Legal measures needed to end excessive betrothal gifts

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-05-23

In recent years, cases of excessive caili, or betrothal gifts, have occurred from time to time in many regions across China, causing a number of social disputes and jeopardizing social harmony. In 2019, the No.1 Central Document ordered to redress undesirable social customs like exorbitant betrothal gifts for the first time. In October 2019, 11 governmental departments, including the Office of the Central Rural Work Leading Group and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, jointly released a guideline for further eliminating outmoded customs and promoting social civility in rural areas, which explicitly gave priority to curbing high betrothal gifts.

In June 2021, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the State Council adopted the decision on improving birth policies to promote long-term and balanced population development, urging efforts to abolish outdated conventions like expensive betrothal gifts and to build a new marriage and childbearing culture. 

In 2022, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council further promulgated opinions on priorities in advancing rural revitalization across the board that year, calling for effective measures to push ahead with pilot projects on reforming wedding customs in rural areas and launch special projects to tackle key problems like costly betrothal gifts, and extravagant weddings and funerals. In 2023, the authorities reiterated the urgent need to rein in bad habits such as expensive betrothal gifts, as a priority for all-round rural revitalization this year.

Long history of betrothal gifts

The betrothal gift, a centuries-old social custom in China, is an important component of Chinese marriage traditions and a key step for concluding a traditional marriage.

As early as the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), China had gradually established a complete set of marriage rituals, detailed in the Confucian classic Yili, or Ceremonies and Rituals. According to the document, six etiquettes should be followed for a traditional and genuine Chinese marriage, namely: nacai (the formal proposal), wenming (birthday matching), naji (confirmation of compatibility), nazheng (sending betrothal gifts), qingqi (choosing the wedding date), and qinying (the ceremony itself). In the fourth step of nazheng, betrothal gifts were delivered from the groom’s family to the bride’s. 

The custom of betrothal gifts continued until the Republic of China Era (1912–49), but during the revolutionary base period, reforms were carried out to traditional marriage customs. For example, the Central Soviet Area enacted the Marriage Law of the Chinese Soviet Republic, which took effect on April 8, 1934, and abolished traditional procedures on betrothal money, gifts, and dowry.

After the People’s Republic of China was founded, no rules were established on engagement or betrothal gifts in the Marriage Law of 1950 and 1980, nor in the amended Marriage Law of 2001, yet it was banned to monetize marriage and ask for property in the name of marriage. 

During social development in the new era, although traditional marriage rituals have largely been abandoned, engagement remains a recognized custom in some regions and among some groups. As a crucial link in contracting marriages, betrothal gifts have been passed down till today.

The practice of betrothal gifts is in itself a means to reinforce marital agreements. It has rich cultural connotations. Not only are there credit factors which guarantee the agreements, but given the dominant role of men in traditional society, the disadvantaged position of women’s families requires the groom to provide certain material guarantee for the marriage, as a kind of protection for the bride. 

In addition, marriage means that the bride has to leave her own family and become a member of the groom’s family, so betrothal gifts are often given to her family for compensation purposes.

The rich cultural connotations, nature of marriage in traditional society, and married life of couples are closely related. 

In modern society, dramatic changes have taken place in the attitude toward marriage and the nature of marriage. The life goals of the two parties after marriage also differ vastly from those in traditional society. Some cultural connotations of traditional betrothal gifts have lost their original social and cultural soil.

Nonetheless, the implication that these gifts serve as a marriage guarantee endures, which entrenches the social foundation for the practice of betrothal gifts today. Betrothal gifts should be a product of consensus. Under the premise of consensus, betrothal gifts, by legal attribute, represent a contract of conditional gift and can be regarded as a good custom. 

Causes of expensive betrothal gifts

Online survey data shows that in 2020, Zhejiang Province topped regional rankings of betrothal gifts with an average amount of 183,000 yuan (approximately $26,330), far higher than the national average of 69,095 yuan. Other localities, such as Heilongjiang, Fujian, Jiangxi, and Inner Mongolia, also registered more than 100,000 yuan on average in betrothal gifts.

