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Two brothers, same wife – how China ended polyandry

The question of whether same-sex marriages registered in other countries could be recognised in Hong Kong came up in conversation one evening recently.

While I support marriage equality, I played devil’s advocate by positing the scenario of a man married to multiple wives, legal in most countries with significant Muslim populations, requesting official recognition in Hong Kong for all his legal marriages. Given the narrow definition of marriage according Hong Kong law, which is the union between one man and one woman, can the government recognise one arrangement and not the other? Or should marriage laws in Hong Kong be changed to make them more inclusive?

Why polygamy was a component of imperial China’s game of thrones

Polygamy was, of course, quite common in traditional Chinese society, especially among the wealthy elite, and it was legal in Hong Kong until as recently as 1971. Polyandry, wherein a woman takes two or more husbands at the same time, was much less common. A compendium of miscellaneous facts compiled in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) mentioned a coastal village in present-day Zhejiang province called Shoujin’ao, where it was customary for brothers to marry the same woman. In fact, the wife preferred this arrangement for reasons of financial security. With a handkerchief hung outside the bedroom door, the husbands indicated whose turn it was to have conjugal relations.

The authorities were scandalised when they became aware of this custom and, in 1491, the imperial court banned the custom by threat of exile.