This is part three of a three-part series; please see Part 1 and Part 2.
How couples have come to marry has changed drastically since ancient times. Initially, couples would marry without getting to know each other before marriage. Then arranged marriages came into being followed by individuals making a conscious decision to select a partner of choice, and currently, individuals choose a partner without legally marrying.
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So in modern society, we can come across all these marriage arrangements practiced throughout the world today. However, another notable difference between the former is that they remained together for life, and the latter shows higher instances of separation – lacking endurance. So what factors have led to marriages lasting a lifetime?
It has been noted that the civility and emotional feelings between husband and wife sustain longevity in an arranged marriage. In contrast, couples who have never met rely on morality and faith to keep their vows.
We modern people find it hard to imagine marrying someone we have never met and with whom we could spend the rest of our life. To take it further, what if you learn that the person you are arranged to get married to is physically disabled?
The story of such a family in the Northern Song Dynasty is recorded in the Houshan Talks Series.
Lu, an imperial test-taker from Yin, won the title of Jinshi, the highest level of the ancient imperial examination system. His family then planned for his marriage. However, the girl to whom he had engaged came down with a severe illness which resulted in her going blind. As a result, the girl’s family thought they were not worthy of the marriage and took the initiative to withdraw from it.
Lu thought that since the engagement had been made, the promise should not be broken no matter what happened to the girl, so he politely refused the withdrawal proposal and married the blind girl. The couple ended up having five boys, and each one of them became a Jinshi-like father.
They became a legend for having six imperial Jinshis in the family. Among the brothers, four were particularly successful. They were collectively called the “Four Lus” of Lantian, and one became a prime minister.
The family was blessed because of Lu’s faithfulness and righteousness, the opposite experience of the earlier-mentioned Pei Zhang and his unfaithfulness.
This kind of example was widespread in ancient times, and women were no exception.
It is recorded in the Biographies of Exemplary Women in the Western Han Dynasty that Cai and his wife had just gotten married when Cai became very ill.
As a married woman with a sick husband, Cai’s wife lost her financial security and had no one to depend on. Worrying about her daughter’s future, the wife’s mother wanted her to remarry.
The daughter disagreed. She reasoned: “My husband’s misfortune is my misfortune — How can I abandon him? Once people get married, they should stay married for life. My husband is only unfortunate enough to have a serious illness. How can I remarry because of that?”
Chinese regard righteousness as incredibly important. If necessary, people can even sacrifice their lives for it.
In The Analects of Women, it is written that righteousness in a marriage is worth a thousand pieces of gold. The meaning of “righteousness” has multi-levels. The word “righteousness” is defined as — good, virtuous, decent, ethical, moral, God-fearing, law-abiding, innocent, noble, honest, moral, and justifiable.
It is also said in Lessons for Women that a husband and wife should be righteous and grateful to each other to maintain a long and enduring, harmonious relationship.
Modern marriages are not bound by grace (civility) and moral righteousness. On the contrary, the lack of these qualities makes them fragile and unable to withstand great storms.
Mutual respect and tolerance in marriage
Ancient people believed that husband and wife should respect each other in marriage. Therefore, the emphasis is on “mutual” — complementary and shared respect consciously shown toward one another.
Confucius told Duke Ai of Lu: “In the reign of the wise kings of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties in the past, people would respect and love their wives and children. It is because the wife is the most important person in the family, and children are the continuation of the family. So how could they not be respected?”
Ban Zhao advised women in Lessons for Women that the essential thing in cultivating one’s morality is to be respectful, and the most necessary thing to avoid conflicts is to be gentle. Therefore, a woman’s most essential and inherent qualities are respectfulness and gentleness.
Confucius was advising from the man’s point of view while Ban Zhao was doing so from the woman’s viewpoint, teaching people that couples should respect each other, as this was a sign of etiquette.
In the past, couples were more intimate with each other than with others. Over time, however, they tend to take things for granted or slack off, so it was important for couples to maintain such a state.
The ancients also believed that the ability of a husband and wife to treat each other with respect would reflect a person’s moral character.
The mutual respect between husband and wife should not be affected by status, whether ordinary people, kings, or generals — all should respect their husbands or wives.
For example, in the Book of Wei, it is written that the sixth son of Emperor Ming of Qi, Xiao Baoyin, married Princess Nanyang of Northern Wei after fleeing there. The couple had a good relationship. The princess did not regard herself as higher than the emperor’s sister.
She always treated her husband with respect and never neglected him. Whenever Xiao returned home, she would stand to greet him. Xiao was also gentle and respected the princess with courtesy in every way. The two got along well and had a harmonious relationship.
Since your husband or wife is someone you cherish, you should bring out your best side to face him or her every day. If couples treat each other with the most tolerant attitude and communicate with the gentlest of tones — will there be any cause for conflicts to arise?
During the Ming Dynasty, in Understanding of the Two Sexes, it was written that a husband should lead his wife respectfully and a wife should take care of her husband respectfully. That’s why parents will tell their children to be respectful before they get married; that’s the essence of why couples get along.
Respectful couples can avoid many conflicts, especially during hard times and when frictions inevitably arise; tolerance becomes the most important thing.