Women had little voice in the traditional feudal marriage system that existed prior to the promulgation of the New Marriage Law in 1950. The old system of marriage constituted a commercial transaction in which the woman was bought. It was equivalent to virtual enslavement whereby the marriage was arranged by families with little or no regard for the wishes of the woman. Selection of a wife was based on family needs and values rather than on attraction, love, or emotional involvement. In addition, once married, women often were mistreated and abused by their husband and husband’s family, as Li Fengjin discovered when her husband’s brother said as he and her husband beat her: “You were bought with more than twenty dan of rice. If we want you to die, then you die” (5). When faced with such abuse, a woman had little help. Her own family was often reluctant to take her back, perhaps lacking the funds to support her and/or feeling embarrassed (loss of face) at already having accepted a large betrothal gift from the groom’s family to cement the transaction. Also, under the feudal system of marriage, wives were subject to arbitrary punishment by husbands and his family with little recourse to established law or human rights. Following marriage, a woman existed at the mercy of her husband and his family.
The success of the socialist revolution in China depended upon revolutionary change in the Chinese family. Within a year of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, a new marriage law was passed that was designed to bring about fundamental changes in family relationships. The New Marriage Law of 1950 marked the abolition of the feudal marriage system and its replacement with a new system wherein women had the right to escape an oppressive marriage through divorce proceedings.