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University of Michigan Press
Modern Loves: The Anthropology of Romantic Courtship and Companionate Marriage

Modern Loves: The Anthropology of Romantic Courtship and Companionate Marriage

by Jennifer Sue Hirsch Ph.D., Holly Wardlow Ph.D.Jennifer Sue Hirsch Ph.D.


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How are love, marriage, and desire changing? This collection confronts that question, examining how global cultural flows, changing gender relations, specific economic structures, and state policies are reshaping intimate life around the world. Grounded in cutting edge feminist anthropological theory, these essays discuss how women and men craft courtship, intimacy, and marriage around the world, situating intimate relations in their respective social and economic contexts and exposing the dynamics that are shared cross-culturally, as well as those characteristics that are specific to each site.
In this first comparative ethnographic look at the global transformation toward marital ideals characterized by emotional intimacy, companionship, and mutual choice—discussed here as "companionate marriage"—Modern Loves asks how this shift is occurring and explores the factors that promote and hinder it, just who is pushing for these more companionate relationships, and what advantages men and women see in modern love. The contributors analyze the intricate negotiations surrounding love, marriage, and sex in Mexico, India, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Singapore, and Hong Kong and among Latino youth in East Los Angeles. Modern Loves presents the new global approach to kinship studies, examining both the microlevel practices that constitute and bind relationships and the macrolevel forces that shape the landscape of love.
Contributors: Margaret E. Bentley, Selina Ching Chan, Pamela I. Erickson, Jessica Gregg, Jennifer Higgins, Jennifer S. Hirsch, Wynne Maggi, Constance A. Nathanson, Gayatri Reddy, Daniel Jordan Smith, and Holly Wardlow
Jennifer S. Hirsch is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.  Holly Wardlow is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.

"What‘s love got to do with it? Hirsch and Wardlow answer this question by demonstrating the relevance—indeed, centrality—of the ideologies and practices surrounding romantic love and companionate marriage to the study of social transformation more broadly. The essays compiled in this volume explore the material, structural, and demographic underpinnings of the global shift in marital ideals while also tracing some of the sources of this marital shift in mass media, missionization, and the spread of individualism. The contributors of the chapters provide ethnographically rich examples of the ways in which people living in different societies interpret and act upon these global forces and images in sometimes overlapping and sometimes varying ways. This volume is an important and thoughtful contribution to the study of emotion, gender, kinship, and social change."  —Laura M. Ahearn, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University
"With its rich descriptions of the nuances in romantic love and its lucid analysis of the political economy of conjugal relations, this book will be widely read and loved by anthropologists as well as the concerned public."
—Yunxiang Yan, Department of Anthropology, UCLA 

"Modern Loves offers an overview of current scholarship on love in the context of sexual relationships cross-culturally, and provides a view of the complexity of varied aspects of emotion, social structure, and social change in contemporary sexual relationships. It clearly makes the case for a political economic understanding of the emergence of ideologies of love, marriage, and courtship as part of expanding global economies."
—Linda-Anne Rebhun, Department of Anthropology, Yale University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472099597
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 11/27/2006
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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Modern Loves


The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2006 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09959-7

Chapter One



Selina Ching Chan

According to Saussure, a "sign" has two components, the signifier (sound-image, object) and the signification (concept, cultural system); the relationship between these two are arbitrary (1974:69). Seen in this light, jewelry is perceived as the signifier that carries the meanings and values that are projected by cultural systems. The giving of jewelry is perceived as an embodied activity and one that is embedded within social relations. Like fashionable consumer goods, jewelry is "part of the process through which social groups establish, sustain, and reproduce positions of power, relations of dominance and subservience" (Bocock 1993:40). This chapter analyzes how messages are conveyed with jewelry as a consumer good through buying, giving, and appropriating it. Jewelry as family heirloom or as a consumer good reveals the changing meaning of patriarchal family and marriage. I argue that the appropriation of jewelry reflects how the power relationship between individuals is produced, reproduced, and challenged within the cultural system. The different modes and dynamics of consuming jewelry over time help in understanding how patriarchal control is realized, reinforced, or contested by people from different generations and at different times.

