The Institution of Marriage | Traditions from Around the World

This is a man’s world
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing
Without a woman or a girl

It’s a Man’s World by James Brown

He gets down on his knee and opens a velvet box. I am told that this is the moment that a girl waits for her entire life. She dreams of the day when her price charming finally proposes to her. He’s bought an exorbitantly-priced ring which he’s spent perhaps months saving up for. She’s the lucky girl who’s finally managed to get a commitmentfrom a man–who are stereotypically portrayed free agents till it’s time to get ‘tied down’ to one woman–who is also ‘jokingly’ referred to as the ball-and-chain.

Women are sold this fairy tale. Women are told to want this fairy tale. Women are taught that if they don’t receive an exorbitantly-priced diamond ring, the guy is not good enough and neither is she.

If the price tag on the wedding ring wasn’t outrageous enough; there’s still the dress, the expensive reception dinner with two-hundred guests (half of whom you’ve never met and magically spring out of nowhere), a house to buy, kids to bake in the oven and their college education to think of.

Marriage has got to be the biggest capitalist institution of all time. After the flowers, the diamonds and the nonsensical ‘wow’ moments, it is ultimately… a farce. In many Western countries, the divorce rate is close to 50%. Despite monogamy laws, cheating is common and many will marry more than once in their lives. The act of being unfaithful is romanticised and glorified in pop culture–arguably even more so than marriage. This is despite the fact that almost all cultures that recognise marriage also recognise adultery as a violation of the terms of marriage.

That is not to say that I don’t believe in the idea or concept of marriage. However, it would be naive of me–or anyone else–to believe that marriage is a fairy tale with a happily ever after. We all know it’s not–so why do we even bother to build sandcastles in the air? Do we enjoy the idea of building a fantasy in our head that has no basis in reality?

Marriage is an institution that is historically filled with restrictions. From age, to race, to social status, to ancestral descent, to gender; restrictions are placed on marriage by society for reasons of benefiting the children, passing on healthy genes, maintaining cultural values, or because of prejudice and fear.

But was it always this way?

Ancient India

According to the ancient Hindu text Apastamba Grhyasutra dated 1st-millennium BCE, the answer is no.

It may be hard to believe due to the prevailing hegemony that has been in place in the Indian subcontinent in recent centuries; but Indians did not always have arranged marriages. There were eight different types of marriage ceremonies to choose from. It was not a case of one size fits all. The ancient Indian system of marriage took into account a variety of scenarios in which two people could choose to create a life together.

Gandharva marriage, in particular, is a method of marriage where the woman chooses her own husband. They meet each other of their own accord, consent to live together, and their relationship is consummated in copulation born of passion. This form of marriage did not require consent of parents or anyone else. According to Vedic texts, this is one of earliest and most common forms of marriage during the Rig Vedic period.

Dushyant & Shakuntala in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The son that resulted from their Gandharva marriage was named Bharata.

Around the 16th century, the practice of Gandharva marriage declined. More early marriages and child marriages started to take place. Children were in no position to give consent. Several reasons led to the decline of the Gandharva wedding. Some sections of society argued that rituals and customs are essential for a ‘legitimate’ marriage ceremony. The rise of Gandharva weddings had also led to a job loss amongst matrimonial priests.

With time, Gandharva marriages were frowned upon, considered unacceptable in society and abolished.

The Mosuo of China

Can you imagine a society without fathers, without marriage or divorce, and one in which nuclear families don’t exist?

For the Mosuo of Yunnan Province, Southwest China, this is not the stuff of their imagination; but the reality of their daily lives. Consisting of a population of approximately 40,000, many of them live in the Yongning region around Lugu Lake. The Mosuo women both own and inherit property and are in charge of both agricultural output and household duties. The men’s main contribution to the household is their physical strength. They build and repair homes, look after livestock and assist with big familial decisions.

Mosuo Men

But the power resides firmly with The Matriarch.

For the Mosuo, the Matriarch is the head of the family. Both her sons and daughters live with her–along with the children of those daughters–as they continue their tradition of matrilineality. Men’s involvement in raising their young is akin to that of sperm donors who usually bear little responsibility for the upbringing of their biological children. In this community, it is common for Mosuo women not to know who the father of their children is and there is no stigma attached to this.

According to research by anthropologists, ‘the walking marriage‘ which is known as tisese in Chinese requires neither public acknowledgement nor binds parties in any formal contract. At night, Mosuo adults are free to experience sexuality with as many or as few partners as they deem appropriate.

Though a Mosuo woman has the freedom to change partners whenever she likes, having only one sexual partner is not uncommon. Typically, walking marriages are long term. However, instead of establishing a nuclear family, adult Mosuo children remain in extended, multigenerational households with their mother and her blood relatives.

The Peranakans of Southeast Asia

The Peranakan are a community of the Chinese diaspora whose heritage includes a unique blend of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European influences. From the 15th till the 18th century, the Peranakan Chinese settled in ports across Southeast Asia. This included cities such as: Malacca, Penang, Singapore, and Cirebon.

