Qixi — also known as Chinese Valentine’s Day — falls on August 17 this year. The story behind the holiday comes from a well-known folktale dating back thousands of years about a cowherd and a weaver girl who fall in love and have two children together. Forcibly kept apart from one another on opposite sides of the Milky Way, they see each other just once a year — on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, when a flock of magpies forms a bridge for them to cross.
While the story behind Qixi is indeed romantic, it was not until the early years of the 21st century that businesses and commercial interests redefined it as China’s own version of Valentine’s Day. However, florists and jewelers aren't the only ones interested in kindling romance these days: Government and Party officials have started treating Qixi as another excuse to push the country’s young singles to get married and settle down. As noble as such efforts sound, they are likely motivated less by a genuine concern for the romantic lives of the country’s citizenry, and more by a desire to raise its birth rate in the face of a looming demographic crisis.
As Valentine’s Day began to catch on in China in the early 21st century, it filled a void in the country's traditional holiday calendar, which lacked a day for celebrating love and couples. Its imagery — roses, chocolates, and candlelit dinners — promised romance and appealed to the tastes of young, stylish urbanites. Businesses were quick to note the commercial potential of the holiday, and soon began exploring the romantic side of Qixi as well.
Just like Valentine’s Day, in the weeks leading up to Qixi, businesses, restaurants, and hotels swamp consumers with offers on gifts and prix fixe menus. Meanwhile, many single people throw themselves — or sometimes find themselves thrown — into matchmaking events to avoid spending the holiday alone.
The government is also getting in on the act. In a social media post from May 2017, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League (CYL) confirmed that it would start playing cupid to China's young and loveless. In defending the need for greater state intervention in young people’s lives — and love lives — the State Council, China’s cabinet, pointed to the mounting pressures faced by China’s young generation, both in the workplace and at home, and said the government should find a way to help.
In the time since, Communist Youth League branches all across the country have swung into action to save young Chinese from the curse of perpetual singledom. Last June, the provincial CYL branch of the eastern province of Zhejiang went so far as to establish a “Marriage and Dating Division” specifically tasked with helping young people find love. Through this division, the CYL established Qin Qing Lian — an online dating platform that, as of this July, claimed to have found more than 13,000 people willing to entrust their love lives to the CYL.
Qin Qing Lian's front page helpfully shows users’ screen names, photos, locations, and height. According to division staff, the website “has a rigorous vetting program, so young people can use it without needing to worry about problems like scams or fake marriages.” Though there are no political requirements, key to this vetting program is the requirement that registrants contact their local CYL branch and personally ask for an invite code. Whether young Chinese will find asking a CYL official for dating help any more or less awkward than going to a friend or family member remains to be seen.
This kind of state intervention into the love lives of its citizens is nothing new in China. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was largely confined to bases in northern China. Yet while the revolutionary youth spoke idealistically about modern concepts including free love, marital autonomy, and the abolishment of arranged marriages, the Party leadership was often guided by more pressing practical concerns — such as the presence of far more men than women in the areas under CPC control. Some of the women who joined the CPC during this time — particularly educated ones from urban backgrounds — were introduced to or even assigned cadres to marry by the Party, all in the name of serving the revolution.
Shortly after the CPC won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, China implemented a collectivist system, and work units were established to manage the lives of the country's urban residents. These units were involved in every facet of a person’s life — from housing, health care, and childbearing, to what they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After the passage of a 1950 law that forbade parents from arranging their children's marriages, the country's work units gamely stepped up to fill in the gap.
Typically, when a person reached marriageable age, the relevant branch of their work unit — whether the labor union, Communist Youth League, or Women’s Federation — would arrange a match for them. While it was still possible for young couples to find their own partners, doing so could have an adverse impact on their political standing and housing allocation. In other words, for most individuals, decisions regarding marriage, childbearing, and divorce all had to be approved by their work unit.
After economic reform took root in the 1980s, however, the work unit system collapsed, and state control over marriages along with it. Only recently have officials sought to reinsert themselves into the relationships of young Chinese.
This renewed push may be linked to concerns over reports of a growing unmarried population and declining fertility. According to figures from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, 10.6 million couples registered for marriage licenses in 2017 — a decrease of 7 percent from the previous year — and the marriage rate has been declining steadily since 2013.
Meanwhile, despite the introduction of the two-child policy in 2016, birth rates have not rebounded as much as officials had hoped, and the country's rapidly aging population has left it in increasingly dire demographic straits. On August 6, the international edition of the Party-run publication The People’s Daily went so far as to declare that “having a child is both a family matter and a national matter.”
Viewed in this light, the real goal of China’s dating push seems less about helping young Chinese find love, and more about getting them married and procreating.
It should be noted that not everyone is opposed to increased state involvement in private relationships. Many of those who grew up during the collectivist period and had their own marriages taken care of by the state now worry that the country isn’t doing enough to find partners for their children and grandchildren. In her book “Who Will Marry My Daughter?” the sociologist Sun Peidong interviewed a Shanghai local in her sixties who gave eloquent voice to this complaint: “You see, the Women’s Federation, the Communist Youth League, the labor unions — they don’t do anything these days. They used to organize events for the young men and women in the work unit. How come there’s nobody in charge of this now?”
But how do the young Chinese themselves feel about the government's increasingly active role in promoting relationships? Some actually do not mind. For many young people, the Youth League has been a significant part of their lives since middle school. And compared to matchmaking businesses that are simply trying to make a buck, the CYL seems to offer a more trustworthy option.
Still, some worry that the push is simply a pretense for an official drive to make young Chinese marry and have kids — despite CYL denials of this being the case — regardless of how the people involved actually feel. Meanwhile, others are wary that participation might come with political strings attached. After all, historically when state organizations have involved themselves in the romantic lives of young people, it has been in exchange for their political loyalty and service.
Their caution and questions may be well-placed. History tells us that the state should be limited in its ability to intervene in the private sphere. The narrative right now may center around finding romance and happiness — much like the cowherd and weaver whose story forms the basis of Qixi. But we also should remember that the reason they must live apart the other 364 days of the year is because the powers that be forbade them to be together. Without safeguards, the potential still exists for political necessity to once again dictate who and how we love.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Singles take part in a warm-up activity during a local Youth League matchmaking event in Chongqing, Aug. 11, 2018. IC)