This chapter examines how the different ways of giving and receiving jewelry in two Chinese communities-Singapore and Hong Kong-reveal the meanings of marriage, the emergence of romantic love, and the elevated status of women in the patrilineal family. In Singapore, the Chinese are mainly descendants of migrants who came from China in the late nineteenth century or the early twentieth century. In Hong Kong, the Chinese are mostly migrants from China who arrived in the territory continuously after the 1940s. In traditional Chinese communities, pieces of jewelry were often given to the bride through dowry and bride-price to symbolize her entry into the groom's family. The dowry is received by the bride from her own family, while the bride-price is presented by the groom's family to the bride's. This chapter examines how jewelry in the form of dowry or bride-price symbolized both the love of the natal family as well as patriarchal control.

Nevertheless, the meaning of jewelry given to women has changed drastically over the years as the status of women in Singapore and Hong Kong has improved. This chapter will show that the declining importance of jewelry given by kin at marriage reflects the waning of patriarchal control over women. The giving of "wedding rings" will be examined in detail to understand the triumph of romantic love and conjugal ties. The fact that jewelry has become a popular gift in globally celebrated festivals of Western origin, such as Valentine's Day and Christmas, will shed light on the role of consumerism in the expression of love.

The findings discussed in this chapter reflect the responses of Chinese women from two different generations in Hong Kong and Singapore. The first group, composed of women from the older generation, were all married in the 1960s and are aged sixty-five and above. The younger group consists of women who were married in the 1980s and are around forty-five years old. In-depth interviews were conducted in a nondirective, conversational style with fifteen women from each group, most from middleclass backgrounds. Cases were also selected based on their clarity in illustrating the dynamics involved in their marriage and for the completeness of their information.


Weddings are one of the most important and memorable occasions for all women. It is in this event that women in Chinese communities are "overwhelmed" by the gifts of jewelry from their kin. Respondents in the older generation in both Singapore and Hong Kong received their first piece of jewelry at the point of marriage. They went through marriages arranged by their parents in the 1960s on the basis of having matching backgrounds. Romantic love did not exist, and marriage was meant for reproduction and the upbringing of sons. These women did not have a chance to date their husbands for any extended period before getting married. The husband of an old village woman in Hong Kong told me that he only managed to steal a "peep" at her while she was working in the field. The woman was even less fortunate; she did not have a chance to see her husband before they were married. In the case of another respondent in Hong Kong, the bride was from a poor family and had to go through a proxy wedding because the man she was marrying was a sailor out at sea at that time. In place of the groom at this wedding was a rooster, which served as his proxy.

In the old days, jewelry gifts were presented as either dowry or bride-price and were of special importance in a marriage. The dowry was received by the bride from her own family, while the bride-price consisted of various gifts presented by the groom's family to the bride's. The exchange of jewelry, in the forms of dowry and bride-price, was to mark a transfer of rights over a woman from the natal family to her husband's family. It is important to note that women of the older generation had no say over the nature of these gifts from the groom's family or natal family. The jewelry related to the bride-price was a result of negotiation between the bride's family and the groom's family. The jewelry for dowry was at the discretion of the bride's parents. This passiveness and powerlessness reveal the bride's fragile position in the natal family.

The jewelry from dowry and the other miscellaneous items in the bride's trousseau were her only property when she married into her husband's family. Examples of jewelry in the 1960s included gold necklaces, gold earrings, silver earrings, and jade bracelets. Gold was indeed the most popular form of jewelry for the Chinese. This jewelry was combined with other dowry components-such as furniture, blankets, and sewing machines-in the trousseau for open display. Jewelry given by her natal family symbolized the affection and love of the bride's parents. The size of the dowry that the bride brought into her husband's family was very important. A large dowry would help a bride to appear good and decent when entering their husband's family (Chan 1997:153). It was a public display of her standing in the natal family as well as the wealth of her family.

According to my respondents, the more jewelry a bride received from her natal family, the better the treatment and the greater the respect she would obtain from her husband's family (see also Chen 1985; Watson 1985; Freedman 1966). Expensive jewelry was given to solicit respect for the bride in her new home, with the hope that she would be well-treated in her husband's family. Conversely, she would be despised by the groom's family if she did not receive a decent dowry. In other words, the amount of jewelry from dowry that a woman brought into marriage was a symbol that helped to affirm her status in her husband's family (Chen 1985; Watson 1985; Freedman 1966). Jewelry thus revealed the powerful grip of patriarchal control.

