Waves of Rural Brides: Female Marriage Migration in China



Conventional views on marriage migration consider it primarily family-related, and portray female marriage migrants as mostly passive, tied movers. Marriage as an economic strategy is seldom studied. We argue that a structural framework enables analysis of the complexities underlying female marriage migration, stressing institutional, economic, and sociocultural factors that impose constraints on and provide opportunities for women's mobility. A review of the historical and social roles of marriage in China shows that its transactional nature undermines women's status but offers disadvantaged women an opportunity to achieve social and economic mobility. Based on statistical analyses of a one-percent sample of China's 1990 Census, we show that peasant women in poor areas are constrained by their institutional positions, rural origins, and low education and status, shutting them out from cities and the urban labor market. Yet in the face of these constraints, many women, in exchange for economic opportunities and agricultural work, pursue migration by marrying into rural areas in more developed regions and by moving over long distances. These rural brides in well-defined migration streams are testimony to the roles of social and kinship networks and of brokers in the marriage market. Men who are socially and/or economically disadvantaged but locationally privileged are able to draw brides from afar. Despite the neoclassical overtone of the notion that marriage migration is an economic strategy, we argue that a structural approach is necessary for understanding the complexities underlying female migration and for explaining the recent phenomenon of long-distance female marriage migration in China.