Polygamy: Map


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This article is about the marriage practice. For the botany term, see Sexual reproduction in plants.
The term polygamy (a Greek word meaning "the practice of multiple marriage") is used in related ways in social anthropology, sociobiology, sociology, as well as in popular speech. Polygamy can be defined as any "form of marriage in which a person [has] more than one spouse."

In social anthropology, polygamy is the practice of marriage to more than one spouse simultaneously. Historically, polygamy has been practiced as polygyny (one man having more than one wife), or as polyandry (one woman having more than one husband), or, less commonly as group marriage (husbands having many wives and those wives having many husbands). (See "Forms of Polygamy" below.) In contrast, monogamy is the practice of each person having only one spouse. Like monogamy, the term is often used in a de facto sense, applying regardless of whether the relationships are recognized by the state (see marriage for a discussion on the extent to which states can and do recognize potentially and actually polygamous forms as valid). In sociobiology, polygamy is used in a broad sense to mean any form of multiple mating. In a narrower sense, used by zoologists, polygamy includes a pair bond, perhaps temporary. In popular speech, polygamy is often mistakenly assumed to refer to polygyny alone rather than including the other forms, as more polygamous relationships in human history have been polygynous.

Forms of polygamy

Polygamy exists in three specific forms, including polygyny (one man having multiple wives), polyandry (one woman having multiple husbands), or group marriage (some combination of polygyny and polyandry). Historically, all three practices have been found, but polygyny is by far the most common. Confusion arises when the broad term "polygamy" is used when a narrower definition is intended.


Polyandry is a practice where a woman is married to more than one man at the same time. Fraternal polyandry was traditionally practiced among nomadic Tibetans in Nepalmarker parts of Chinamarker and part of northern India, in which two or more brothers share the same wife, with her having equal sexual access to them. Polyandry is believed to be more likely in societies with scarce environmental resources, as it is believed to limit human population growth and enhance child survival. A woman can only have so many children in her lifetime, no matter how many husbands she has. On the other hand, a child with many "fathers", all of whom provide resources, is more likely to survive. (In contrast, the number of children would be increased if polygyny were practiced, and a man had more than one wife. These wives could be simultaneously pregnant). It is a rare form of marriage that exists not only among poor families, but also the elite.

Group marriage

Group marriage, or circle marriage, may exist in a number of forms, such as where more than one man and more than one woman form a single family unit, and all members of the marriage share parental responsibility for any children arising from the marriage.

Another possibility, which occurs in fiction (notably in Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) but isn't an actual human practice, is a long-lived line marriage. In a line marriage, deceased or departing spouses in the group are continually replaced by others so that family property never becomes dispersed through inheritance.


Bigamy is the act or condition of a person marrying another person while still being lawfully married to a second person. Bigamy is listed (and sometimes prosecuted) as a crime in most western countries. For example, in the United Kingdom, by law, a married person is not allowed to marry again as long as their first marriage continues.

Often the term bigamy is used where two or more spouses are unaware of each other, in contrast to polygamy where normally all spouses know about one another.

In the United Statesmarker, the Model Penal Code (section 230.1) defines bigamy as a misdemeanor and polygamy as a felony. Having more than one spouse at the same time gets classified as polygamy, and bumped to a felony, if it is done "in purported exercise of a plural marriage..." According to Joel Feinberg in Moral Limits of the Criminal Law: "Righteously, flaunting one's illicit relationships, according to the Code, is apparently a morally aggravating circumstance, more punishable than its clandestine and deceptive counterpart."

Serial monogamy

The phrase serial monogamy has been used to describe the lifestyle of persons who have repeatedly married and divorced multiple partners.

Other forms of nonmonogamy

Other forms of nonmonogamous relationships are discussed at Forms of nonmonogamy. One modern variant is polyamory.

Patterns of occurrence worldwide

According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, of the 1231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous. 453 had occasional polygyny, 588 had more frequent polygyny, and 4 had polyandry. At the same time, even within societies which allow polygyny, the actual practice of polygyny occurs relatively rarely.There are exceptions: in Senegalmarker, for example, nearly 47 percent of marriages are multiple. To take on more than one wife often requires considerable resources: this may put polygamy beyond the means of the vast majority of people within those societies. Such appears the case in many traditional Islamic societies, and in Imperial China. Within polygynous societies, multiple wives often become a status symbol denoting wealth and power. Similarly, within societies that formally prohibit polygamy, social opinion may look favorably on persons maintaining mistresses or engaging in serial monogamy.

