Modern Romance: Who Foots the Bill in China?
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2017-06-29 15:40:16

Not long ago, I had lunch at a restaurant near my university with a girl I was interested in. After eating, I instinctively took out my wallet to pay the bill, but my female companion insisted that we go Dutch, making me feel slightly embarrassed.

In China these days, it’s difficult to know whether paying for a woman will be well-received, and this is due to the diversification of attitudes. On the internet, many people still say that it is only proper for the man to pay for his girlfriend on a date. Men who don’t abide by this unwritten yet inviolable rule are thought of as classless and stingy.

On one of the most popular talk shows in China these days, “U Can U Bibi,” one of the guests fiercely argued that women should not pay a single yuan on dates. “My mother and father went to so much trouble to raise such a beautiful daughter,” she reasoned. “By having the chance to date me, you’ve already gotten lucky. But to then ask me for money? Are you insane? We girls are worthy of your respect. Paying for a date is one way of respecting me.”

Of course, Fan’s opinions may be anathema to feminists. Much like my female companion that day, many modern Chinese women who value their autonomy no longer want men to pick up the bill.

These differences in opinion reflect the ever more diverse ways that gender roles are perceived in Chinese society. To satisfy my own curiosity — and to avoid ruining future dates — I asked undergrads at my university who paid the check when they went on dates. My findings yielded some interesting results.

Before analyzing the ways that young people split the cost on dates, we must first consider the financial circumstances of Chinese university students, who are generally heavily reliant upon their parents for financial support, and as such have less to spend on luxuries. Of the students I surveyed, the average monthly living expense for female students was slightly higher than that of their male counterparts: 1,682 yuan compared with 1,568 yuan ($248 and $231, respectively).

Yet even though women have more money at their disposal, the survey revealed that men continue to bear the majority of expenses. We calculated that on average, women pay for about a quarter of the cost of a date.

But curiously, the women expressed an expectation to pay more. One survey question read: “On a date, what percentage of expenses should be paid for by the woman?” The average value stated by male respondents was around 30 percent. Among women, however, this value rose to 40 percent. Men most commonly hoped that women would pay for a small portion (defined as 25 percent or less) of the date’s total expenses, while over half of women believed that the bill should be split evenly.

The differing attitudes of men and women with regard to how the bill should be handled have, in some circumstances, become a source of conflict: More than 20 percent of respondents confided that they had argued with their date over money.

Meanwhile, when respondents were asked how they felt about men paying for women within the context of a romantic relationship, there was a similar divergence in the responses given by male and female respondents. Overall, men hoped to be more generous, while in comparison, women preferred to pay for their own portion.

Men are realizing that our traditional roles as breadwinners and protectors are fast becoming outdated.

By comparing these responses, we can see that the percentage of expenses that male and female respondents felt women should pay during dates (30 and 40 percent, respectively) exceeded the percentage of expenses that women actually paid (28 percent). Clearly, both men and women hope to share the cost of dating more equally — so why isn’t it happening?

In China perhaps even more than elsewhere, men tend to be viewed as breadwinners, while the role of spending money has generally fallen to women. This practice has, in turn, reinforced gender stereotypes that limit the roles men and women play in society, constituting a form of gender inequality.

In the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, China ranked 99th out of 144 countries surveyed, implying that there is still a long way to go in terms of gender equality. At the same time, dating in China has become increasingly expensive. According to an annual price report published by Deutsche Bank, the approximate cost of a cheap date in Shanghai this year — cab rides, lunch or dinner for two at a pub or cafe, soft drinks, two movie tickets, and a couple of beers — is $81, making the city the 32nd most expensive in the world for burgeoning romance.

China is still a society dominated by men, but the groundswell of feminism is growing. As my survey shows, young, well-educated female college students are gradually divesting themselves of being paid for and are looking toward a dating model whereby costs are shared more equally.

I’ve learned that men are generally still permitted to play the gentleman and foot the bill, and that a majority of women won’t feel discomfited by this chivalric gesture. But hard-up male college students who balk at the constantly climbing cost of a date will surely welcome women who are willing to share expenses and not consider it an assault on their masculinity. As with the best relationships, compromise is key, and men like me are realizing that our traditional roles as breadwinners and protectors are fast becoming outdated.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A young couple date at a café in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, Sept. 9, 2010. VCG)