Chinese audiences are currently going gaga for a Japanese variety show called “Shouting Your Love from the Rooftop.” The premise is simple enough: Young Japanese teenagers stand on the roof of their school and declare their feelings about their crush in front of their classmates. In the playground below, a crowd of their peers squeal in delight at every confession.
On Chinese social media, some viewers have speculated about how the situation would play out in their own country. Most responses strike a familiar tone: A teacher would come running over in a matter of seconds — and not to cheer the students on, that’s for sure. Instead, they’d discipline the pupils and break up the happy couple.
Young love in China is seen as a threat. Many schools completely ban students from coupling up, and most families don’t tolerate such nonsense in the name of maintaining “public order” and “good morals.” However, such restrictive attitudes are actually a modern phenomenon; as recently as a few decades ago, things were very different.
Back in ancient China, people married early in life. During the Tang Dynasty, for instance, boys were expected to be married by 15 years old, and girls by 13. While these standards changed from one dynasty to the next, people generally took a partner before they turned 20. However, that all changed in 1980, when China passed its marriage law, setting the legal marriage age at “no earlier than 22 years old for males and 20 years old for females” — the highest minimum marriage age in the world.
The law was very much a product of its time. In 1980, China was laying the groundwork for an initiative that came to be called the one-child policy. To better control population growth, the government needed to find a way to bring down the birth rate. As the vast majority of people had children after getting married, raising the marriage age was a logical way of getting people to delay childbirth.
The official media that whirred into action around the one-child policy effectively conveyed a number of new concepts to the general populace: namely, that it was better to marry and have children later; that one child was more than enough; and that the tradition of favoring boys over girls was an outdated feudal relic. The government actively encouraged people to marry even later than the minimum legal age, dangling promises of higher wages and longer holidays before the eyes of men who remained single past 25 years old and women past 23.
As people started tying the knot later in life, adolescent love gradually became a taboo. In the 1980s, it was almost universally considered premature to have a high school sweetheart, a college paramour, or even a workplace admirer. A well-oiled propaganda drive convinced many that their younger years were best spent studying and working, not chasing love interests. After all, the latter undertaking would prevent you from contributing to the reform effort and building a strong Chinese nation.
The opposite side of the coin was that the reform and opening-up period exposed Chinese society to Western notions of romance, a development that continues to challenge traditional conceptions of marriage. In China, dating multiple partners was once eschewed in favor of settling down early and having children.
In recent years, though, people who have dated multiple partners are no longer chided for being promiscuous or immoral. Partly because of Western influence, and partly because of state policy, people also marry later, especially in major cities. A 2015 study found that the average marriage age in Shanghai was 30 for men and 28 for women. The same year, China abolished the one-child policy — in one fell swoop revising its marriage law and revoking the benefits once awarded to late marriages.
In a society less politicized than that of the 1980s, however, an official easing of marriage restrictions has not changed long-ingrained attitudes toward young love. Ever since the 1977 reintroduction of the gaokao, China’s nail-bitingly stressful college entrance exam, both teachers and parents have strived to remove any distractions that could impact their students’ performance. Having a class boyfriend or girlfriend falls into this category.
Compared to their Western counterparts, Chinese schools generally play a more intrusive role in student life. Over the years, they have come up with all sorts of creative ways to thwart budding romances between pupils. Some schools make boys and girls sit apart in the cafeteria. Others stipulate that any dates must happen in groups of, say, five people, in a brightly lit setting, with couples staying at least 50 centimeters away from each other at all times. In addition, most school uniforms are identical, gender-neutral, desexualized tracksuits. Once the school finds out about a relationship, administrators might take light disciplinary action by having a talk with the students involved or take heavier action by issuing demerits. Some go straight for the nuclear option and expel canoodling students outright.
Unfortunately, few Chinese schools or parents recognize the fact that sexual desire — and the torrent of awkward, heart-fluttering emotions that emerge with it — is a completely natural part of puberty. Forcing teenagers to repress these urges makes them less likely to understand personal relationships later in life.
In August, a viral online article described how a — probably hypothetical — father discovered that his daughter had a crush on the top male student in her class. Instead of getting angry with her, he used it as an opportunity to help his daughter grow and was lauded for his supposedly liberal parenting style. Explaining to his daughter that smart boys only liked smart girls, the father motivated her to study harder. She also started exercising to lose weight, along with learning new skills that won her awards. Eventually, she tested into the prestigious Communication University of China, with a trail of admirers in her wake. By that point, she had long moved on from her high school crush.
Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that this father, fictional or not, has a questionable idea of what constitutes liberal parenting. To most Chinese readers, his style was rather ingenious. Others, however, noted that in the end, he still didn’t allow his daughter to have a boyfriend before taking the gaokao. In a similar vein to the reaction to “Shouting Your Love from the Rooftop,” discussion boards were filled with netizens looking back ruefully at the unfulfilled romances of their youth, criticizing Chinese schools for their conservatism and ignorance.
In response, one web user claiming to be a teacher said: “We’re already doing our utmost to protect students’ privacy, self-respect, and love. But once they get romantically involved, their grades just nosedive. If they can’t pass the gaokao or test into a good college, then how will students from smaller towns change their fortunes?”
Therein lies the real reason why schools and parents alike nip young love in the bud. After all, the logic goes, you probably only get one shot at the gaokao in your whole life, but you have multiple opportunities to find romance.
Yet education is not a zero-sum game in which you either end up a math prodigy or a hopelessly romantic down-and-out. China’s lack of educational diversity and crushing academic pressure are stunting our children’s emotional growth, preventing them from enjoying the deep fulfillment that can come from falling in love. Only within a system that privileges holistic education and emotionally attuned individuals will our students finally be able to stand proudly in the sun-washed schoolyard and tell the object of their affections: “I like you.”
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Two teenagers in school uniforms hold hands while crossing a path in Lu’an, Anhui province, May 28, 2017.Su Yang/VCG)