Patterns of occurrence across religions


In Buddhism, marriage is not a sacrament. It is purely a secular affair and the monks do not participate in it. Hence it received no religious sanction. Forms of marriage consequently vary from country to country. It is said in the Parabhava Sutta that "a man who is not satisfied with one woman and seeks out other women is on the path to decline". Other fragments in the Buddhist scripture can be found that seem to treat polygamy unfavorably, leading some authors to conclude that Buddhism generally does not approve of it or alternatively that it is a tolerated, but subordinate marital model.

Until 1935 polygyny was legally recognized in Thailandmarker. In Burmamarker, polygyny was also frequent. It is still legally recognized but very rarely practice in modern day and socially less acceptable. In Sri Lankamarker, polyandry was practiced (though not widespread) till recent times. When the Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese, the concubines of others were added to the list of inappropriate partners. In Tibet as well, both polygyny and polyandry were commonly practiced. Having several wives or several husbands was never regarded as having sex with inappropriate partners. Tibet is home to the largest and most flourishing polyandrous community in the world today. Most typically, fraternal polyandry is practiced, but sometimes father and son have a common wife, which is a unique family structure in the world. Other forms of marriage are also present, like group marriage and monogamous marriage. Polyandry (especially fraternal polyandry) is also common among Buddhists in Bhutan, Ladakh, and other parts of the Indian subcontinent.

Additionally, in Tibetan Buddhism it is not uncommon to take a consort in addition to a spouse, though it is namely for certain spiritual practices that the spouse may not be able/ready to participate in—or if the husband/wife are at different levels on their spiritual path. A consort is appropriate in such cases. Within this context, either the husband or wife, occasionally both, might take a spiritual consort. This is known as Consort Practice, and there are specific teachings and meditations that go along with it. Consort Practice is often very private, however, and not openly discussed outside of followers of Tibetan Vajrayana—which tends to be a very private form of Buddhism in general – hence it is not very well known. Husbands and wives also engage in Consort Practice together, monogamously.

The 2008 BBC documentary series "A Year in Tibet", recorded three distinct cases of polyandry in and around the city of Gyantse alone (the pregnant farmer's wife in episode 1, "The Visit"; Yangdron in episode 2, "Three Husbands and a Wedding"; and the young monk, Tsephun's, mother in episode 5, "A Tale of Three Monks"). In "Three Husbands and a Wedding", a 17-year-old girl is also shown being forced into a marriage that would have been polyandrous, except that the younger, 12-year-old, brother had to attend school on the wedding day (his parents hint that he will marry his older brother's new wife at a later date). The programs include statements from the women involved that indicate they did not enter the polyandrous marriages willingly, and commentary that indicates young women in Tibet are routinely forced by their families into polyandrous marriages with two or more brothers.


Polygamy was practiced in many sections of Hindu society in ancient times. Concerning polyandry, there was one example of polyandry in the ancient Hindu epic, Mahabharata, Draupadi marries the five Pandava brothers as a message to human society. Regarding polygamy, in Ramayana, father of Ram, King Dasharath has three wives, but Ram has pledged himself just one wife.

The Hindu god, Lord Krishna, the 8th incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu had 16,108 wives. Although there is controversy regarding this because some Hindu scholars argue that Krishna left Brindabon (where he spent his childhood with some male and female company) at the age of 12 to save his birth place from the evil king, Kans. Historically, kings routinely took concubines (such as the Vijaynagaramarker emperor, Krishnadevaraya). In the post-Vedic periods, polygamy declined in Hinduism, and is now considered immoral, although it is thought that some sections of Hindu society still practice polyandry, in the areas of Tibet, Nepal, and China.

Marriage laws in India are dependent upon the religion of the subject in question. After independence and, under the terms of the, Hindu Marriage Act, polygamy is considered illegal for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs but Muslim men in India are allowed to have multiple wives.


