Cross-Currents E-Journal (No. 15)

June 2015
Editors' Note
Wen-hsin Yeh, University of California, Berkeley
Sungtaek Cho, Korea University


Governing Marriage Migrations: Perspectives from Mainland China and Taiwan

Elena Barabantseva, University of Manchester
Xiang Biao, University of Oxford
Antonia Chao, Tunghai University

Cross-border migration for the purpose of marriage is on the rise, and at present it constitutes one of the most common forms of long-term international mobility in East Asia. This special issue of Cross-Currents analyzes marriage migration in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan as a subject of governance. The articles included here demonstrate that marriage migration has attracted considerable policy attention and public anxiety not because it is about “marriage” or “migration” per se, but because it is perceived to be inseparable from a wide range of other issues, such as sexual morality, family norms, national identity, and border security. In particular, the long-lasting social relationships marriage migration creates and the role of marriage migrants (the vast majority of whom are women) in rearing the next generation of the state’s sovereign subjects tie marriage migration to state security concerns. Popular anxieties about marriage migration are often based on projections into the future rather than observations about the present reality. On one hand, the fact that marriage migration is deeply embedded in myriad social institutions and relations that cannot be dealt with in isolation causes a projection-based mode of governance; on the other hand, it renders transnational marriage particularly hard to govern, which further exacerbates anxiety. But this should not be seen as a failure in public policy. The articles in this special issue argue that such projections, imaginations, and self-perpetuating anxieties are important parts of how nationhood is constructed in the current era. As such, marriage migration as a subject of governance provides us with a special angle to examine how politics works in subtle and sometimes invisible ways on local, national, and transnational levels.

Hongfang Hao, Kyoto University

Transnational marriage migration is an important global phenomenon, yet each marriage remains an intimate, personal, and life-shaping event. This article traces the life of a family in rural northeast China that has developed global connections through marriage. In particular, it focuses on the story of a Chinese husband and his Vietnamese wife, which provides insight into the expansion of marriage migrations to and from China over the last decade. The article analyzes how different streams of marriage migrations are linked, specifically the flow of wives from China to Japan and South Korea, and from Vietnam to Taiwan, South Korea, and China. These flows are interconnected in many ways, including through personal networks, brokerage, remittances, and flows of information. Such interconnections in turn exemplify how apparently independent and unrelated migration flows may present multilayered connections of migration factors, diversification, and increasing complexity of migration experiences.

Keywords: transnational family, commercially arranged marriage, marriage strategy, globalization of householding, chain migration

Caroline Grillot, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

Marriage migration to mainland China has only recently attracted attention in public and academic discourse. Driven by a complex combination of structural and personal factors, many of these marriages remain unregistered, and understanding them requires a different approach than that used to study other international marriages in the region. To date, most discussions have addressed the phenomenon from a legal, demographic, or economic perspective. Considered as illegal migrants, many of the foreign women involved in these marriages are reduced to silence. Based on the specific case of Vietnamese women engaged in de facto marriages with Chinese men in China’s southern borderlands, this article describes several factors affecting this social group: the condition of “nonexistence” that the couples experience in their daily lives; the local response to their presence in Chinese communities; and the ambivalent position of governmental bodies regarding their residence and life in China. This ground-level perspective demonstrates how the apparent tolerance of this complex phenomenon may, in the long term, actually create more disturbance in local communities than would be expected. This article reveals how significant gaps between official migration policies and actual practices of governance at the local level limit the social integration of marginalized individuals by sustaining the conditions for their long-term invisibility.

Keywords: cross-border marriages, Vietnamese migrants, borderland, China, nonexistence

Elena Barabantseva, University of Manchester

This article examines changing governing practices in the context of the Sino-Vietnamese border in the Guangxi Autonomous Region of China. The groups inhabiting the mountainous ranges of this ethnically diverse part of Southeast Asia evaded the reach of the state until the 1970s, when China and Vietnam started tightening control over the land border after the border war. With an increasingly rigid and clearly delimited Sino-Vietnamese borderland, binary forms of classification began to replace earlier fluid identifications, and the room for diverse social and cultural expressions became restricted. It is within this context that the ethnic marriage practices straddling the borders of China and its southern neighboring states discussed in this article took place. Cross-border ethnic Yao marriages have gone from customary to illegal in recent years as a result of China’s strict population control, its changing demography, and the accelerated shortage of manual labor in its border area. Border politics have permeated the private sphere, transforming common ethnic marriage partners into illegal migrants. Although ethnic marriage partners are relegated to an illegal status, they are indispensible in the local labor market and moral economy as mothers, caretakers, translators, guides, and manual workers. This article argues that, despite being antithetical to the bordering logic of state sovereignty, they are important agents who depend on and capitalize on the border economy.

