In Chinese, the word xiangqin — commonly translated as “matchmaking” — is rich in cultural significance. It refers to single men and women who, having been introduced by a third party, get to know one another to decide if they are romantically compatible.
In ancient China, matchmaking was an essential ritual. This is because engagements and marriages at the time were essentially group discussions that took into account the reputations of the bride’s and groom’s parents, the opinions of professional matchmakers, and the social relationship between two households. The wishes of individuals often played second fiddle to family concerns. While attitudes toward love and marriage have become freer since the early 20th century, matchmaking has continued to exist to this day.
Matchmaking is, of course, not exclusive to China: It has existed in different forms all across the globe. In 16th-century Europe, imperial families would choose their marital partners with the aid of portraits. In Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” single young people make each other’s acquaintance through elaborate organized dances. And how many of us today use online dating, watch matchmaking TV shows, or attend speed-dating events?
That said, nowhere else in the world does matchmaking quite like China. Every weekend, ad hoc matchmaking corners in China’s urban parks throng with groups of middle-aged and elderly parents brandishing cardboard advertisements displaying their children’s age, income, property portfolio, and hukou — the household registration card that permits them to reside in a certain part of the country. The older generation still aims to help their children find life partners.
Matchmaking not only concerns Chinese young people, but also makes parents feel anxious. Such a phenomenon is unlikely to occur in developed Western nations, where the elderly tend to spend retirement in a more leisurely manner, instead of interfering in the personal affairs of their children. In China, you find the opposite to be the case.
It is becoming increasingly evident that Chinese society has failed to adequately prepare for its own rapidly aging population. Public services rarely cater to the needs of the elderly, and many retired Chinese become marginal members of society. In this context, elderly Chinese men and women have turned to matchmaking. Of course, they are in part motivated by a desire to find a partner for their children. However, studies have shown that these matchmaking corners have a success rate of less than 1 percent.
At the same time, seniors view matchmaking corners as a social activity, much like their beloved square dances and walking tours. At local marriage markets, they gather to gossip away the time and perhaps ease feelings of solitude or aimlessness. Matchmaking corners, therefore, primarily reflect the lack of meaningful activities and exchanges in old people’s lives.
Recently, an article about matchmaking went viral on Chinese social media. At a matchmaking market in the capital, one mother was quoted as saying: “My son is only 33 years old. He won’t accept girls without a Beijing hukou.” Another commented: “Even a disabled woman with a Beijing hukou can find a match!”
Matchmaking has become a source of controversy, as it relies on a cruel hierarchy loaded with prejudice and contempt. Those who find themselves at the top of this hierarchy are usually white-collar workers with first-tier city hukou, a car, a house near the center of town, and a monthly income in excess of 20,000 yuan for women or 50,000 yuan for men ($3,000 or $7,400, respectively). Those at the bottom are, naturally, poorly paid part-time workers without a city hukou, car, or house. As a result, advertisements for many eligible men and women stand ignored, while supposedly anyone who has a Beijing hukou becomes competitive — “even a disabled woman,” as disparaging as that sounds.
Things get even more interesting when matchmaking collides with traditional superstition and entrenched gender discrimination. Many Chinese find wry humor in the fact that men who hold doctoral degrees sit at the top of the food chain, while women who are just as educated often sit at the bottom. Matchmakers sometimes assume that female Ph.D.s and other highly capable women have children at an older age, cannot completely invest themselves in family life, and are unable to perform traditional duties as a wife and mother.
Furthermore, even if a woman satisfies all the requirements of her potential suitors, she may yet be ignominiously relegated to the realm of the unmarriageable for the being born in the Year of the Sheep. This is because many elderly people cling to the superstition that most women who are born in the Year of the Sheep suffer misfortune in their family lives, ending up childless or widowed. Of course, in matchmaking circles, this superstition doesn’t apply to men.
The overwhelming majority of young Chinese people disapprove of this hierarchy. Some acquaintances of mine have decried matchmaking corners as “human trafficking,” reflecting China’s conspicuous generation gap. An increasing number of young people believe in individualism, personal freedom, and modern science, but their elderly counterparts continue to uphold the values of traditional Chinese society. This divide in public opinion is becoming more extreme, as is vividly demonstrated by debates surrounding matchmaking.
Why is it, then, that the subject of Chinese matchmaking continues to foment interest and debate among young people? The answer is that this subject is a microcosm of the issues that cause anxiety in young people: their hukou, the property market, and social mobility.
Although young people in China do not approve of the vicious hierarchy upheld by their parents, they probably do understand, deep down, that the reason why the hukou and the real estate market are the main criteria of the matchmaking process is because, under China’s unfair residency system, there are privileges associated with being a native resident of top-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. This residency system has a direct influence on the allocation of resources and one’s status in society.
Meanwhile, as real estate prices continue to soar, the struggle to succeed has become increasingly futile, as talent and ambition are no longer enough to afford a mortgage. The increasing rigidity of China’s social classes, as well as the omnipresent risks faced by China’s middle class — including asset depreciation, social decline, and failure to secure a good education for their children — have turned marriage into a means of maintaining social stability or ascending to a higher social class. Even if young people continue to have an idealistic vision of love, bleak social realities force them to view marriage as a type of transaction. Despite their intense contempt for Chinese-style matchmaking, they cannot help but feel torn between hating the culture of xiangqin and wondering if it might not be in their best interests.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Young people talk to each other during a matchmaking fair in Beijing, Dec. 19, 2014. Pan Zhiwang/VCG)