Biblical practice

The Hebrew scriptures document approximately forty polygamists. Notable examples include Abraham, who bore for himself a child through his wife's maidservant; Jacob, who had fallen in love with Rachel, but was tricked into marrying her sister, Leah; David, who inherited his wives from Saul; and perhaps most famously, Solomon, who was led astray by his wives.

In practice, multiple marriage was considered a realistic alternative in the case of famine, widowhood, or female infertility. One source of polygamy was the practice of levirate marriage, wherein a man was required to marry and support his deceased brother's widow, as mandated by .

The Torah, Judaism's central text, includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygamy, such as , which states that multiple marriages are not to diminish the status of the first wife (specifically, her right to food, clothing and conjugal relations). , states that a man must award the inheritance due to a first-born son to the son who was actually born first, even if he hates that son's mother and likes another wife more; and states that the king shall not have too many wives. The king's behavior is condemned by Prophet Samuel in . Exodus 21:10 also speaks of Jewish concubines. Israeli lexicographer Vadim Cherny argues that the Torah carefully distinguishes concubines and "sub-standard" wives with prefix "to", lit. "took to wives."

The monogamy of the Roman Empire was the cause of two explanatory notes in the writings of Josephus describing how the polygamous marriages of Herod were permitted under Jewish custom.

Modern practice

In the modern day, Rabbinic Judaism has essentially outlawed polygamy. Ashkenazi Jews have followed Rabbenu Gershom's ban since the 11th century. Some Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (particularly those from Yemenmarker and Iranmarker) discontinued polygamy much more recently, as they emigrated to countries where it was forbidden.

Among Karaite Jews, who do not adhere to Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, polygamy is almost non-existent today. Like other Jews, Karaites interpret Leviticus 18:18 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if his first wife gives her consent (Keter Torah on Leviticus, pp. 96–97) and Karaites interpret Exodus 21:10 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if he is capable of maintaining the same level of marital duties due to his first wife; the marital duties are 1) food, 2) clothing, and 3) sexual gratification. Because of these two biblical limitations and because nearly all countries outlaw it, polygamy is considered highly impractical, and there are only a few known cases of it among Karaite Jews today.
Israelmarker has made polygamy illegal, but in practice the law is not enforced, primarily so as not to interfere with Bedouin culture, where polygamy is common. Provisions were instituted to allow for existing polygamous families immigrating from countries where the practice was legal. Furthermore, former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Israeli columnist Greer Fay Cashman have come out in favor of legalizing polygamy and the practice of pilegesh (concubine) by the Israeli government.


Saint Augustine saw a conflict with Old Testament polygamy. He writes in The Good of Marriage (chapter 15) that, although it "was lawful among the ancient fathers: whether it be lawful now also, I would not hastily pronounce. For there is not now necessity of begetting children, as there then was, when, even when wives bear children, it was allowed, in order to a more numerous posterity, to marry other wives in addition, which now is certainly not lawful." He refrained from judging the patriarchs, but did not deduce from their practice the ongoing acceptability of polygamy. In chapter 7, he wrote, "Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife, so as to have more than one wife living." [emphasis added]

The New Testament authors seem to prefer monogamy from church leaders. Paul writes in 1Timothy 3:2, " A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;" Something similar is repeated in the first chapter of the Epistle of Titus.

Monogamy also seems to be preferred for all Christians, and not just leadership, by the author of 1 Corinthians where it is stated in chapter 7, verse 2, "Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband." Additionally, many readers find Matthew 19:9 to be nonsensical if not declaring an equivalency between polygamy and adultery: "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery."

The Roman Catholic Church has subsequently taught that "polygamy is not in accord with the moral law. [Conjugal] communion is radically contradicted by polygamy; this, in fact, directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning, because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive."This is also the normal position among Protestant Churches, and it can therefore be said that the mainstream Christian position is to reject polygamy in principle.

Periodically, Christian reform movements that have aimed at rebuilding Christian doctrine based on the Bible alone (sola scriptura) have at least temporarily accepted polygamy as a Biblical practice. For example, during the Protestant Reformation, in a document referred to simply as "Der Beichtrat" (or "The Confessional Advice" ), Martin Luther granted the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who, for many years, had been living "constantly in a state of adultery and fornication," a dispensation to take a second wife. The double marriage was to be done in secret however, to avoid public scandal. Some fifteen years earlier, in a letter to the Saxon Chancellor Gregor Brück, Luther stated that he could not "forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict Scripture." ("Ego sane fateor, me non posse prohibere, si quis plures velit uxores ducere, nec repugnat sacris literis.")

