The demand for a ʼnormal’ life: Marriage and its discontents in contemporary China

Lucetta Yip Lo Kam*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Many aspects of love and intimate relationships have undergone transformation in China since the economic reform period (after 1979). Both state interventions, in terms of policies and law, and economic imperatives play a significant role in shaping people’s private lives. Guided by these, the social expectation to lead a ʼnormal’ life is highly valued in contemporary China. Private life is shaped and regulated largely according to the changing definitions of what is considered a normal life at different times. The force of social conformity is evident from daily language usage - such as the choice of people to use the terms ʼnormal’ (zhengchang) or ʼnot normal’ (bu zhengchang) to judge different kinds of sexuality or lifestyle such as homosexuality, marriage and childbearing, and singlehood. Heterosexual marriage is endorsed by the state and remains socially the most celebrated form of intimate and sexual union. Marriage maintains a secure grip on individuals and dominates the definition of ʼnormal’ life. However, rapid economic and social changes have continued to open up more life choices to privileged groups and the less privileged are also experiencing fundamental changes in their intimate and family lives. The model of heterosexual monogamous marriage is under unprecedented challenge. I will discuss in this chapter the cultural meanings of heterosexual monogamous marriage in contemporary urban China and the emerging discontent that poses challenges to it. The chapter serves as a brief overview of issues and debates related to the institution of marriage, with a focus on the period after the year 2000. I will also discuss issues surrounding marriage such as the widely discussed topic of ‘leftover women’ or shengnü, that is, women at or above marital age (27 and over) who remain unmarried. I also discuss the various challenges made by the increasingly visible communities of lesbians and gays to the dominant institution of heteronormative marriage.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Sexuality Studies in East Asia
EditorsMark McLelland, Vera Mackie
Place of PublicationLondon; New York
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781317685746, 9781315774879
ISBN (Print)9780415639484, 9780367867447
Publication statusPublished - 3 Sept 2014

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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