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 [End Page 405] 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.
International marriage migration in general, and that in Asia in particular, has been extensively documented by academic publications, NGO reports, and the media. The existing literature commonly identifies com-modification as the key characteristic of such marriages, particularly in Asia, where it is often commercially brokered. Nicole Constable conceptualizes international marriage as part of the larger trend of “commodification of intimacy,” in which “intimacy or intimate relations can be treated, understood, or thought of as if they have entered the market” (2009, 50). Com-modification is also seen as the main cause of various problems. Commercial brokerage is suspected of upsetting established norms regarding marriage and family, introducing unethical liaisons, and furthermore, opening doors for sexual exploitation and human trafficking. As Lucy Williams points out, academic research on international marriage has been heavily overshadowed by anxieties about human trafficking and the sex industry (2010, 74, 84; see also Tseng, this issue). We question the commodification assumption on both conceptual and empirical fronts. Conceptually, if we follow Marx and Polanyi to understand commodification as a process through which one aspect of human life (e.g., labor power) or nature (e.g., land) is turned into an object that can be purchased and sold, it is hard to imagine how a marriage, by definition an institution and a set of relations, could be turned into a commodity. The brides and grooms across borders do not sell or buy the marriage itself. Empirically, international marriage is not necessarily more com-modified than other forms of marriage, if by commodification we mean the heightened importance of commercial elements in marriage. The so-called mercenary marriage (maimai hunyin, literally “buy-and-sell marriage”) in prerevolutionary China was well known, and its eradication was a main social goal of the Communist Party. In voluntary marriages without a third party’s intervention today, calculation about material interests is common, and this calculation has been much exacerbated in mainland China since the [End Page 406] late 1990s, when urban housing was privatized. The practice of dowry also became more widespread and businesslike in parts of India as a result of the process of economic liberalization and globalization (Xiang 2006). Indeed, concern about the “commodification” of international marriage migration may well be shaped by a particular liberal ideology that assumes marriage and family ought to be separated from the economic domain.
We instead call attention to how marriage migration...