"On February 14, 1650, the parliament at Nürnberg decreed that, because so many men were killed during the Thirty Years’ War, the churches for the following ten years could not admit any man under the age of 60 into a monastery. Priests and ministers not bound by any monastery were allowed to marry. Lastly, the decree stated that every man was allowed to marry up to ten women. The men were admonished to behave honorably, provide for their wives properly, and prevent animosity among them."

The modern trend towards frequent divorce and remarriage is sometimes referred to by conservative Christians as 'serial polygamy'. In contrast, sociologists and anthropologists refer to this as 'serial monogamy', since it is a series of monogamous (i.e. not polygamous) relationships. The first term highlights the multiplicity of marriages throughout the life-cycle, the second the non-simultaneous nature of these marriages.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there has often been a tension between the Christian churches' insistence on monogamy and traditional polygamy. In some instances in recent times there have been moves for accommodation; in others churches have resisted such moves strongly. African Independent Churches have sometimes referred to those parts of the Old Testament which describe polygamy in defending the practice.


The history of Mormon polygamy (more accurately, polygyny) begins with belief that Mormonism founder Joseph Smith received a revelation from God on July 17, 1831 that some Mormon men would be allowed to practice "plural marriage". This was later set down in the Doctrine and Covenants by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Despite Smith's revelation, the 1835 edition of the 101st Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, written before the doctrine of plural marriage began to be practiced, publicly condemned polygamy. This scripture was used by John Taylor in 1850 to quash Mormon polygamy rumors in Liverpool, Englandmarker. Polygamy was illegal in the state of Illinoismarker during the 1839–44 Nauvoo era when several top Mormon leaders, including Smith, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, took plural wives. Mormon elders who publicly taught that all men were commanded to enter plural marriage were subject to harsh discipline. On June 7, 1844 the Nauvoo Expositor criticized Smith for plural marriage. The Nauvoo city council declared the Nauvoo Expositor press a nuisance and ordered Smith, as Nauvoo's mayor, to order the city marshall to destroy the paper and its press. This controversial decision led to Smith going to Carthage Jailmarker where he was killed by a mob on June 27, 1844. The main body of Mormons left Nauvoo and followed Brigham Young to Utahmarker where the practice of plural marriage continued.

In 1852 Apostle Orson Pratt publicly acknowledged the practice of plural marriage through a sermon he gave. Additional sermons by top Mormon leaders on the virtues of polygamy followed. Controversy followed when polygyny became a social cause, writers began to publish works condemning polygamy. The key plank of the Republican Party's 1856 platform was "to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery". In 1862, Congress issued the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act which clarified that the practice of polygamy was illegal in all US territories. The LDS Church believed that their religiously-based practice of plural marriage was protected by the United States Constitution, however, the unanimous 1878 Supreme Courtmarker decision Reynolds v. United States declared that polygamy was not protected by the Constitution, based on the longstanding legal principle that "laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices."

Increasingly harsh anti-polygamy legislation in the US led some Mormons to emigrate to Canadamarker and Mexicomarker. In 1890, LDS Church president Wilford Woodruff issued a public declaration (the Manifesto) announcing the official discontinuance of polygamy. Anti-Mormon sentiment waned, as did opposition to statehood for Utahmarker. The Smoot Hearings in 1904 spurred the LDS Church to issue a Second Manifesto against polygamy. By 1910 the LDS Church excommunicated those who practiced polygamy. Even so, many plural husbands and wives continued to cohabit until their deaths in the 1940s and 1950s.

Enforcement of the 1890 Manifesto caused various splinter groups to leave the LDS Church in order to continue the practice of plural marriage. Polygamy among these groups persists today in Utahmarker and neighboring states as well as in the spin-off colonies. Polygamist churches of Mormon origin are often referred to as "Mormon fundamentalist" even though they are not a part of the mainstream LDS church. Such fundamentalists often use an 1886 revelation to John Taylor as the basis for their authority to continue the practice of plural marriage. The Salt Lake Tribune stated in 2005 there were as many as 37,000 fundamentalists with less than half of them living in polygamous households.


