Written by Elaine Jeffreys and Wang Pan.
One prominent subset of migration studies concerns marriage. While marriage between citizens of different national jurisdictions is often linked to migration, a feature of Chinese-foreign marriage in mainland China is its strong ‘intracultural’ rather than international character.(1)
Data made available by the Ministry of Civil Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the number of Chinese-foreign marriages (涉外婚姻) registered in mainland China between 1979 and 2010 suggest three key points:
- Chinese-foreign marriage is a recent and small phenomenon;
- most mainland Chinese marrying this way are women; and
- most marriages are cross-border, or intra-Asian, rather than international.
Fewer than 8,500 couples registered a Chinese-foreign marriage in mainland China in 1979. That figure climbed to a peak of nearly 79,000 couples in 2001 and decreased to just over 49,000 couples in 2010. These figures are small when compared to the total number of marriages registered in China; over 8 million couples registered a domestic marriage in 2001. Chinese-foreign marriages therefore accounted for only 1 per cent of the registered marriages in mainland China in 2001, when those marriages peaked.
Chinese citizens registering a marriage with a foreign spouse in mainland China are predominantly women. Over 8,000 women registered such a marriage in 1979. That figure rose to nearly 68,000 women in 2001 declining to below 40,000 in 2010, less than in the mid-1990s. The proportion of men from mainland China registering a marriage with a foreign bride in mainland China is low: 250 men in 1979, rising to a peak of around 20,000 men in 2005, and declining to less than 12,000 in 2010.
Chinese–foreign marriages registered in mainland China are typically ‘cross-border’ rather than international. The PRC’s marriage registration regulations divide Chinese-foreign marriages into three different categories:
- marriage between PRC citizens (中国公民) residing in mainland China (内地居民) and Overseas Chinese (华侨), i.e., Chinese citizens who reside in another country
- marriage between citizens of mainland China and citizens of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, i.e., territories that the PRC government claims as part of China, but which have separate legal jurisdictions; and
- marriage between citizens of mainland China and foreign nationals (外国人, literally people from another country), which may include former PRC citizens who have acquired foreign citizenship (外籍华人).
The most common type of Chinese-foreign marriage registered in mainland China until the late 2000s was between a mainland Chinese woman and a man from Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan. Nearly 8,000 people from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan married mainland Chinese citizens in 1979. That figure peaked at slightly more than 48,000 in 2003. However, the number of such marriages has been declining, on average, since then. Fewer than 18,000 people from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan married mainland Chinese citizens in 2010, which is lower than the number of marriages involving ‘foreign nationals’.
Marriages between PRC citizens and foreign nationals comprise the second largest category of Chinese-foreign marriages registered in mainland China between 1979 and 2010. Around 300 foreign nationals registered such a marriage in 1979. That figure rose to a peak of over 26,000 people in 2001 and declined to nearly 23,000 in 2010. There is no reliable information available regarding the countries of origin of these foreign nationals. However, media reports suggest that foreign spouses come from around the globe.
The smallest number of Chinese-foreign marriages registered in mainland China between 1979 and 2010 involved mainland Chinese citizens and Overseas Chinese. Fewer than 200 Overseas Chinese registered such a marriage in 1979. That figure increased to more than 7,500 in 2005 and declined to just over 6,000 in 2010.
Most Chinese-foreign marriages were registered in provinces and cities, on China’s eastern seaboard, with an early history of economic development, such as: Guangdong (nearly 370,000 marriages in total); Fujian (nearly 227,000); Zhejiang (around 57,000), and the city of Shanghai (nearly 63,000). These areas are geographically close to Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, and had a history of estranged political and social (family) connections with the PRC from 1949 until recently. Trade and other interactions between mainland China and these regions have expanded since the 1990s and especially since the 2000s.
Similarly, there were around 53,000 Chinese-foreign marriages registered between 1979 and 2010 in the northern province of Heilongjiang, 50,000 in the northern province of Jilin, and 20,600 in Beijing. These areas are geographically close to Korea and Japan, where trade and other interactions have also expanded. The number of Chinese-foreign marriages registered in the economically undeveloped areas of western China is negligible. Between 1979 and 2010, around 1,900 Chinese-foreign marriages were registered in the province of Gansu, 690 in Ningxia, 360 in Qinghai, and 200 in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The gendered character and spatial distribution of Chinese-foreign marriages registered in mainland China points to the localized and changing nature of the new opportunities created by China’s rapid economic growth. It also suggests that many Chinese-foreign marriages may be premised on ‘intracultural’ rather than international relationships, at least when these terms are interpreted in a strict fashion.
The ‘intracultural’, as opposed to ‘international’, nature of Chinese-foreign marriage is further suggested by data from the Republic of Korea and Australia. Doo-Sub Kim (2010) shows that the number of cross-border marriages registered in South Korea increased from around 5,000 marriages in 1990 to over 40,000 in 2005, with China becoming the main sending country for such marriages by the mid-1990s. Kim does not specify what is meant by the category China and hence whether Chinese spouses could include people from Hong Kong and Macao. However, the majority (over 73 per cent) of the cross-border marriages registered between South Korean and Chinese citizens are marriages between Korean men and Chinese ethnic Korean women from China’s northern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning (Kim 2010: 134–5). Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (1994–2011) show that in Australia, of the 6,324 marriage registrations in 2011 that involved a spouse born in mainland China, 60 per cent were between two people born in mainland China, up from a low of 46 per cent in 2001.
However, academic and media reports indicate that the (usually male) foreign marrying partners of mainland Chinese citizens are increasingly choosing to live and work in the PRC, in keeping with China’s growing economic prosperity and the introduction of more accommodating legal frameworks. China is also emerging as a receiving destination for foreign brides, especially for women from rural areas of Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos. Both factors may contribute to different types of Chinese-foreign marriage being registered in mainland China in the future.
Elaine Jeffreys is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor in China studies, University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Wang Pan is a research student at the University of Technology Sydney. Image credit: CC by Jin Dong Jun/Flickr.
(1) This paper is an abridged version of Elaine Jeffreys and Wang Pan (2013) ‘The rise of Chinese-foreign marriage in mainland China, 1979-2010’, China Information, 27, 3: 347–69 (DOI: 10.1177/0920203X13492791). Please refer to that text for more details, including full bibliographic details. The research was supported by Australian Research Council Future Fellowship FT100100238.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (1994–2011) Marriages and Divorces.
Kim, Doo-Sub (2010) ‘The rise of international marriage and divorce in contemporary Korea’, in W-S. Yang and M. Lu, Melody (eds) Asian Cross-border Marriage Migration: Demographic Patterns and Social Issues, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 127–53.