Chinese Virilocal

Published on Author mccarronp16

There is no institution in any culture more significant than the family. China, of course, is no exception—and its traditions of family structure have been historically ingrained in Chinese culture. One of the defining characteristics of Chinese familial structure is virilocality.

Virilocality means that once a husband and wife are wed, they live with the groom’s family. This living situation is not surprising, considering the country’s patrilineal outlook (that is, calculating descent through the lineage of a family’s men). Once a woman was married, she was essentially removed from her family tree and placed in the husband’s family tree. To keep this male lineage going was very important. If a man failed to produce male offspring, he was looked down upon—and upon death considered dangerous ghosts.

Dingle132-smallAlso, the Chinese family was traditionally patriarchal. The head of the house was the most elderly male, and males of the same generation were always superior to women. Considering the male-dominated mentality evidenced by the patrilineal, and patriarchal outlook on family structure, it is therefore no surprise that virilocality was the traditional family structure.

Virilocality was viewed as “normal” from both ends: the wife’s family expected her to leave, and the husband’s family welcomed the newly married couple into their family estate. This was a defining point in a woman’s life—rife with sorrow for having to leave her family home. This could occasionally be offset by the sense of adventure of starting a new life in a new location with the status of being a married woman. There are long-standing traditions on this theme of sorrow—which includes musical lamentations and ritualized sorrow sessions with the wife’s unmarried friends or younger sisters. But sometimes virilocality was not feasible. If the head of the male’s household was a poor farmer with little income, other alternatives had to be considered.

In about 20% of all Chinese families, the husband was forced to live with the wife’s family. This is a uxorilocal structure. Sometimes this was for purely economic reasons. Other times it was because the wife’s family had no sons. The son-in-law, therefore, would be a stand-in son for the wife’s family, and sometimes took one of the wife’s parent’s surnames. This, however, was a slap in the face to the son’s biological parents, if they were living.

But overall, uxorilocality broke the social mold and was looked down upon—uxorilocal husbands were viewed in scorn or suspicion. Such marriages were viewed as a “backward-growing sprout” (dǎozhù miáo 倒住苗) and husbands viewed as “superfluous husbands” (zhuìxù 赘婿).

Urbanization has caused an overhaul of this familial tradition. But I wonder: for rural families, is this tradition still observed? And what are the expectations for two you people who are married in the city?



6 Responses to Chinese Virilocal

  1. Urbanization has indeed caused a decrease in the practice of virilocality. Instead, many individuals choose not to live with either spouses parents and practice neolocality. In the city this is unsurprising, because living arrangements are tight, and there is often not room for an extended family to live together. Also many individuals move around from job to job as was shown in the Miller book. Extended families tended to live together in rural areas in order to have the manpower to work a farm. In the city there is no need for this collective capital. Similar to the U.S., in urban China, living with one’s parents is often a transitionary period till an individual can support themself.


  2. Marriage patterns are patterns not rules, and so pay attention to the uxorilocal exception that Patrick appropriately notes. They do change over time, as JT emphasizes. In China they also aren’t constant across the empire, of course ethnic groups vary in patterns (some are matrilinear, not patrilinear) but also along dimensions such as pastoral vs settled agriculture vs traders. How landholding works across generations is interlinked with marriage patterns, the exigencies of survival in rice regions for example exerts lots of pressure for family continuity and land to align.

  3. I believe the practice of virilocality influenced the strong son preference in China. Daughters are essentially economic liabilities, as they will leave their own families for their husband’s. Their undesirability is enhanced by the one child policy. Thus, sons are perceived as economic assets, who can support the parents in old age.

    • Your point about economic liability is a good one. Under the patrilocal residence system, – especially pre-industrialization (think during the Heart of the Dragon: Living film) – women did not provide a lot in terms of agricultural output. Primarily home-bound, the girls contributed to household activities; however, the girl’s work at home was likely not as beneficial as that of the adult women of the village. If the girl attended school, that was an additional expense. Once she married, she’d move away with her expertise and education, drawing down town resources without giving much in return. The upside to this was that if most people in a region subscribed to the patrilocal system, the town which lost a girl through marriage would likely gain one through another marriage. Thus, despite constant migration, there was not much of a net change in village population sizes. This all changed with rapid urbanization, of course…

  4. Chinese urban society as I perceive treats this topic very differently now. Before the marriage, whether the husband owns a house in a city really matters. It not only proves the financial condition of a man but also promises the girl that after they get married, they will not be living with either side’s parents. This is just a norm I personally perceived in the society. For man who does not own a house yet, they usually move to the man’s family after marriage. But if the girl’s side is much richer, they might be living with the girl’s family or the girl’s house. As for superfluous husbands” (zhuìxù 赘婿), sometimes the girl’s parents request to have their grandchildren’s family name to be the girl’s family name. Another thing I noticed is that even in villages after people get married, women do not need to change family names as Westerners do.