Meanwhile, jewelry was also an important part in bride-price, which was given by the groom's family to the bride's family. Unlike the cash and assets that mostly go to the bride's parents, the jewelry would normally go to the bride. In the 1960s, this jewelry included bangles, bracelets, earrings, and rings. Very often, these jewelry items were heirlooms, which were passed down from the mother-in-law to the daughter-in-law. In other words, a woman did not have much control over the ownership of jewelry. One Singapore respondent, who was married in the 1960s, recalled,

My husband's family was very poor then. My in-laws did not have the money to buy me any jewelry. My mother-in-law gave me her jade hairpin and a gold bangle. In the past, women used to bundle their hair with a hairpin. The jade hairpin was a family heirloom and was therefore valuable.

The gifts of jewelry from the in-laws implied approval of the marriage and recognition of women's status in their husbands' families. They were of particular importance to people in the older generations, who only had their marriages confirmed through customary practices and not solemnized at the Registry of Marriages.

Similar findings were also found among the Hong Kong respondents in the older group. An old village woman in the New Territories of Hong Kong, who was from a middle-class family and was married in 1957, recalled that she received a pair of bangles from her in-laws, as well as two rings from her grandmother-in-law and brother-in-law as part of the bride-price. Her own parents gave her a pair of bangles as part of the dowry. In fact, jewelry in the forms of dowry and bride-price were usually given by parents and in-laws. Only those from better-off families received jewelry from their parents as well as their close kin on the natal side.

In sum, the gifts of jewelry from the natal families displayed love and attachment extended from parents to daughters, while gifts from the grooms' families implied the establishment of a new relationship and the incorporation of the brides into the patriarchal families. However, women had no control over the type or amount of the gift and were merely passive recipients of both the dowry and the bride-price.


In both Hong Kong and Singapore, jewelry continues to play an important role in signifying a marriage, but today it carries a different meaning. The wedding jewelry given and received through dowry and bride-price reveals the changing meaning of marriage and patrilineal ideology. This section will examine the decline of patriarchal control by investigating the changing meaning of jewelry gifts at weddings and the different modes of giving jewelry.

Respondents of the younger generation were mostly married in the 1980s. They are witnesses and beneficiaries of industrialization and modernization in Hong Kong and Singapore, where rapid social and economic change began in the late 1960s and 1970s. In these two cities, increasing numbers of women joined the work force as industrialization proceeded. A significant number of them did so with much higher educational qualifications. Women of the younger generation have gradually gained greater financial independence and have increasingly taken the initiative to control their marriages. In 1971 the Marriage Reform Ordinance was implemented in Hong Kong, after which only monogamous marriages were recognized and the traditional concubine status was formally abolished. In Singapore, the Women Charter was implemented in 1961, requiring all marriages to be monogamous. It also safeguarded women's rights by legislation. With the enforcement of monogamous marriage, there was increasing emphasis on affection, companionship, and mutual care between married couples both in Singapore and Hong Kong. Romantic love rather than matchmaking has since become the more common route to marriage in both places. Today, Chinese in both locations get to know their potential spouses fairly well before marriage. The majority of them meet their marriage partners at the workplace or through friends. There is a transition from traditional arranged marriages to companionate marriages in which the meaning of marriage moves away from serving the interests of extended family to serving the interests of the couple. Marriage has today been transformed from an event that was strictly embedded in a large complex family system to an occasion that is largely taken charge of by the couple.

Standards of living have increased tremendously over the past few decades. Upon marriage, women from the younger generations not only obtain jewelry from parents and in-laws; they often receive many jewelry gifts from their kin both in the groom's and bride's families. Although jewelry continues to be the major part of dowry and bride-price, it does not carry the same meaning as in the past.

