupulous among them.

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