Court clarifies interpretations around issues of 'bride price'

Print China Daily Updated: 2024-01-25

Chinese cultural marriage practice can often lead to disputes between families

Legal experts have lauded a new judicial interpretation on "bride price" — a sum of money or quantity of goods given to a bride's family by the groom — calling it a strong response to public concern and conducive to solving disputes.

The document, issued on Thursday by the Supreme People's Court, China's top court, clarifies the scope of betrothal gifts and specifies circumstances in which they should be returned, and prohibits asking for money or other possessions in the name of gifts.

The experts highlighted the necessity of the interpretation, which will take effect on Feb 1, saying that it will help curb the bride price from developing into a face-saving activity that can place a big financial burden on families.

Giving betrothal gifts, also known as bride price, is a traditional marriage custom in which the groom's family offers the bride's family an amount of money as a symbol of respect. It originated as a way of expressing good wishes for newlyweds.

"However, in recent years, there have been numerous high-cost betrothal gifts across the country, leading to a rapidly growing number of relevant lawsuits and even triggering some extreme criminal cases," said Xu Qiuli, a lawyer who specializes in domestic cases at Beijing Jingsh Law Firm.

"A few grooms and their families were bankrupted or burdened with debts due to the high cost of a bride price, while some couples fought over whether the large sum of money should be returned in divorce lawsuits," she added.

Chinese media have reported that a betrothal gift could be as high as 300,000 yuan ($43,000) in the more developed eastern region of China, and about 200,000 yuan in the less developed western area. The sum is equivalent to five to seven years of income for a person in a city and perhaps 10 years' earnings in rural areas.

To maintain the long-term stability of marriages and keep social harmony, the top court made it clear that small sums of money or inexpensive gifts provided at birthdays or festivals should not be deemed as betrothal gifts, nor daily expenses for expressing affection.

As for how much money is identified as high for betrothal gifts, the interpretation states that courts will consider the per capita disposable income in the gift givers' residence and the economic situation of the givers' family.

Xu gave a thumbs-up to the clarification. "Many litigants were unclear about how to determine bride price in lawsuits, with some mistakenly believing that any expenses incurred during a relationship were betrothal gifts and should be returned after a breakup," she added.

The interpretation also reaffirms the prohibition of using betrothal gifts as a means to demand money or other items, allowing Chinese courts to require the return of the gifts in such cases.

In addition, it states that courts nationwide, in general, will not support the return of a bride price if litigants are registered for marriage and have lived together for a long time.

But if the length of time they lived together is too short and the amount of betrothal gifts is too high, courts will determine whether the bride price — and what proportion — should be returned in line with specific circumstances, such as whether litigants have children and which side is at fault in the marriage, it said.

Chen Wei, a lawyer from Beijing Yingke Law Firm, said the reiteration is crucial. "Seeking money in the name of marriage violates the principle of marital freedom, which must be resolutely combated."

She also welcomed the specific circumstances of returning betrothal gifts, adding "they will help standardize judging criteria and prevent different court rulings in similar cases".

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