In Islam, polygamy is allowed for men (making it polygyny), with the specific limitation that they can only have up to four wives at any one time. The Qur'an also clearly states that men who choose this route must deal with their wives as fairly as possible, doing everything that they can to spend equal amounts of time and money on each one of them. If the husband cannot deal with his wives fairly, one is enough. Women on the other hand, are only allowed the one husband (no polyandry), although they are allowed to remarry after a divorce, unlike many other cultures further east. Although many Muslim countries still retain traditional Islamic law which permits polygamy, secular elements within some Muslim societies challenge its acceptability. Polygamy is prohibited by law in some Muslim countries that have not adopted Islamic law for marital regulations, such as Azerbaijanmarker, Bosnia-Herzegovinamarker, Tunisiamarker and Turkeymarker.

Historically,polygyny was considered an act of pride and power, because a man announced openly in his tribe that he is responsible for taking care of another family. In this term it has it roots on pride, courage and gallantry to take lawful responsibilities for other people (especially widowed women).

Polygamy, and laws concerning polygamy, differ greatly throughout the Islamic world and form a very complex and diverse background from nation to nation. Whereas in some Muslim countries it may be fairly common, in most others it is often rare or non-existent. According to traditional Islamic law, a man may take up to four wives, and each of those wives must have her own property, assets, and dowry. Usually the wives have little to no contact with each other and lead separate, individual lives in their own houses, and sometimes in different cities, though they all share the same husband. Prophet Muhammad, who had a monogamous marriage with Khadija for twenty five years till her death, married many of his wives because they were war widows who were left with nothing and took care of them (Muhammad had 9 wives, see Muhammad's wives). Thus, polygamy is an exception rather than the rule and is traditionally restricted to men who can manage things, and in some countries it is illegal for a man to marry multiple wives if he is unable to afford to take care of each of them properly.

In the modern Islamic world, polygamy is mainly found in traditionalist Arab cultures, Saudi Arabiamarker, West and East Africa (In Sudan it is encouraged from the president as female population is high). Among the 22 member states of the Arab League, Tunisiamarker alone explicitly prohibits polygamy; however, it is generally frowned-upon in many of the more secularized or Westernized Arab states, such as Egyptmarker, Moroccomarker, and Lebanonmarker. Few other countries including Libyamarker require the written permission of the first wife if her husband wishes to marry a second, third, or fourth wife.

Legal situation

Most western countries do not recognize polygamous marriages, and consider bigamy a crime. Several countries also prohibit people from living a polygamous lifestyle.

In some States of the United States, the criminalization of a polygamous lifestyle originated as anti-Mormon laws, although they are rarely enforced.

In diplomatic law, consular spouses from polygamous countries may be exempt from a general prohibition on polygamy in host countries. In some such countries, only one spouse of a polygamous diplomat may be accredited.

Polygamists may find it harder dealing with government agencies, such as obtaining legal immigrant status.

By country

  • Israelmarker: Illegal according to the Penal Code of Israelmarker.
  • Canadamarker: Illegal according to the Criminal Code of Canada, Section 293.
  • China, People's Republic ofmarker: Illegal.
  • Egypt: Permitted for Muslims (up to four wives).
  • Eritrea: Legal in areas under Sharia only (up to four wives).
  • All the 27 countries of the European Union (see special note for the United Kingdommarker): Illegal.
  • Icelandmarker: Illegal according to the Icelandic Act on Marriage No. 31/1993, Art. 11.
  • Iranmarker: Legal with written consent from the first wife (up to four wives).
  • Libya: Legal with written consent from the first wife (up to four wives). (See Polygamy in Libya.)
  • Malaysiamarker: Permitted for Muslims; required to obtain judicial consent, show financial capability, and several strict conditions. Some variation in law between states (family law relating to non-Muslims is under federal jurisdiction).
  • Morocco: Permitted for Muslims, restrictions apply.
  • Tunisiamarker: Illegal.
  • Turkeymarker: Illegal.
  • United Kingdom: Illegal if the marriage took place in the UK, but recognized (for some private purposes; but not for e.g. pension, immigration or citizenship rights) if it took place in another country where the law allows it if the parties were domiciled in that country.
  • United Statesmarker: Illegal in all 50 states (but see Polygamy in the United States)
  • Uzbekistanmarker: Illegal.