In both Singapore and Hong Kong, the presentation of jewelry by families is now done at the tea-offering ceremony, where the couple would offer tea to the kin who are more senior than themselves, including of course the parents of the couple. Two such ceremonies are conducted, one at the bride's place when the groom arrives on the morning of the wedding day to fetch the bride, and another at the groom's. Two seats adjacent to each other are prepared for this purpose, which are to be taken consecutively by the respective senior kin in husband-wife pairs (a senior would sit alone if his or her spouse is absent due to death, divorce, or other reasons). The couple either bows or kneels before the parents and seniors while offering tea. After accepting and drinking the tea, each pair of senior kin offers a gift to the couple in return. The possible gifts include jewelry, cash wrapped in red packets, and sometimes watches for the groom. In Hong Kong, the most common practice is to give twenty-four-carat solid gold jewelry, particularly dragon and phoenix bangles. The bangles are usually as wide as 1.5 inches, look fairly heavy, and thus appear expensive. In reality, they are fairly light because they are hollow. The dragon and phoenix carvings on these bangles symbolically represent the bride and groom. Nearly all brides receive two pairs of bangles, one each from her parents and her in-laws. In some wealthy families, close kin also give bangles to the bride. After drinking the tea offered to them, the parents and the kin would present the jewelry to the bride by putting it on her.

Unlike the Chinese in Hong Kong, who treat the dragon and phoenix bangles as an essential piece of wedding jewelry, the Chinese in Singapore do not consider the bangle a staple piece of jewelry for the bride. Instead, it is common for in-laws (i.e., the groom's kin) to give necklaces to the bride. Since necklaces are worn on the neck, they symbolically tie the bride to the groom's family. Thus, a symbolic aspect of patriarchal control is also evident when the bride is incorporated into the groom's family. Moreover, the Teochew Chinese in Singapore have the custom of giving their daughters-in-law a "four-piece gold set" (si dian jin), which includes a pair of earrings, a bangle or bracelet, a necklace, and a ring. Due to the influence of the Teochews, many Chinese of other ethnic groups also follow this practice of giving a four-piece gold set to the daughters-in-law and/or daughters.

In Hong Kong, the bride must wear all this jewelry after the natal-side tea ceremony as she travels to the groom's place. The jewelry that she wears is meant for public view as she enters the groom's house. A Chinese bride in Singapore is also required to bring along whatever jewelry she is not wearing in a nice box although she does not need to wear all the jewelry given by the natal families to the tea ceremony at the groom's house. This box of jewelry is to be displayed at the groom's house. Everyone else in the groom's family would therefore be able to see "how much" she has brought into the family. In other words, jewelry obtained from the bride's family has to be "on display" in the groom's house. This jewelry is one of the ways for families to show their love to their marrying daughters. However, the amount of jewelry that a wife brings into her husband's family is no longer important in signifying the woman's status in the husband's family. Instead, the educational background and financial independence of the bride play a much more important role in determining her status in the husband's family.


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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................ix
Introduction Holly Wardlow and Jennifer S. Hirsch....................1
1. Love and Jewelry: Patriarchal Control, Conjugal Ties, and Changing Identities Selina Ching Chan....................35
2. All's Fair When Love Is War: Romantic Passion and Companionate Marriage among the Huli of Papua New Guinea Holly Wardlow....................51
3. "Heart-Stuck": Love Marriage as a Marker of Ethnic Identity among the Kalasha of Northwest Pakistan Wynne Maggi....................78
4. The Social Constructions of Sexuality: Companionate Marriage and STD/HIV Risk in a Mexican Migrant Community Jennifer S. Hirsch, Jennifer Higgins, Margaret E. Bentley, and Constance A. Nathanson....................95
5. The Role of Romantic Love in Sexual Initiation and the Transition to Parenthood among Immigrant and U.S.-Born Latino Youth in East Los Angeles Pamela I. Erickson....................118
6. Love and the Risk of HIV: Courtship, Marriage, and Infidelity in Southeastern Nigeria Daniel Jordan Smith....................135
7. "He Can Be Sad Like That": Liberdade and the Absence of Romantic Love in a Brazilian Shantytown Jessica Gregg....................157
8. The Bonds of Love: Companionate Marriage and the Desire for Intimacy among Hijras in Hyderabad, India Gayatri Reddy....................174

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