These high prices don’t prove that betrothal gifts are illegitimate, but speak to an alienation from the well-intended custom. High-priced betrothal gifts generally result from the bride’s family demanding an unreasonably high amount of property on the ground of marriage or under false pretenses before contracting the marriage. 

Excessive betrothal gifts are divorced from the true meaning of marriage. The precondition of establishing a marriage by paying for lavish betrothal gifts separates couples from the foundation of love essential to marriage, alienating marriages as purely property relations, even as disguised transactions.

The emergence of exorbitant betrothal gifts is a complicated social phenomenon due to multiple factors of social change. It is inseparable from development imbalances between urban and rural areas, marked by lagged rural development, and from an uneven population structure in the countryside, changes in the conception of marriage in modern society, and an unhealthy social atmosphere of comparing oneself to others in some regions. 

Expensive betrothal gifts mainly occur in regions characterized by economic underdevelopment and gender imbalances, especially in rural areas. Due to urban-rural development gaps, young people’s yearning for urban life, and soaring living costs in cities, women usually calculate betrothal gifts based on the costs of urban life when entering into marriages, thus pushing up betrothal gifts and eventually turning the practice, which was originally for establishing trust, into a sheer act of property exchange.

Boosting economic development is vital to fundamentally solving the problem of excessive betrothal gifts. Rural revitalization should be promoted to narrow the gap between urban and rural areas, to engage more young people to devote themselves to the undertaking, and find their own value and position in rural construction. Rural economic development will drive progress in social culture and foster more civility in marriage. 

Legal measures needed

At present, some localities have leveraged policy tools, including advocacy, guidance, and persuasion, to curb excessive betrothal gifts. Some regions prescribe, or put a cap on, the gift amount by policy means to lower the average. These moves have contained costly betrothal gifts to some extent. However, policy alone cannot generate lasting, sustainable governance effects. Moreover, the legitimacy of these restrictive policies is in question. Excessive betrothal gifts, a social phenomenon in primary-level society, should be governed by the rule of law to incorporate it into law-based governance on the primary level.

Resolving the problem of expensive betrothal gifts should be started from the phenomenon’s legal nature. Essentially it represents a distortion of marriage, so the fundamental difference between high-priced and ordinary betrothal gifts doesn’t lie in the cost, but in alienation. It is necessary to analyze the legal attributes of this phenomenon and clarify related legal issues. Ordinary betrothal gifts should be acknowledged and allowed. 

On the contrary, in the cases where excessive betrothal gifts border extortion or cause life difficulties to the giver of betrothal gifts, measures should be taken in accordance with the Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China and the Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court on the Application of the Book on Marriage and Family in the Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China, based on actual conditions, apart from guidance and persuasion by policy and other means. Acts of fraud in the name of betrothal gifts should be severely penalized according to law.

To be more specific, if one party to the marriage is well-to-do and willing to offer high amounts of property as betrothal gifts, it should be regarded as a normal, rather than illegitimate, act. 

Second, in the case that the two parties haven’t registered for marriage yet, if one party appeals to the people’s court for the return of the betrothal gifts paid in light of related customs, the people’s court shall support the request.

Third, if the parties have registered for marriage but haven’t lived together, the people’s court shall support the request of the party who paid for betrothal gifts to return said gifts at the time of divorce. 

Fourth, the people’s court shall offer its support if one faces life difficulties as a result of giving expensive betrothal gifts before marriage, and requests a return of the property at the time of divorce.

Fifth, individuals and organizations that use marriage as bait for the purpose of illegally possessing high-priced betrothal gifts, conceal the truth, and fraudulently obtain property under the guise of marriage should be severely punished in accordance with stipulations on handling the crime of fraud in Article 266 of China’s Criminal Law and pertinent judicial interpretations of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. 


Xu Xiaohui is from Nanjing Normal University Zhongbei College.




Editor:Yu Hui

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