Polygamy existed all over Africa as an aspect of culture or/and religion. Plural marriages have been more common than not in the history of Africa. Many African societies saw children as a form of wealth thus the more children a family had the more powerful it was. Thus polygamy was part of empire building. It was only during the colonial era that plural marriage was perceived as taboo. Esther Stanford, an African-focused lawyer, states that this decline was encouraged because the issues of property ownership conflicted with European colonial interest. Polygamy is very common in West Africa (Muslim and traditionalist).

South Africa

In South Africa, traditionalists commonly practice polygamy. The president, Jacob Zuma is also openly in favor of plural marriages, being married to three wives himself. The wives live in small houses in a circle around the master compound.


Polygamy is encouraged in countries such as Sudanmarker, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has encouraged multiple marriages to increase the population.


The Chinese culture of Confucianism and thus the practice of polygamy spread from China to Koreamarker and areas that are now Vietnammarker. Before the establishment of the modern democratic mode, Eastern countries permitted a similar practice of polygamy.

South Asia

Polygyny, permitted under Islamic law, is present amongst some Muslims in South Asia. Polygamy is considerably more widespread among Hindus in Nepal than in India.


Polygamy is illegal in India for Hindus and other religious groups under the Hindu marriage Act. It remains legal for Muslims under the terms of The Muslim Personal Law Application Act of 1937, as interpreted by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. Nevertheless, according to the 1961 census (the last census to record such data), polygamy was actually less prevalent among Indian Muslims (5.7%) than among several other religious groups. Incidence was highest among Adivasis (15.25%) and Buddhists (7.9%); Hindus, by comparison, had an incidence of 5.8%.

Polygamy is generally quite rare in urban areas, and among the cosmopolitan middle classes.


In Mongoliamarker, there has been discussion by some tabloids about legalizing polygamy to reduce the imbalance of the male and female population.


Until polygamy was outlawed by King Rama VI, it was expected that wealthy or upper-class Thai men were historically recognized to maintain mansions consisting of multiple wives and their children in the same residence. Among the royalty and courtiers in the past, wives were classified as principal, secondary, and slave. Today, the tradition of minor wives still remains, but the practice is different from that of the past. Due to the expense involved, minor wives are mostly limited to the wealthy men. While a "proper woman" (Kulasatrii; Thai: กุลสตรี) must remain faithful to her husband, there were no equivalent rules in history mandating fidelity in the "virtuous man."

Regardless of the historical acceptance, male polygamy or plural marriage is no longer legally or socially acceptable in the contemporary Thai society. However, the practice of having "minor wives" (Mia-Noi: เมียน้อย) continues in modern days in secrecy from the "primary wife" (Mia-Luang: เมียหลวง). Almost all married Thai women today object to this practice, and indeed for many it has been grounds for divorce. Minor wives are viewed with contempt by the Thai society along the lines of being amoral women or home breakers.


Since the Han Dynasty, technically, Chinese men could have only one wife. However, throughout the thousands of years of Chinese history, it was common for rich Chinese men to have a wife and various concubines. Polygamy is a by-product of the tradition of emphasis on procreation and the continuity of the father's family name. Before the establishment of the Republic of Chinamarker, it was lawful to have a wife and multiple concubines within Chinese marriage. Even though before the Communist Revolution, taking concubines were legal, very few men in the Chinese society could afford to have more than one wife. Even for those who are wealthy and powerful enough to do so, taking too many wives was considered immoral. In Confucianism, taking concubines was allowed, but a man must have a just reason for it. For example, if his wife is not able to give birth to a son, he would be allowed to take a concubine. If a man wants more wives for sexual indulgence, it would be unacceptable. It is illegal in modern China to have more than one spouse.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kongmarker, polygamy was banned in October 1971. Some Hong Kong businessmen have concubines across the border in mainland China, but concubines do not have the legal or social status of wives and so this should not strictly be called "polygamy". Kevin Murphy of The International Herald Tribune reports the cross-border polygyny phenomenon in Hong Kong in 1995.

