Lucetta Yip Lo Kam

Introduction

Many aspects of love and intimate relationships have undergone transformation in China since the economic reform period (after 1979). Both state interventions, in terms of policies and law, and economic imperatives play a significant role in shaping people’s private lives. Guided by these, the social expectation to lead a ‘normal’ life is highly valued in contemporary China. Private life is shaped and regulated largely according to the changing definitions of what is considered a normal life at different times. The force of social conformity is evident from daily language usage — such as the choice of people to use the terms ‘normal’ (zhengchang) or ‘not normal’ (bu zhengchang) to judge different kinds of sexuality or lifestyle such as homosexuality, marriage and childbearing, and singlehood.

Heterosexual marriage is endorsed by the state and remains socially the most celebrated form of intimate and sexual union. Marriage maintains a secure grip on individuals and dominates the definition of ‘normal’ life. However, rapid economic and social changes have continued to open up more life choices to privileged groups and the less privileged are also experiencing fundamental changes in their intimate and family lives. The model of heterosexual mono­gamous marriage is under unprecedented challenge. I will discuss in this chapter the cultural meanings of heterosexual monogamous marriage in contemporary urban China and the emerging discontent that poses challenges to it. The chapter serves as a brief overview of issues and debates related to the institution of marriage, with a focus on the period after the year 2000. I will also discuss issues surrounding marriage such as the widely discussed topic of ‘leftover women’ or shengnu, that is, women at or above marital age (27 and over) who remain unmarried. I also discuss the various challenges made by the increasingly visible communities of lesbians and gays to the dominant institution of heteronormative marriage.