The Peranakan are called Baba Nyonya. Baba being the honorific term for a Peranakan man and nyonya the equivalent term for women. The Baba were traders and businesspeople who dealt in the region’s most lucrative goods. This included rubber, tin, bananas, tapioca and precious stones. They travelled between ports as middlemen and also held numerous roles in the civil service.

The Peranakan inherited the Chinese patrilineal system; but the Nyonyas of Southeast Asia maintained a distinctively unique position. As a matrifocal culture, it has been argued that Nyonyas were not so much oppressed by men; but by women.

The Nyonya women’s privileged position in the household allowed them to negotiate and challenge Chinese patriarchy within certain domains and spheres of influence. The familiar notion is that men govern the outer world, while women govern the home. And the fist of the Matriarch was ironclad. They were no different to the men who ruled the outer world with an iron first. Tyrants are still tyrants–no matter what domain they govern.

Sometime last year, I had the opportunity to visit the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum in Malacca. I was immediately drawn to the image of Chee Gee Geok Neo in the Ancestral Hall. She was the Matriarch of the household and was affectionately referred to as Mak Gemok fat mother and came from one of Malacca’s oldest Peranakan Chinese families. As a matriarchal culture, the head of a Peranakan household was usually the grandmother; even though the men retained their ‘outer role’ as breadwinners. When Cheng Siew–the head of the ‘outer world’ died suddenly in 1919, he left behind his wife Chee Gee Geok Neo, three concubines and his son Chan Seng Kee, who became the trustee to his estate.

Men have been demonised in recent decades. Conversations on toxic masculinity, diversity and inclusivity have taken centre stage. But in the ages of yesteryear, toxic femininity left its notorious mark in households all over the world; its resulting cry a silent echo that is not recorded in the history books; but whose very real scars remain.

A Peranakan bride and groom (30 May 1939) Image on display at The Intan, a private Peranakan museum in Singapore.

The Wedding

I’m not sure that I care for a matriarchal society any more than I can for a patriarchal society. Power is power. In the wrong hands, it is abused and grows corrupt. End of story.

The Merchant of Stories by Dipa Sanatani

When there is an inherent power imbalance between two genders that is rooted in societal structures, it becomes a momentous task to actualise a relationship that is both equal and balanced.

I have zero desire to buy any woman an expensive diamond ring. If it’s really important to her, I will do my best to meet that need; but it doesn’t change my own individual truth on the topic. Many women demand and want pretty things so that they can feel treasured, honoured and perhaps even valued.

Today is Valentine’s Day. It is another capitalist holiday manufactured to feed off our insecurities. I am meant to buy flowers, a box of chocolates or perhaps even a slightly more expensive gift in what is usually a futile attempt to ‘buy’ my way to a woman’s heart.

As more women step into leadership roles in ‘the outer world’; it is tempting to believe that we have made progress as a society. But if history is any indicator of the future, then we know that power is power and in the wrong hands it will grow corrupt. The idealist in me longs to believe that achieving balance and harmony is possible in a relationship. But the realist in me knows that power creates rifts, barriers as well as both visible and invisible hierarchies no matter where you are in the world.

In either case–outside of the hoopla of the nonsensical wedding ceremony–marriage is a vow, a contract and a soul tie. And above everything, it is a commitment that two people make to share their lives together till death tears them apart.

The romantic in me knows that it is not a decision to be taken lightly. When I say the words ‘I do’; I know that I am accepting a responsibility whose ripple effects will inevitably reverberate for generations to come.

By Mark

Proud Numbers Guy | Founding Partner at a Family-Owned Private Firm


  1. Marriage is a universally undefinable legal construct. Laws, rules and norms vary from country, culture and creed. Sometimes society places restrictions on who can marry who under what circumstances. At the end of the day, these are guidelines and not absolute truths. I suppose what we’re really looking for, is arrive at our inner truth and be brave enough to stand by it with the people we cherish and hold dear. This is not an easy journey and definitely not one for the faint-hearted. As to why fools rush in, I’d say it’s because they want to–and not because they have to.

  2. Marriage not required! Mutual respect, love and communication are the necessary ingredients to every healthy relationship. The aspiration should be to have great relationship(s)–and not to simply just sign the dotted line.

  3. I have heard a lot of stories about China’s former matrilineal culture growing up. Women in imperial China had a lot of ‘hidden power’. They ruled from behind-the-scenes–even in the palace. The last of these women was Empress Cixi. Although if I am not mistaken she was Manchu and not Han Chinese. You are totally right; maybe we don’t have written records of this world of women–but the impact of the women who ruled behind-the-scenes has indeed left a ripple effect.

  4. This is such a beautiful post on the institution of marriage. Indeed, relationships has become so fake these days that they break down at the slightest knock. But we don’t really need precious gifts to have a fairytale ending or some special days to celebrate love if we can just build a bond strong enough to last eternity.

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