The traditional attitude toward mistresses is reflected in the saying: "wife is not as good as concubine, concubine is not as good as prostitute, prostitute is not as good as secret affair, secret affair is not as good as the affair you want but can't get" (妻不如妾, 妾不如妓, 妓不如偷, 偷不如偷不著).

Current proponents and opponents


David Friedman and Steve Sailer have argued that polygamy tends to benefit most women and disadvantage most men, under the assumption that most men and women do not practice it. The idea is firstly that many women would prefer half or one third of someone especially appealing to being the single spouse of someone that doesn't provide as much economic utility to them. Secondly, that the remaining women have a better market for finding a spouse themselves. Say that 20% of women are married to 10% of men, that leaves 90% of men to compete over the remaining 80% of women. Friedman uses this viewpoint to argue in favor of legalizing polygamy, while Sailer uses it to argue against legalizing it.

This same result of polygamy is used to justify it as a way to improve the genetic characteristics in a population. The logic being that women will generally tend to marry men of wealth and health. Wealth has a high corrolation with intelligence, thus polygamy has the effect of increasing the intelligence inside the population that practices it.

In the US, the Libertarian Party supports complete decriminalization of polygamy as part of a general belief that the government should not regulate marriages.

Individualist feminism and advocates such as Wendy McElroy also support the freedom for adults to voluntarily enter polygamous marriages.

In Uruguay the "Colorado Party" supports polygamy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, USA, is opposed to Utah's law against cohabitation.

Those who advocate a Federal Marriage Amendment to the American Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage generally word their proposed laws to also prohibit polygamy. Many proponents of same-sex marriage are also in favour of maintaining current statutory prohibitions against polygamy.

Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, lamented the modern arguments increasingly being made by various intellectuals who call for de-criminalizing polygamy. Kurtz concluded, "Marriage, as its ultramodern critics would like to say, is indeed about choosing one's partner, and about freedom in a society that values freedom. But that's not the only thing it is about. As the Supreme Court justices who unanimously decided Reynolds in 1878 understood, marriage is also about sustaining the conditions in which freedom can thrive. Polygamy in all its forms is a recipe for social structures that inhibit and ultimately undermine social freedom and democracy. A hard-won lesson of Western history is that genuine democratic self-rule begins at the hearth of the monogamous family."


The Roman Catholic Church clearly condemns polygamy; the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists it in paragraph 2387 under the head "Other offenses against the dignity of marriage" and states that it "is not in accord with the moral law." Also in paragraph 1645 under the head "The Goods and Requirements of Conjugal Love" states "The unity of marriage, distinctly recognized by our Lord, is made clear in the equal personal dignity which must be accorded to man and wife in mutual and unreserved affection. Polygamy is contrary to conjugal love which is undivided and exclusive."

Currently the vast majority of Protestant congregations take the Catholic view on polygamy.

The illegality of polygamy in certain areas creates, according to certain Bible passages, additional arguments against it. Paul of Tarsus writes "submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience" (Romans 13:5), for "the authorities that exist have been established by God." (Romans 13:1) St Peter concurs when he says to "submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right." (1 Peter 2:13,14) Pro-polygamists argue that, as long as polygamists currently do not obtain legal marriage licenses for additional spouses, no enforced laws are being broken any more than when monogamous couples who similarly co-habitate without a marriage license.

At the present time, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supports enforcing laws against polygamy, although historically this denomination practiced polygamy which they considered to be a principle revealed by God, and fought vocally against those seeking to establish such laws. Today, the church will excommunicate any member found to be practicing polygamy, even in countries where polygamy is legal.

Controversial Christian vegetarian activist and leader Nathan Braun implies a positive stance towards polygamy in his fourth edition of The History and Philosophy of Marriage.

Polygamy in fiction and popular culture

The quip "Bigamy is having one spouse too many. Monogamy is the same." is popularly misattributed to Oscar Wilde.

A popular joke with Mark Twain has Twain asked to cite a Scripture reference that forbids polygamy, and he responds with, "No man can serve two masters."

