Finding your soul mate can be difficult anywhere in the world, but in a nation like China—nearly a billion-and-a-half people strong—you’d think that maybe, just maybe, your odds would improve. Think again. Thanks to changing social norms and political policies, marriage in this burgeoning economic power has become, well, exceedingly complicated.
For starters, if you are a man seeking a Chinese woman, you face a shortage of potential brides. Several factors contribute to this, but the most influential is the government’s infamous one-child policy. Implemented by the Communist Party in 1978 as a means to curtail population growth, the rule limits couples (in the ethnic Han majority) to procreating only once. To date, the law has prevented an estimated 400 million births, with repercussions that promise to give economic planners a few headaches down the road. The most palpable is a rise in selective abortions, which have led to an extreme gender disparity: One study found 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20. By 2020, state media have reported, some 24 million Chinese men of marrying age will find themselves lacking wives. (This disparity equals the entire female population of Spain.)
Fueling this trend are traditional cultural values that prompt parents to favor sons over daughters. The lack of a proper welfare system in China is increasingly worrisome as the population ages, and boys are perceived as most likely to become good breadwinners who will take care of their elderly parents when the time comes. Girls are perceived as likely to be “lost” to the family of the groom after they marry, yet daughters are often pressured into marriage. Those who reach age 30 without taking a spouse are labeled “leftover women,” or sheng nu. These women are typically professionals who have a high level of education, earn a high salary, and hold a high-ranking position in a company.
As women shrink in number and gain earning power in China, they’re getting pickier about choosing mates. Although many would still like to find “true love,” their underlying motives have shifted away from romantic notions toward more pragmatic and materialistic concerns demanded by the nation’s new economy. The dating scene has grown extremely competitive, with matchmakers from parents to websites asking eligible bachelors what’s not only in their hearts but also in their wallets. For a woman seeking a Chinese man, it’s a buyer’s market—and the less fortunate are increasingly getting frozen out.
The average age at which men and women get married for the first time throughout China is now 24 and 22 years old, respectively, with people in urban areas delaying their unions much longer. In Shanghai, for example, the city’s civil affairs bureau reported that the average age of marriage was 32.5 for men and 30 for women in 2010, up from 32 for men and 29 for women in 2007. (Legal marriage age in China is 22 or older for men and 20 or older for women.)
Unlike in the U.S., potential mates are often set up by their parents, who are very involved in the matchmaking process. A typical recruiting day might involve a visit to a local park—a “people park,” as the locals call it, where parents prominently display photographs of their single child for others to examine—or stroll around assessing “the options.” Skipping basic niceties, they may approach complete strangers who appear to be peers and bluntly ask, “Do you have a single son or daughter?” If the answer is “yes,” they’ll collect a few pertinent details and then either move on or exchange contact information, so that the couples can introduce their respective offspring to each other. The first “meeting” might be an online chat through an instant-messaging service like QQ, and, if all goes well, they eventually go out on a date. Chinese couples typically court for about a year before getting married.
Professional matchmakers are also gaining in popularity. For the equivalent of about US $15, they offer their services for six months to a year. These businesses are mostly small time operators, with little more to offer than instincts and a thick rolodex. Their advantage over the big online dating services—such as Jiayuan.com or Baihe.com—is that they act locally, with a more detailed knowledge of their “markets.”
For men, assets include whether they own a house or not, age, height, and income. For women, it’s mostly about age, height, and education.
So dire is the situation from an emotional standpoint that The New York Times recently published a story that highlighted the problems of Chinese bachelors. The story opens with the somewhat depressing tale of a 28-year-old Beijing man named Wang Lin. Wang, the reporter explains, has a college degree, a stable job, a “flawless set of white teeth, a tolerable karaoke voice, and a three-year-old Nissan with furry blue seat covers.” Lacking an apartment, this young gentleman faces grim prospects in the Beijing dating scene.
It gets worse. Matchmaker Zhang Yanhong, who works for Baihe.com, says that many men are too discouraged by the lack of prospects to be actively looking for a spouse, and they literally drop out. “This fixation on real estate has twisted the popular notion of love and marriage,” she said. “Women are putting economic factors above everything else when looking for a mate, and this is not a good thing for relationships or for society.”
Love, if it’s even mentioned, is not considered requisite for marriage. The Chinese are an utterly pragmatic people who believe that sometimes you just have to settle for “Mr. or Mrs. Right Enough,” as one reporter calls it.
Sarah Xie, a 24-year-old marketing executive in Shanghai, told NPR last fall that she is anxious about meeting the perfect husband. “I am single right now, and I am worried all the time. I have some foreign friends, they [keep] telling me that you are young, you are only 24, you should do whatever you want. And my parents, my family—my grandma, grandpa, or my aunties, uncles—they are telling me, you are getting old. No girls will be wanted after 30, so you have to grab the guy that you have right now and get married,” Xie says. “…What if I don’t find that guy, what if when I pass 30, nobody wants me anymore?”
The fear of becoming a sheng nu is so common and heartfelt that a play touring major Chinese cities gained a certain amount of fame, in a TV-centric society like China. Called the Shengnulang, or The Leftover Woman, it depicts the life of a woman who, at the age of 30, is still single. The horror! The director of the play, speaking with NPR a few months ago, said that the problem is—yet again—about women confusing wealth with happiness.
“Of all the unmarried women in Chinese cities now, very few are unmarried because they can’t find love or a suitable partner,” Li told NPR. “They’re unmarried because of their pursuit of money and status and a house and a car. And they cannot find a man who satisfies these material desires.”
The debate of arranged versus free-choice marriage is only a reflection of the liberties that the passing of time bestowed on Chinese society, as happened pretty much everywhere else. But the lack of an effective safety net for families, compounded by the turbulent past of the past few decades of Chinese history, left a deep mark in the social aptitudes. Arranged marriages, then like now, are planned and executed around the very transparent goal of bringing as much upward social momentum and economic wealth as possible for both families involved.
But what about those die-hard romantics who seek true love? In such a distorted dating market, some young men are withholding information to figure out which women are only superficially interested in them. The Times story tells of a 30 year old in Beijing who, although he owns his apartment and a car, claims that he rents and takes the bus. After 20 unsuccessful first dates, he thinks he’s met somebody who’s interested in more than his bank account. They’ve been dating for three months. “The whole time she thought I didn’t own an apartment and she still wanted me,” he said. “Someone like that is rare.”
Is all hope lost for a less materialistic take on the issue? Maybe not. The emergence of the “nude marriage,” in which neither party brings real estate on the table, is becoming more popular. Is the age of romantic love in China—fueled by a surfeit of movies and dramas on the subject—too far off?