Bride wealth and Marriage

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Lisu celebrate the Chinese lunar New Year. This holiday and the Little NewYear that follows a month later were key not only in the ritual cycle, but inthe marriage cycle as well. In the course of the celebrations, young peoplewould find partners or wrap up their own progress toward getting married.During my second year in the village, I sat up with the elder men overlooking the circle dances of the young people. The unmarried girls, dressed inall of their family’s silver and wearing decorated flat turbans, “tails” madeof piping (strands of rolled colored cloth), and embroidered gaiters, dancedin a circle around the New Year tree and musicians. Young men slipped intothe circle next to the girls they were interested in. All of this was fondlyobserved by the older men and women, who praised the girls’ beauty, suggestedwhich girls ought to be getting married, and discussed the harvestthat had just been completed. But this year, the elders were pessimistic. “Look at all the girls, and there’s no boys,” they worried. “We have too many girls.”They discussed economic hard times and the fact that marriages were rarebecause there were few boys. And, in fact, in my nearly three years in thesevillages, I saw only four marriages. This inability to get married was seenas a social problem by young and old alike, and had given rise to much socialdislocation as young men and women tried to find their place in a worldthat had closed certain paths to them.One of the significant changes in household formation in Revealed RiverVillage was the increase in the age at first marriage. I found that youngwomen who married in Revealed River and its cluster villages were in theirearly to mid-twenties. This phenomenon is often thought to be related to“modernization,” particularly because of the education of women, but this was not the case in Revealed River. Rather,it was part of a more general trend among the Lisu, rooted in recent constraintson household resources, and was experienced by young people asa lack of opportunity to get married.There was also a frightening increase in the numbers of suicides amongunmarried girls in their twenties. The economic dislocation of the new agricultural system had had profoundly negative impacts on girls and youngwomen who were not married by their early twenties; ashamed, many ranoff to the lowlands to work (usually ending up in some form of the sex trade)or committed suicide. Hutheesing personalcorrespondence, March 1994). An incident of a Lisu girl who threatened suicideby jumping from a telecommunications tower because her suitor wastoo poor to pay bridewealth was widely reported in the international media(Reuters 1998).The mechanism at work here was the inflation of bridewealth in theopium days; this was not, however, matched by deflation with the end ofthe opium economy. To accept lower bridewealth meant shame not only forthe parents of the bride, but also for the bride herself and for her children(Hutheesing 1990:113). This was based on the Lisu concept of myi-do, glossedas repute but also implying face, honor, respect, and reputation. My do wasa major  motivating factor in Lisu strategies; it was tied to the profound egalitarianismof Lisu households in the days of the opium economy, when house holds demonstrated their repute through showing their productivity in thesilver displayed on young people at the New Year and the household’s abilityto get their young people married.As a result of the interdiction of opium and swiddening, Lisu householdsexperienced severe economic constraints. One way that families dealtwith lack of resources was to wait for better years to marry off their children.Household heads (both fathers and mothers) treated this as a short-term, temporary constraint and tried to reorient their daughter’s marriagegoals—encouraging them to not stay here, close to their mother and sisters, but to go elsewhere, where there might be opportunity to have land to work.“We are poor. When will we be allowed to grow opium again?” I was queriedcountless times. Hopes that policy would change were not irrational,given the past history of periodic government policy alterations in light ofshifting international policy, trends in development, and state bureaucraticpolitics. People were waiting—for land to help their children establish viablehouseholds and for the cash to pay bridewealth and establish household repute,capital to set up new enterprises—and as a result, marriage was delayed.Marriage payments had become a barrier to marriage. Households facedthe practical problem of accumulating bridewealth when there was less surplusfrom agriculture and greater need for investments in economic activitiesto replace opium. These changes in the context of shifting political andeconomic conditions transformed the resources available to households andwere experienced as constraining household wealth and repute. These shiftswere not perceived as a permanent destruction of what was considered essential—establishing children in marriage, maintaining autonomy, and displayingrepute. The strategies were oriented toward fulfilling these samegoals in the face of new conditions. Accordingly, Lisu parents were able touse a range of strategies for bringing about marriage. One was attemptingto direct whom their daughters married (and with a good brideprice, theywould be able to afford a bride for their own son). Another strategy was torevive forms of marriage that had existed before the glories of the opiumeconomy. One form of marriage, full of repute, was cross-cousinmarriage. I was told that this was a favored form but was rarely practiced; this apparentlywas true in the recent past as well. Despitethe rarity, one of the few marriages I witnessed was indeed such a marriage.It brought repute without huge expense because the groom’s familypaid merely what had been received for the bride’s mother thirty years previously.Another strategy was to have much less elaborate marriage feasts.There were some other, less expensive but less “reputefull” forms of marriageas well—but these left the families involved talking as if the marriagewere a mere engagement (even years after children from the marriage wereteenagers).One important strategy previously used by poor boys to marry no longerexisted: bride service. In the opium economy, this form was appealing tohousehold heads as it was a way to recruit labor into their households; ratherthan losing a daughter, the household gained a son. Postmarital residencehad been negotiable. Although patrilineal and patrilocal in ideology, in practicethe terms of brideservice were negotiated in relation to the amount ofbridewealth paid at the time of the marriage. Patrilineality was the statedideal, with a recognized and common exception based on the conflictingprinciple of uxorilocal3 post-marital residence for a period of three years. After completion of bride service,the couple had been more likely to remain with the bride’s family; in suchways, allegiance groups were formed. Bride service and uxorilocality hadonce been more common than patrilocality. Infact, the most common co-residents in a village were a group of sisters andtheir husbands, or a powerful man and his allies’ families.But uxorilocality was very rare where I worked in the 1990s. This is whyAlema and other girls had been told by their mothers that they had to marryout.One to two generations previously, it would have taken a Lisu one yearto acquire the brideprice, but by the 1980s it would have taken more thantwo years to acquire brideprice even if they could have grown opium poppies. Young men had become far more dependent on theirparents for bridewealth and for land to cultivate after marriage, makingyoung men more subject to their parents’ authority. Similarly, young womenwere constrained because their opportunities for marriage were subject tosocial judgment of them as good workers; to defy one’s parents was to gaina reputation as poor marriage material. Thus globalization in the form ofthe global drug war had led to increased parental power and the power ofthe patrilineage in these Lisu villages.In addition, the perception of decreased availability of wealth must beput in perspective by two factors: decreased value of labor as a source ofhousehold wealth and repute, and increased demands on the use of householdwealth for investment in making a living. In the opium economy, laborhad been the source of wealth; households competed to have the newly marriedcouple reside with them because the couple’s labor was valued. With theend of the opium economy, the means by which households gained wealthwas no longer through expansion of production but through capital investment—in trucks, land, fertilizer, pesticides, or education. Each year, householdshad to strategize the means to subsistence, and bringing another producerinto the household was a lower immediate priority. In particular, thelabor of girls and young women was not as valuable as it had once been.



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