Ghost Marriage: A Chinese Tradition
Ghost marriage is a Chinese tradition. It is also called ‘Minghun’ or spirit marriage. In Chinese ghost marriage, one or both the parties to the marriage are dead persons. The practice of ghost marriage in other forms, though rare, is prevalent is some parts of the world. There are reports of it being practiced in China even today, though its origins are unknown.
GHOST MARRIAGES CONDUCTED IN A VARIETY OF CONTEXTS
Chinese ghost marriage is conducted for a variety of reasons. The reasons may include: the death of one of the engaged couples; to integrate girls into the patrilineage system; to ensure that the younger brothers do not marry before the marriage of an elder brother; to save the family lineage, etc. For instance, if a bridegroom dies before the marriage, the bride can go through a ghost marriage and the groom will be represented by a white cockerel at the marriage ceremony. However, Chinese girls are reluctant to accept ghost marriage rituals since that would require them to observe the mourning customs and code of conduct. They would also have to take a vow of celibacy and join the groom’s family. This option of ghost marriage is available for the groom also in the event of the death of his fiancee. But so far no such ghost marriage has been reported from China.
A Spirit Tablet in Hong Kong
FOR THE SAKE OF PATRILINEAGE FOR AN UNMARRIED DECEASED DAUGHTER
In Chinese tradition when an unmarried woman dies she has no descendants to worship her or care for her as part of a lineage. It is customary for the Chinese household to maintain an altar where the spirit tablets of the ancestors and images of gods are prominently displayed. The spirit tablet of a married woman is maintained at her altar of her husband’s family. If an eligible unmarried woman dies, her spirit tablet cannot be kept at the altar of her parental or natal home. She will be given only a temporary paper tablet which will be placed near the door and not at the altar. In such contexts where unmarried women die, ghost marriage would give them a place in the male descendent line and would be cared for after death. Another custom prohibited unmarried women from dying in their natal home. They would be taken to special houses provided for that.
AN UNMARRIED DAUGHTER A GREAT EMBARRASSMENT FOR THE FAMILY
Ghost marriage is a means of relief for the family of unmarried girls in China. An unmarried daughter is a great embarrassment for the Chinese family. For instance, Charlotte Ikels in her ‘Parental Perspectives on the Significance of Marriage’ says: "Traditionally, girls who did not marry were regarded as a threat to the entire family and were not allowed to continue living at home. Even in contemporary Hong Kong, I was told that unmarried women are assumed to have psychological problems. Presumably no normal person would remain unmarried voluntarily". In such a societal order, those girls who wanted to remain unmarried would often opt for a "bride-initiated spirit marriage". But there were adverse criticisms against such marriages. They were criticized as “fake” or as "marrying a spirit tablet" to avoid marriage.
WHEN A SON DIES BEFORE HIS MARRIGE
In China, when a son dies his before marriage, a ghost marriage would be conducted to continue his lineage. A man in China marries more for the benefit of his family than for his own benefit. A marriage is primarily for him to provide descendents to continue the lineage and keep up the ancestral worship. It is also to get a daughter-in-law for his mother to wait upon her and be a daughter to her. If the family is rich, they would normally arrange a living bride. If living bride is not available, they would arrange a ghost marriage with a recently deceased young girl. The ceremony would have the aura of both a funeral and a marriage. Once the deceased son gets a wife, the family would adopt a grandson to continue the lineage. The Chinese believe that these ghost marriages are often initiated by the deceased sons from the afterworld.
A Spirit Tablet in Taiwan
GHOST MARRIGE TO ENSURE THAT YOUNGER BROTHERS DO NOT MARRY BEFORE ELDER BROTHERS DO
It is mandatory under Chinese custom that the younger brother must not marry before the elder brother does. Hence, if there is an elder deceased unmarried brother, a ghost marriage would be arranged for the deceased brother before the living younger brother marries. This is to avoid "incurring the disfavor of his brother’s ghost."
ARRANGEMENTS FOR A CHINESE GHOST MARRIAGE
In China, a ghost marriage is arranged through a matchmaker who would look for either deceased or living bride or groom with matching horoscope. Some people in China believe that the groom whom the ghost-bride has chosen would appear himself. They would put a bait in the form of a red envelope used for gifts of money in the middle of road and the person who comes and takes it would be the chosen bridegroom. Dowries and bride-wealth are also exchanged in Chinese ghost marriages.
• Wolf, Arthur P., and Chieh-shan Huang. Marriage and Adoption in China, 1845-1945. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.
• Topley, Marjorie. "Ghost Marriages Among the Singapore Chinese." Man (Published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) Vol. 55 (Feb., 1955): 29-30.
• Topley, Marjorie. "Ghost Marriages Among the Singapore Chinese: A Further Note." Man (Published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) Vol. 56 (May, 1956).
• Ikels, Charlotte. "Parental Perspectives on the Significance of Marriage." Journal of Marriage and the Family Vol. 47 No. 2 (May 1985):253-264.
• Wolf, Arthur P. Studies in Chinese Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1978.