It took me 11 years but I am finally reading Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall . Published in 2009, it is a fictionalised account of events in early Tudor-era England, and within the first few chapters, we are given to understand that all is not well with the marriage between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his older brother, Arthur. While not strictly speaking a levirate marriage, where a man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow, especially if the deceased brother is childless, the marriage between Henry VIII and his sister-in-law Catherine was arranged for geopolitical expediency. Its eventual annulment, in 1533, would set in motion several key events in European history, among the, Henry VIII’s excommunication by the pope in Rome, and the birth of the Church of England and Anglican Christianity. Many cultures today frown upon marriages between affinal relatives, or relatives by marriage, with some even prohibiting them as incestuous. Although such unions do not involve consanguinity, or blood ties, the idea of marrying one’s parents-in-law, siblings’ spouses, step-siblings, and so on, makes most people very uncomfortable. In ancient and early imperial China – at least among the upper classes – people were not totally averse to marriages between relatives not related by blood. There are a number of examples but these were exceptions to the rule. Lady Qijiang was the consort of two rulers of the state of Jin, Duke Wu (died 677BC) and then Duke Xian (died 661BC), who were father and son. In AD651, the Tang dynasty’s Emperor Gaozong took his late father’s consort out of a nunnery and into the palace, where she became his own consort. Four decades later, she would eventually ascend to the throne as Empress Wu Zetian , China’s only empress regnant. While Confucianism had been the state ideology since the 2nd century BC, it was only during the Song period (960-1279), in the form of Neo-Confucianism, that its tenets governing social, and in particular familial, relationships began to be rigidly adhered to. By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a man who married the widow of his father or paternal uncle would be decapitated, and he who married the widow of his brother would be sentenced to death by strangulation. This marital practice, however, was common among many non-Han Chinese nations living in the periphery of China, such as the peoples in Central Asia, the Mongols and Manchus. Soon after the Manchus conquered China and established the Qing dynasty, in 1644, rumours began circulating that the empress dowager, the widowed mother of the Shunzhi Emperor, had married the regent Prince Dorgon, her brother-in-law and the young emperor’s paternal uncle. The veracity of this rumour notwithstanding, its capacity for scandal reflected the cultural collision between the Manchu conquerors, for whom such marriages were quite acceptable, and their Han Chinese subjects, who found these practice abhorrent. Within a short time, however, the Manchus became acculturated to the mores of the numerically superior Han Chinese, and discarded this and other customs, which the Manchus had internalised as “backward” and thus “shameful”. Today, sex or marriage between affinal relatives who are not related by blood remains somewhat taboo, even in the most sexually liberated societies. But as the concept of family gets reconstituted and redefined, perhaps the time will come when marrying the woman whom you call auntie, the same woman who used to be married to your father’s brother, will no longer feel creepy. Or perhaps not.