Science fiction, utopias, dystopias

A number of writers have expressed their views on polygamy by writing about a fictional world in which it is the most common type of relationship. These worlds tend to be utopian or dystopian in nature. For instance, Robert A. Heinlein uses this theme in a number of novels, such as Stranger in a Strange Land. Polygamy is practiced by the Fremen in Frank Herbert's Dune as a means to pinpoint male infertility. It is socially accepted as long as the man provides for all wives equally. Cultures described within the Dune novel series have intentional similarities to Islamic, Arab, and other cultures – i.e. desert cultures. Similarly, the Aiel society in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series practice a form of polygamy, in which multiple women may marry the same man; in that fictional culture, women are the ones who propose marriage. Among Aiel, sisters or very close friends who have adopted each other as sisters, will often marry the same man, so that he will not come between them. Ursula K. Le Guin describes a planet O, where the cultural norm is a "sedoretu" or four-person marriage (a set combination of both genders and sexual orientations). Dan Simmons describes a culture of three-person marriages (any gender ratio) in his book Endymion. In David Weber's Honor Harrington series, the inhabitants of the planet Grayson practice polygamy (polygyny) due to the human colonists to the planet acquiring a genetic defect that gave rise to a large women-to-men birth ratio combined with a high infant mortality. Honor Harrington herself is married to Hamish Alexander as his second wife alongside Emily Alexander. Their surname then becomes Alexander-Harrington. Wen Spencer's science fiction novel A Brother's Price describes a society where men are very rare and protected, and multiple sisters typically marry one man

In the Star Trek television series Enterprise, the ship's physician, Dr. Phlox (who is a Denobulan) has three wives, each of whom has three husbands of her own (including him). One of his wives seemed to be interested in having extramarital relations with a human, which Phlox himself did not oppose, and even encouraged. It has also been stated that the Andorian species enter into group marriages (although whether this is due to societal custom or biological necessity has not been firmly established.) In the Sci-Fi television series Babylon 5 the Centauris allow for men to have more than one wife. In Star Wars Expanded Universe, it is explained that Cereans (like Ki-Adi-Mundi) have a much higher birth-rate of girls than boys. Thus, every male Cerean must have one wife and multiple "honor wives", to increase the chance of giving birth to another male. Jedi Cerean Ki-Adi-Mundi was allowed to marry multiple times, although Jedis were not supposed to marry at his time; but Ki-Adi-Mundi got a dispense of that norm.

Prehistoric and historic fiction

Jean M. Auel in the pre-historic Earth's Children series depicted several instances of "co-mating," where a person could have more than one mate. Examples included the headwoman Tulie in the Mammoth Hunters, and a man who married a pair of twins in the Shelters of Stone. Also of note was Vincavec, the headman of the Mammoth Camp who wished to mate with the protagonist Ayla and was willing to take her Promised, Ranec, implying a bisexual relationship as well.

In Duke of the Mount Deer/The Deer and the Cauldron the Hong Kong writer, Louis Cha (Jin Yung), assigned seven willing wives of different characters to the very capable hero Wai-Siu-Bo (Wei-Xiao-Bao). This politics, office-politics, romance, and kung-fu survival story was based in the early Ching (Qing) Dynasty (of Kangxi reign 1654–1722). The saga has been made into films and TV series several times since the 1960s. Famous actors like Tony Leung (Leung Chiu Wai), Steven Chow (Chow Sing Chi), and Dicky Cheung (Cheung-Wai-Kin) have played the male role.

Contemporary settings

Noted libertarian author L. Neil Smith included a character married to two sisters in his book The American Zone. The dominant culture in the novel sees one's religion and personal living accommodations as no one else's business, and "acts of capitalism between consenting adults" as the norm instead of something immoral. A Home at the End of the World is a novel by Michael Cunningham about a polygamous family. It was later adapted into a film. Both explore issues of homosexuality and families. Big Love is an HBO series about a polygamous family in Utah in the first decade of the 21st century. In the series, Bill Henrickson has three wives and eight children, who belong to a fundamentalist Mormon splinter group. Big Love explores the complex legal, moral, and religious issues associated with polygamy in Utah. Henrickson's three wives each have separate houses beside one another, with a shared backyard. By outward appearances, he lives with his primary wife, and has two "friends" living close by, while in reality taking turns sleeping at a different house each night. Henrickson effectively balances his work, the continuing demands of his wives, and his wives' relatives. Random House published David Ebershoff's novel The 19th Wife in 2008. It is about Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's wives, and the legacy of Mormon polygamy in the United States today.

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