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Marriage and Money Entangled: Commodification, Agency, and Economic Analysis in Chinese Marriage Payment Lawsuits

Abstract

Lawsuits about groom-to-bride marriage payments are arriving in Chinese courts, challenging traditional ideas about marriage formation.  Through the lens of case files, I examine the dissolution of marriages (or quasimarital relationships) formed by marriage payment agreements and analyze the anticommodification views expressed by feminists and legal scholars.  In these cases, judges wrestle with two competing considerations: their own antimarriage payment and pro-groom views on one hand and the litigants’ economic conception of marriage on the other.  The former urges judges to rule for the grooms, and the latter for the brides.  In balancing these two considerations, judges generally order a partial or full repayment of the payment when the relationship dissolves.  I also examine feminist concerns of voluntariness and fairness in the commodification of sexuality.  The current theoretical and judicial frameworks do not account for the divergent power dynamics in individual cases; as a result, the case rulings do not respond appropriately to brides and grooms with differing degrees of agency.  These blind spots may have unintended consequences, including inflating prices and reinforcing gender-based asymmetries.  In this Article, I argue that judges should rely on economic analysis rather than moral judgment to better account for the actual dynamics of marriage payment arrangements.  Framing my analysis is a transactional conception of marriage and an economic approach to family, both of which have the potential to further our understanding of marriage and to advance gender equality.

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