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Choosing between life and love

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This article examines the ways in which some star-crossed lovers reconcile their romantic attachments and social constraints through life-and-death negotiation of the gender ideals among the Lahu of Lancang, Southwest China. While the prevailing Lahu ideal of the husband-wife dyad (in which the married pair functions as a single social entity) fosters gender equality and marital stability and harmony, the dyad ideal also models romantic expressions through the ritualized singing of courtship songs that ordinarily lead to a marriage. The gaps between the dyadic ideology and its practice, which have been drastically magnified since the Chinese state introduced radical social changes in the 1950s, have significantly increased both dysfunctional marriages and extramarital relationships. This article explores the diverse patterns in which some individuals appropriate the courtship singing sessions to both express their socially disapproved romance and to resolve their dilemma caused by personal romantic longings that contradict social obligations. Resolving these dilemmas typically involves compromising romance for socially acceptable intimacy, committing double suicide in order to marry each other in the afterlife, or choosing separate paths (in which one member of the couple commits suicide and the other does not). The author argues that couples who jointly choose either life apart or love together in the afterlife do so with oneness in thought and mind, simultaneously challenging and reinforcing the ideal of the husband-wife dyad. In contrast, those who commit love-suicide alone push the boundaries of the dyadic ideal to the extreme.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2004-06-01

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