The Border Brides of Southern China

In southern China, writes Liang Chen, men who cannot find a local wife often illegally marry women smuggled in from Burma or other Southeast Asian countries. A peculiar simulacrum of normal family life ensues; the women eventually learn to speak Chinese and assimilate to Fujian culture, but there is no possible road to citizenship, and their children are not acknowledged by the state.
Undiscussed in this article are the possible effects of China’s enormous shortage of women due to selective abortions of girls; would families charge such high dowries if there were women available to marry all of southern China’s young men?

Chen Dewu (not his real name), a villager in Zhangwan town, in Fujian Province, never imagined he would marry a Myanmar woman.

Six years ago, he drowned his sorrow in wine as he couldn’t find a woman to marry. In rural areas, it is commonplace for the groom’s family to offer a dowry, tens of thousands of yuan [thousands of dollars]on average, to the bride’s family. Poor Chen couldn’t afford such a fee and thought he would be single for life.

However now, his Myanmese wife, slim and tanned, has brought two children into the world, a son and a daughter. The family celebrated Chen’s 40th birthday just last month.

Chen is not alone in this situation. Many Chinese men have married women from neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. In these countries where the economy situation is often dire, the dowries are usually much smaller.

The cross-border marriages, mostly taking place in remote villages in Henan and Fujian provinces, have no legal effect. The couples have no marriage certificate and the brides don’t have Chinese citizenship, due to the illegal nature of their stay here. Even worse, their offspring cannot get hukou (household registration), which means their children may struggle to enroll in school or find a job. Despite its illegitimacy and potential severe consequences, marrying a foreign woman is often the last resort for Chinese whose poor families cannot afford Chinese dowries. There is also the local reputation that brides from abroad are more loyal, can endure more hardship and work longer hours than Chinese women.

But the major issue is how they come to China. Some Myanmese brides were smuggled into China and married Chinese men willingly while others were conned into coming here on the promise of finding work.

According to the Myanmar Times, among 731 human trafficking court cases in Myanmar from January 2006 to August 2011, 585 of them were linked to China. Over the past six years, 80 percent of abducted women in Myanmar have been sold and married to Chinese men. Myanmar police have in total saved 780 Myanmar women from China in the past six years.

Chen Dewu, the first man in his village to marry a Myanmese woman, still remembers how embarrassed he was when he turned 34 and still wasn’t married.

He watched all his friends got married and had babies, while he never had a single chance at romance.

The eldest son in the family, he couldn’t bear to spend his entire family savings of 30,000 yuan [$5,000)] on tying the knot.

Six years ago, Chen decided to marry a Myanmese woman when one of his distant relatives from Yunnan suggested it.

Chen and one of his neighbors went to bordering towns and villages in Yunnan, which is a hub for human trafficking as it borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

Through the introduction of matchmakers, the two men sneaked into border villages. Chen visited dozens of villages before a girl caught his eyes.

“She looked beautiful, good-tempered and had big eyes,” Chen recalled.

Thousands of kilometers away in Queshan county, Henan Province, a woman feeds pigs with a skill that belies a lifetime of farm experience. No-one could guess she hails from Myanmar.

Twenty years ago, Madan, who did heavy work on a relative’s farm, had no idea that she would ever have any ties to China.

Like other Myanmar brides, Madan knew little about China besides kung fu.

However, in November 1994, when a middle-aged widower visited her hometown to look for a wife, Madan was convinced by his cousin to marry him. “He said I wouldn’t have to do heavy farm work if I married a Chinese man, as China used machines and tools to replace the manpower,” Madan said.

Madan cried every night for six months after she was brought into this strange village. Now, Madan’s son is 20 and her husband works on a local factory, making a decent living.

Madan was fulfilled. “I don’t need to worry about money. We can feed ourselves,” she said.

At the very beginning, communication between the couple was paralyzed by the language barrier.

But as time has passed, most of these Myanmese wives gradually assimilated into Chinese culture. They picked up the language, learned to do farm work and made friends.

However, they all worry about the illegitimacy of their marriage and the consequences for their children.

“The hospital didn’t give us a birth certificate when my child was born,” another Myanmese wife in the village of Ningde, who asked not to be named, told the Global Times.

They live in an insecure environment and cannot travel outside of their villages most of the time. If they are ever caught, the law dictates they must be repatriated to their home country.

In Ningde, Fujian Province, several women were from Southeast Asia, coaxed into Yunnan Province under the pretext of promised jobs and then sold as wives.

Six years ago, several Myanmese women were lured into Nancheng village, Fujian Province, but Chen Linyu (pseudonym) is the only one still there.

She cried, resisted and fought at first when she was introduced to single Chinese men. However, she was threatened that if she continued, she would be abandoned to fend for herself. She eventually married a shopkeeper. She told The Beijing News that she kept thinking of running away but with nobody to help her and no money, she had no way of doing so.

This dilemma is commonplace for many Myanmese women. They miss their families back home but they have no way of getting there. Furthermore, they often stay for the sake of their children.

Despite the law, it is difficult for the local police to repatriate these brides.

“It is normal that they always hide when we visited their families in China, for fear of being repatriated,” Hu, an officer from the Exit and Entry Administration of Public Security Bureau in Xincai county, told the Global Times.

One day, a bride who was preparing food ran away instantly when he and his colleagues visited her home and tried to persuade her husband into sending her back to Myanmar, Hu recalled.

Local public security bureaus have launched campaigns to crack down on foreigners who try to enter, stay or work in China illegally. Foreign brides have become one of their prime targets.

In May, Hunan Provincial Public Security Bureau bought out two train compartments to send back over 30 Myanmar brides. Most of them looked calm but many cried, complaining that they were returning to a life of poverty, Hu recalled. The Henan authorities have repatriated at least three batches of Myanmese women since 2006 at their own cost.

Usually, local village officials are asked to accompany Myanmar brides to the border and hand them over to Myanmese police.

Local police have to put up with intense pressure. An old Chinese saying says that it is preferable to destroy a temple than to break up a marriage. The police are often besieged with villagers obstructing them from taking away the foreign brides.

“People say their marriages with Chinese men were consensual. They blame us for breaking up their families,” Hu told the Global Times.

Hu said he was sympathetic toward the suffering of these families, but that there could be “no emotions involved in the law”.

Hu also called on the governments of both sides to reach a consensus on how to solve the problem of their identities.

“Most of the brides who willingly married Chinese men don’t want to go back to Myanmar, as they are emotionally attached to their Chinese families. But most of those who were abducted and married by coercion wish to return home,” Chen Shiqu, director of the anti-human trafficking office at China’s Ministry of Public Security, told Xinhua.

Myanmese women are smuggled into China by river or along back roads in remote mountainous areas, and the number is on the rise, Chen said in a previous interview.

Most Myanmese women brought here came from Mandalay and its surrounding areas. “These women’s families are so poor that they can barely feed themselves. It is a good opportunity for them to improve their livelihood by marrying their daughters to Chinese men,” said Zhong Zhixiang, a professor on People’s Liberation Army of Foreign Languages.

-Liang Chen