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Love and the Social Mission of Marriage in China

A large marriage market at Zhongshan Park in August 2017, which is located between the Forbidden City and Zhongnanhai (headquarters of the Chinese government).

Marriage is always a matter of the common good in contemporary Chinese society. This is not only evident through decades of population policies that have attracted much international attention, but also through recent tax reductions for married couples, the expansive marriage market that occupies the digital space, convention centers, urban public parks, and restaurants, and the unprecedented popularity of match-making television shows such as If You are the One (非诚勿扰) and Dating with Parents (新相亲大会), both hosted by Meng Fei, who is now honored as the “national cupid” (国名月老). Though certain aspects of marriage life have been relegated to private spheres, such as the issue of domestic violence, the concern for the stability and quality of marriage has always been a focal point of national attention. While the discourse of marriage as a private matter is certainly present in China and continues to jeopardize the pursuit of gender justice, the public nature of the issue of marriage in China—its interwovenness and embeddedness in the national and collective imagination—provides unique openings for the reflection of marriage’s social mission.

Critical approaches to issues of marriage and women’s agency have highlighted the negative impacts of functioning social-political discourses (including patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, etc.) and their direct manifestations in moral norms, policies, and social structures. They are certainly relevant to the contemporary Chinese society, where women’s bodies are often the site of bio-politics and our agency in pursuing a flourishing life and good marriage is met with obstacles from every level, including immediate and distant family and friends; colleagues, co-workers, and superiors at the workplace; expectations embedded in traditional culture and modernity; and pressures in national discourse. Nonetheless, the role of women’s agency in shaping socio-political responses regarding marriage cannot be overlooked. The issue of marriage in China attests to the reality that social structures and norms affect even the most intimate elements of life and shape the materiality of the flesh.[1] It also demonstrates that as one of the most intimate elements of life and the site of corporeal materiality, marriage is constitutive to concrete manifestations of discourses—social, political, and national alike. The issue of marriage and women’s agency regarding it are not only affected by discourses, but also directly affect them. While national policies, the marriage market, and social norms all work to coerce women into marriage, their emergences are in fact responses to women’s agency, bearing witness to women’s uncompromising visions of a good marriage and a flourishing life. Understood in this way, marriage is undeniably a matter of the common good in contemporary Chinese society, not only due to its role in securing social stability in a sense that instability of marriages will negatively impact the social order; but more importantly, the co-constitution of marriage and society suggests that good visions of marriage, when lived out, are more than capable of transforming society in its entirety.

It is in this sense, in my opinion, we can speak of a social mission of marriage transformed by love. This vision of marriage and its social mission is clearly demonstrated through Fr. Ignatius Zhang’s initiative Sheng Jia Xue She, which began in January this year immediately following Pope Francis’s announcement of a yearlong reflection on marriage and family, dedicating the special Year to the “Family Amoris Laetitia”. The initiative was at first the fruit of Fr. Ignatius’s translation of a French book telling the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s parents, St. Zélie Martin and St. Louis Martin, during the height of the COVID pandemic.[2] Through live-streaming, small group discussions, and short reflective assignments, Fr. Ignatius seamlessly incultrated the life of the Martins in 19th century France into contemporary China. The central message of his teaching and storytelling, according to Fr. Zhang, is love. Fr. Ignatius presented the marriage of St. Zélie and St. Louis as a model for his audience, not in terms of its particularities conditioned by the historical and social contexts of 19th century France, but solely in regard to their love. While devoting some time to presenting the mutual affection and love shared between St. Zélie and St. Louis, Fr. Ignatius primarily focused on their passionate love for God and for their neighbors, lived out through the most mundane activities. Unlike the English translation of the book that considered St. Zélie and St. Louis as “extraordinary parents,” Fr. Ignatius titled his translation as The Ordinary Saints. The ordinariness of St. Zélie and St. Louis is a repeated emphasis in Fr. Ignatius’s telling of their lives. Fr. Ignatius made it clear that the initiative is not for the purpose of sharing their life stories during a time of quarantine to alleviate boredom; but rather, it is aimed to inspire in his audience the same love the saints had for God and their neighbors in their daily lives. It is rooted in Fr. Ignatius’s vision of marriage that “love is not limited to the couples, but extends to our families, our neighbors, and our nation.” Sheng Jia Xue She has enjoyed a considerable reception with audiences all over China and even cross the world, bringing a counter-discourse of love during the trying time of the global pandemic. The reflections submitted after the sessions attest to the transformative power of love and the desire and passion it arouses. One participant observes,

…the stories of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin continues. They illumine the path of sanctification for every family. We are especially fortunate to be able to know them, have them as friends and models, and imitate them in living out God’s will…Which saint does not have a past? Which sinner does not have a future? ‘Ordinary saints’…Yes, we are all ordinary; nonetheless, God has begun a great work in us. As long as we run towards the final goal, we shall see the glory of God!

The initiative of Sheng Jia Xue She and the affect it invokes confirm my conviction that—attuned to our deepest desire and passion for God—marriage, as one of the most intimate elements of human life, is capable of creating a counter-discourse of love and contributing to the common good of Chinese society, through the most mundane daily activities of ordinary couples. Beginning in Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis has pronounced this power of love in building bonds, cultivating relationships, creating new networks of integration, and knitting a firm social fabric.[3] Continuing in Laudato si’, he places this love at the foundation of an integral ecology, while invoking St. Thérèse and her teaching of the little way.[4] In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis once again names this love, its civic and political nature and its expression in our intimate relationships and macro ones.[5] He points out that it is this love that is present in “every action that seeks to build a better world” and serves ultimately as the driving force in the realization of “a civilization of love.” [6] Pope Francis’s vision for marriage and its mission is not only aimed at the transformation of the present social order as we know it, but also orients us beyond our time, conjuring all our courage for the imagination of a new world.

Thus, marriage, while constitutive to the common good of Chinese society, is capable of being a sign of love and hope for the entire world – a true sacrament. Integral to this sacrament is the unsung presence of women, animated by our passion, our desire, and our love. If the signs of the time demand that we remain hidden and the full dignity of our bodies and labor imperceptible; let our bodies be united with the pain-stricken bodies of St. Thérèse, St. Zélie, and St. Louis and ultimately with the suffering body of Christ; let them and the most mundane acts of love they perform become the flesh and depth of the world, inflamed by love and pregnant with hope!

[1] Mayra Rivera, Poetics of the Flesh (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 8.

[2] The English translation of the book is Hélène Mongin, The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, trans. Marsha Daigle-Williamson (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2015).

[3] Francis, “Amoris Laetitia” (Vatican Press, 2016), para. 100, http://www.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf.

[4] Francis, “Laudato Si’” (Vatican Press, 2015), para. 230, http://www.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si_en.pdf.

[5] Francis, “Fratelli Tutti,” para. 181, accessed October 6, 2020, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html; Francis, “Laudato Si’,” para. 231.

[6] Francis, “Fratelli Tutti” para. 181-183, accessed October 6, 2020, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html; Francis, “Laudato Si’,” para. 231.