The Reality of Marrying into a Chinese Family

The Reality of Marrying into a Chinese Family
Mar 08, 2023 By Tom Ackerman ,

So you’ve found, and decided to marry, the Chinese person of your dreams. You envision the two of you drifting in a boat on the tranquil waters ahead, as you know you’ve formed a special, lifelong relationship with your beloved. As it happens, you’ve formed a special, lifelong relationship with a much bigger crowd — the extended Chinese family.

Marrying into a Chinese Family
Source: Pedro Szekely

Marrying into a Chinese family can be intimidating. Family obligations are stronger here than they are in much of the West, while independent-mindedness is not. In order to help you sail towards a horizon of kinship and harmony, let's drop the oars for a second and discuss the reality of marrying into a Chinese family.

Help the aged

Social security in China has come in the form of family for thousands of years. That's also the case in other parts of the world, but the Chinese in particular still rely quite heavily on their children taking care of them when they’re old. Sure, some are independently wealthy, but many will even expect to move into your home after you’re married. You have been warned. If this is a deal-breaker for you, talk to your partner before you put a ring on it.

As your new parents-in-law will most likely see you as their own son or daughter after the marriage, they may well expect some help from you. That could mean caring for sick relatives or helping the parents out financially when they retire. Traditionally, most financial help comes from the son, but with more and more well-to-do women around, it’s becoming common for daughters to pitch in as well. Many Chinese adult children save up to buy their parents a house in their old age, for example.

Since this is not the case for most Westerners, who typically rely on government or private care for their elderly parents, it might be a good idea to talk to your new family about what they need and expect before tying the knot. That way there will be fewer misunderstandings and hurt feelings down the line.

No money, no honey?

A lot of foreign men marrying into Chinese families are surprised to find that they are expected to pay a dowry (cǎilǐ/彩禮) before marrying a woman. That was a part of antiquity and has died out, right? The news is: it didn't. At least not completely.

Although not universal in China anymore, many traditional families will still ask a prospective groom to pay a fee upon marrying their daughter. The “bride price” can vary widely from a few thousand to tens of thousands of RMB. Unless you honestly think you're being taken for a ride just because you’re an unwitting foreigner, you’re probably going to have to contribute something to marry your sweetheart. Just think of it as helping out the family rather than buying your bride.


First, you have the national festivals. It’s practically compulsory for children who live far from their families to return to their home towns on the major festivals. The rush for the trains and buses at Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year is real and intense. The long and crowded journeys to see far-flung family members may be tortuous, but it really is an expected part of the relationship here. If you flake out more than once in a while, you’ll be considered gigantically disrespectful. So just bite the bullet, go see them, bring gifts and have a good time. Read this for some top tips on visiting Chinese in-laws during Spring Festival.

Secondly, you have the big family dinners. While your Chinese in-laws will most likely put on big slap-up meals at home when you come to visit them, returning the favor when they come to visit you won’t bring you much merit. You’ll be expected to treat them fairly regularly around a big table in a nice Chinese restaurant, with plenty of food and drink. Real filial love must be seen and heard!

Family Inc.

In the Western nuclear family, there's only a handful of people we'd be expected to lend money to. Our siblings and perhaps our parents, but only if they really needed help and we’d be embarrassed to ask for it ourselves. In the more tightly-knit extended Chinese family, however, a lot of money matters get handled cooperatively.

If a second cousin wants to start a business or an uncle’s restaurant is going under, you’ll find the rest of the family may pitch in to donate or give no-interest loans. Once you’re a part of the family, your help will be expected too in such situations. On the plus side, you can enlist their support if it’s ever needed. For most Chinese, it’s just what kin do.

Respect for elders

Even though your Chinese in-laws are likely to treat you as one of their own once you’ve married into the family, don’t expect much of a buddy-buddy relationship with them. Respect for elders is taken seriously, and any sign of dissent,  particularly in public, will make sparks fly. The basic rule is to listen and obey, or at least appear to. This doesn't mean your parents-in-law will necessarily be overtly bossy (although some will), but as “face” is still such an important concept in China, it’s always best to deal with disagreements gently and in private.

The Chinese mother-in-law, especially, has gained worldwide notoriety, in case you haven't heard. This is mostly in relation to her daughter-in-law, who is often expected to silently obey the family matriarch and absorb all critical comments. If you’re a Western woman marrying into a Chinese family, this may be hard to swallow.

Involvement Vs interference

Expect your Chinese in-laws to be quite involved in your life. Their interest could include your home setup, work situation and even how you raise your children. Remember, you're not just an in-law to them, you’re a bonafide son or daughter.

This keen involvement, sometimes seen as interference by foreigners, can create conflict in intercultural marriages. Westerners tend to live and breathe independence after they leave home, while the Chinese are used to being very hands-on with the entire extended family. The good news is, you can expect a whole lot of free childcare if you do decide to have kids.

There’s no perfect solution should a clash occur between you and your Chinese in-laws. Try and talk things out and come to an arrangement about what’s expected and what is not. Your in-laws may be more involved than your temperament tolerates, but they will also help you out with nearly anything at the drop of a hat. That said, while you will no doubt have to make adjustments, they too should recognize that you have different ways of doing things and shift their perspective accordingly.

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Keywords: Marrying into a Chinese


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Marrying my wife was the best thing that ever happened to me. Before I met my wife I had managed to save 400 USD in a bank account. 15 years on I'm retired.

Mar 20, 2023 02:40 Report Abuse



Marrying into a Chinese family does not mean that you should be bullied into ignoring your own traditions and cultural expectations. Remember, your Chinese spouse is also marrying into your culture too. Be prepared to establish boundaries, and if your Chinese spouse fails to recognise your cultural norms, you should probably consider not getting married.

Mar 14, 2023 13:54 Report Abuse