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License to Love

What makes a marriage?

True love, a shared vision, matching backgrounds and a lot more depending on who you ask.

There is certainly one thing that should not go unnoticed. It is the marriage certificate.

A young Beijing-based journalist recalled his bizarre experience of getting married several years ago.

Only identifying himself by his surname, Li, the 31-year-old admitted that he did not expect getting married would be so complicated and absurd.

"When I was preparing the materials for applying for a certificate, I was told to hand in, besides the required papers from my work unit, a position paper showing the opinion about my marriage from the supervisor in my department," he said. "I just felt quite funny about this because I don't think my boss's opinion has anything to do with my marriage. My supervisor also thought it an unnecessary procedure and said 'what am I supposed to write on the paper? To say no to my employee's personal wedding?'"

As the only legal document identifying the government's recognition and protection of marriage in China, it used to be essential to jump through hoops to get a marriage certificate.

To every Chinese wanting to get married, it is a must to get the certificate before they are legally married. After they get married, the certificate will become a piece of paper to be kept safely but possibly never used again.

"There are indeed rare occasions for married people to use the certificate again -- except when they want to divorce," said a clerk at the Marriage Registry Office of Chaoyang District.

However, this does not harm the solemn status the certificate brings to a marriage. It also serves as a witness to changing times and people's attitudes towards marriage.

The complicated series of procedures one had to go through to get the marriage certificate in the past ended in 2001 with the new Marriage Law. The new law abolished many old requirements on applicants, demanding only household registration book and ID card to be submitted before issuing a marriage certificate.

The new law also ushered the introduction of a new marriage certificate, which came into being in January 1, 2004.

The first marriage certificate was issued along with the implementation of the first version of the Marriage Law in 1950. It was then two pieces of palm-size paper, on which there was no decorative patterns but simple records of the names, ages, birthplaces and signatures of the principals plus of the wedding witness. It also included a declaration both vowed to abide by.

Patterns featuring national styles like the mandarin duck and lotus were characteristic of the marriage certificates from 1952 to the end of the 1970s.

Images of ears of rice and cotton often appeared as evidence of the importance of agriculture in the national economy at that time.

In addition, there was usually a striking slogan printed on the certificates. During the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76), the marriage certificate could not escape the revolutionary mania then as each was printed with a quotation from Chairman Mao Zedong.

The style and content of the marriage certificate was fixed in 1991 when the Ministry of Civil Affairs began to issue a uniform passport-size certificate nationwide.

But "the original meaning of the certificate does not change at all as a legal token of marriage. Only people's opinions towards marriage changes accordingly," said the clerk.

With simplified procedures to obtain a marriage certificate, the office the clerks work in is busy dealing with an unprecedented increase in workload recently: "It is easier for people to get married nowadays, and to divorce," she said.

The convenience the new law is expected to bring to people is criticized by some as not showing a responsible and mature attitude toward marriage. Added the clerk: "Some young people become less serious about marriage as they want to divorce when they have a quarrel at home and just ask for a re-marriage days later, not mentioning those taking shameful advantage of the law for extra-marital affairs."

"My working experience has impressed on me that an marriage certificate is just a objective warrant for legal welfare. But it is never a safe guarantee for a lasting and good marriage." she warned.

Love by arrangement 

Su Wenju, 46, has been married for 20 years.

She has kept her marriage certificate carefully since the day she got it. It was one of the first marriage certificates that required couples to attach their photos.

Though the paper has turned a little yellow, the certificate looks decent enough without any crinkles or stains.

She clearly remembers every detail of getting the certificate. "We first asked our respective labour unions to write introduction letters, then went through a political examination and health checkup. And on the way to the marriage registration office, we were too shy to speak or look at each other. When I got the certificate, I was not excited since I didn't know my husband well at that time. "

For Su, it is still the most important document in her life. As a chief party of an arranged marriage, she realizes that it was the red certificate that opened a gate to love and matrimony two decades ago.

She had only met her husband four times before their parents decided on a wedding date. And during the meetings, they were accompanied by both sides' relatives. They didn't hug, kiss or hold each other's hands before getting married.

"I even didn't talk more than twenty sentences with him!" Su laughed: "At first I thought he was short and his eyes were small. But my parents scolded me and persisted in marrying me to a guy I didn't really know."

The couple scarcely talked to each other even months after the marriage.

But it was the tradition at that time. Few people chose their partners by themselves and fewer knew much about each other before the marriage. Most couples got to know each other through relatives and friends' introduction. Only after being married did they get chances to get to know each other properly.

"Thank God I have got a good husband," Su said: "I am lucky enough to have a peaceful family life, though it was a great pity that I never experienced thrilling love."

She and her husband live in Xiaoying, Chaoyang District. They have a son who is a middle school student.

Living together before marriage is more and more popular among today's young people. Su though, retains a traditional opinion: "Getting a marriage certificate is a necessary procedure for two lovers living together. Co-habitation is a kind of unstable and unhealthy thing. It is harmful, especially for women. "Though people's minds have changed a lot in these years, there is still much discrimination against women if they lose their virginity before marriage."
Ringing the changes
"All Chinese people witness our marriage! It is unbelievable!"

On Jan 1, Deng Tong and Cui Jun were amongst the first couples to get the newly revised marriage certificate.

All married couples are the centre of attention on their big day. However this couple enjoyed more of the limelight than they might ever have expected.

The general director of the Bureau of Civil Affairs acted as the chief witness of their marriage. And their pictures were splashed across the front pages of many newspapers the next day.

Said Deng Tong: "When hearing news that the new certificate would be provided on New Year's day, we began our hard journey to get the first one."

Hearing about the change on December 29, they immediately contacted the bureau of Civil Affairs for more details.

Then they made the first appointment with the Chaoyang marriage registration office. At 1 am on Jan 1, after press photographer Cui Jun came off his night shift, they moved into the guest room of the office and waited until they got the precious certificate at 9:15 am on Jan 1.

Like many other couples in Beijing, the route to their wedding day was pathed with uncertainty.

"We fell in love in April, the rampant period of SARS in Beijing," Deng Tong recalled.

At that time, as a photographer with Beijing Youth Daily, Cui Jun was busy reporting SARS stories. He volunteered to enter the hospitals to record SARS patients' lives.

"During that period, I for the first time realized how important he was in my heart. I was worried for his safety day and night and longing to hear his warm words every moment, " recalled Deng.

For about one month they didn't meet, contacting each other by telephone and SMS messages. But when the SARS crisis was declared over in June, they decided to get married on Jan 9, 2004.

"As a shy guy, he has only said `I love you' once since last April," pouted Deng Tong. But soon she smiled: "But he is really sweet and kind to me."

When asked about the feeling of getting married, Deng answered: "In fact I don't think there is much difference. It doesn't mean that only after they get the licence lovers can live together and have sex. For lovers, the most important thing which the certificate brings, I think, is the strong sense of responsibility toward family. And I regarded it as a sweet burden. "

"The certificate is a legal document. That's all. But it is not a warrant of forever family happiness. Couples need pay more patience and attention to keep the love between them. "

But she also admits that the marriage certificate has more meaning for women: " There is still a deep discrimination toward divorced or pregnant unmarried women."

(Beijing Weekend January 16, 2004)

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