Keywords: ethnic marriages, Yao, undocumented migrants, China-Vietnam border, Guangxi, illegality

Mei-Hua Chen, National Sun Yat-sen University

According to many reports, migrant sex workers often use marriages of convenience to cross national borders in order to avoid laws criminalizing commercial sex in many destination countries. Taiwan is one of the countries developing strategies to prevent this illicit migration, particularly through the application of a fake marriage test. Based on in-depth interviews with eighteen Chinese migrant sex workers and thirteen officers of Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency (NIA), this article argues, first, that the discourse of “national security” has been widely drawn on to justify Taiwan’s rigid border control at the expense of stigmatized Chinese prostitutes who have been scapegoated. Border control is therefore not only racialized or classed but also sexualized, to the extent that all Chinese migrant women are considered potential prostitutes. Second, this article reveals how the exclusion of and hostility toward Chinese sex workers are simultaneously linked with a gender regime that seeks to exclude Chinese spouses who deviate from Taiwanese gender and social norms. The border is therefore a contested site where gender, sexuality, and nationality are interwoven.

Keywords: migrant workers, sex workers, sexuality, gender, “fake marriage real prostitution,” border control, trafficking

Hsun-Hui Tseng, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Taiwan attracted a considerable number of marriage migrants from Southeast Asia and China through brokers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With widely circulated, sensational news stories about foreign spouses being abused and advertisements of foreign brides as objects for sale, women involved in the business were gradually seen by the public as victims of transnational marriage brokerage. Under pressure from some women’s groups in Taiwan and the anti-trafficking campaign in the international community, the Taiwanese government eventually banned transnational commercial matchmaking in 2008. This article examines the gender politics behind the ban by reviewing the debate over this policy. It also provides an ethnographic study of women’s power relationships with other parties involved in the marriage business. By exposing the market and cultural logic that made this business blossom, this article challenges the binaries of perpetrator/victim and exploitation/freedom in the dominant representations of the transnational marriage market. It calls for a transnational and transclass perspective to understand these women’s “active submission” to the market and concludes that, without this consideration, the enforcement of the 2008 ban ends up serving only to save the international reputation of the host country and fulfill the liberal middle-class imaginary of moral order of the host society, rather than solving women’s problems per se.

Keywords: marriage brokerage, transnational migration, women’s agency, Taiwan, Vietnam

Review Essays, Notes & Bibliographies

John DiMoia, National University of Singapore

As recently as the early 1980s, the literature in English concerning the broader transformation of East Asia as a space for emerging developments in science, technology, and medicine (STM) was dominated almost exclusively by works on imperial China. This is not surprising, given its considerable historical legacy as the dominant cultural force in the region. It was perfectly acceptable within the field, moreover, to treat neighboring countries within this Sinocentric framework, or at least to regard their cultural and historical indebtedness to China as one of their central features of interest. If I exaggerate the hegemonic force of China studies in the recent past to make a rhetorical point, I do so to mark the arrival of a great deal of newer scholarship concerning the transformation of the East Asian region since the nineteenth century, and arguably since at least the seventeenth century, particularly within the field of medicine—whether Western, “traditional” (a problematic term, admittedly), or even, in more complex cases, those practices embedded within a dense nexus of religious worship and healing. The work under review here, Hoi-eun Kim’s Doctors of Empire, provides a new and welcome addition to the growing literature on Meiji Japan, following in the tradition of a substantial body of previous work on scientific and technological accomplishments, including studies by James Bartholomew (1993), Tessa Morris-Suzuki (1994), and Morris Low (2005), among many others....

Erik Harms, Yale University

In addition to looking at gendered space, then, understanding a city requires considering the dynamic relationship between the seen and the unseen. And in order to understand this relationship, we need more than preconceived pronouncements about how the city works, or about how gender and class work on space. Rather, we need rich, fine-grained ethnography that traces the dynamic intersections of gender, space, and class in a city. To do such ethnography properly requires peering beyond the surface appearances of the city and listening intently to the everyday lives lived within it. The four new ethnographic perspectives on gender, class, and space in Ho Chi Minh City discussed in this essay all offer ways to see the city again. Three of them do this by looking at class and gender, and one does it by rethinking how we make maps; two of them are by anthropologists, one by a sociologist, and one by an urban planner. But they share one thing in common: all of them hone their keen vision with the aid of ethnography...