Husband and Wife

Husband and Wife

“One day of married life fosters a hundred days of attachment.”


The meaning of Husband and Wife.

Husbandfū 夫
“One day of married life fosters a hundred days of attachment.”
The original pictograph for夫(fū), meaning husband, depicts a man wearing a large hairpin, which in ancient China was a sign o female maturity and, therefore, of marriageable age. The character in current use is almost identical to that of 人 (rén, “human” or “man”), but with two horizontal stokes added, one representing the hairpin, and the other the arms.

Fu is homophone of another Chinese word 婦(fù) meaning “wife” and of yet another fu meaning “submissive(服, fú)”; and also of  fu meaning “wheat” or “bran”. Grain is one of the numerous symbolic plants that play a role in traditional Chinese weddings. At one time, all marriages were arranged by parents though a matchmaker, and the prospective husband and wife had no say in the matter. In fact, if a man and woman fell in love it was often seen as hindrance, seince they might then choose their marriage partner according to their wishes and not, as filial devotion demanded, those of their parents. A prospective bridegroom was rarely even acquainted with his wife, and once their names were known to each other, etiquette demanded that they avoid contact until their wedding day.

A husband was responsible for all matters affecting a family’s relations with other families and the outside world. Apart from this, his primary duty was filiality, which meant demonstrating his reverence for his parents and ancestors by supporting the family and perpetuating over any feelings for his wife, and if she fails to produce boys this is sufficient grounds for divorce. Alternatively the husband might take a concubine in order to guarantee the next generation of males. While monogamy has generally become the norm in Chinese society today, a husband could at one time have as many concubines as he could afford, a custom that took a long time to die out. A husband might also discard, without redress, a concubine who bore him no sons.

fù 婦
“Even the cleverest housewife cannot make a meal in a kitchen where there is no rice.”
According to one traditional explanation, this character (婦) was given the sound fu in order to remind a wife to be submissive(服 fú) to her husband (夫 fū). In practice, the words for husband and wife are pronounced with different tones, however, and are rarely confused. The oldest written forms of “wife” combine the radical for “woman” with a broom or rag-duster-indicating a wife’s domestic duties.

In China, a bride to be was borne from her home in a “bridal chair” to the bridegroom’s house, where the couple would see each other for perhaps the first time. The ceremony itself was very simple: the bride and groom bowed to his ancestors, then to his parents, and were then considered husband and wife. On the wedding night, if the wife appeared not  to be a virgin, she might immediately be sent home in shame.

Footbinding-tightly wrapping and compressing the feel fo girls from as young as the age of four-produced the tiny “three-inch lilies”, much prized by marriage brokers, that once confined most Chinese wives to the home. The custom was officially banned after 1911 but there are victims of this agonizing practice still living in China today.

For a woman, obedience to her own parents before marriage was followed by obedience to her husband’s parents after marriage. The wife was ultimately under the control of her mother-in-law, who might make her life a misery or become a lifelong friend.

There were compensations for the restricted life of a traditional Chinese wife, especially if she fulfilled her primary duty of bearing sons, which meant that she in turn might become a mother-in-law. Wives also traditionally managed the household affairs, as is often still the case today.

Luke Walker
By KanZhongGuo

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