This spring, stories of “rental” boyfriends and girlfriends — escorts who could be brought home during Chinese New Year to appease anxious parents worried about their children’s ticking biological clocks — went viral on the Chinese internet. Although some netizens expressed concern about the safety of such arrangements, plenty more seemed interested in the idea of hiring someone who could get their nagging parents off their backs.
In China — as in many countries — marriage is a common source of resentment and frustration for both parents and their children. Online, young Chinese swap stories of overbearing parents setting them up on blind dates and share strategies for dealing with questions about their personal lives from their out of control relatives, while in dance classes and around mahjong tables across the country, their families gossip and complain about ungrateful children who don't respect their elders.
Part of the pressure young people feel to get married is cultural — marriage is widely seen in China as a mandatory part of adulthood. In 2016, China’s marriage rate was 8.3 per 1,000 people — significantly higher than the OECD average of 4.8. Even South Korea and Japan, two nations also heavily influenced by Confucian culture, have marriage rates much lower than China’s. Despite continued widespread support for marriage as an institution, however, the economic and social transformations China has undergone over the last 40 years have had a significant impact on the values of young Chinese, many of whom now strongly believe they should be free to choose who and when they wed.
Disagreement over this last point is a key source of tension between Chinese parents and their children. First, the two generations have very different ideas about what makes for a suitable match. What Chinese parents want for their children is a mixture of lifelong companionship and a support system — someone with a good job, a good family, and good connections — but not necessarily good looks or a sense of romance. Their children, however, increasingly aspire to love matches, and view their parents’ criteria as unromantic and utilitarian.
These issues are compounded by the traditional Chinese belief that children must obey their parents in matters pertaining to marriage. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Caring for the Next Generation Working Committee — a Communist Party-affiliated organization established by the State Council — 86 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds reported having experienced parental pressure to get married. Although in some respects parental authority and control over their children’s lives has weakened in recent years, this pressure can still be effective, as many young people still feel unable to openly defy their parents’ wishes when it comes to who and when they marry.
Parents and their children also disagree about what constitutes a suitable age for marriage. As far as many members of the older generation are concerned, if their children are still single after the age of 23 (for women) or 25 (for men), then they will never find love, much less produce grandchildren. Women in particular are expected to marry before they reach their late twenties, or risk being labeled “leftover women.”
Yet as university attendance rates rise, young women become increasingly career-focused, and the costs of marriage skyrocket, the average age of young Chinese marrying for the first time is drifting upward — especially in the country’s cities. In Shanghai, for example, the average age at which people got married for the first time in 2014 — the most recent year for which statistics are available — was 30.11 for men and 28.14 for women — up from 26.68 and 24.37, respectively, in 2005. However, parents are unmoved by these broader social trends: The longer their children go without finding a partner, the more agitated parents get.
And although most young Chinese still plan to marry, if not necessarily on their parents’ schedule, some have no desire to get married at all. One side effect of recent societal and cultural changes is an increased tolerance of — and interest in — different lifestyles, at least among the younger generation. Increasingly, young Chinese view the decision to get married — or not — as a personal one, and resent any outside interference.
This is especially true of urban, well-educated young people. The thought is that unless you can get something you want from marriage — a loving family of your own, for example — then why not stay single? This is worrying to their more traditional, conservative parents, who see marriage as a necessary safeguard in case of sickness or sudden unemployment. The government, too, has expressed concern — though its attempts to intervene often provoke backlash from young people tired of outside parties meddling in their private affairs. A recent proposal to give married couples tax breaks, for instance, was roundly panned online as an example of government overreach, with some likening it to a “single's tax” that discriminated against people for the fault of not being married.
However, if the government wants to incentivize young couples to get married, then the thought process behind the single’s tax is sound. When it comes to marriage, money is the government’s — and more importantly parents’ — greatest source of leverage. While today’s young people long for autonomy, they are nonetheless heavily dependent on their parents for financial support. Getting married in China is not cheap. In addition to the costs of a wedding, the traditional requirement is for young couples — or at least young men — to own a house before getting wed. With real estate prices skyrocketing and young people stuck earning low salaries just out of college, many have no choice but to ask their parents for help getting a foothold into adulthood. And if parents are financially supporting their kids, they expect to have a say in how their children live — and love.
Young Chinese are not the only ones feeling the heat. The concept of a “nuclear family” is not as well established in China as it is in much of the West: In China, a person’s immediate family is just part of a larger family structure. Feeling economically insecure and faced with a lack of social and state support, individual households often pool their resources to form a mutual support network with extended family members. The flip side to this has been an increase in the number of gossipy relatives with which to contend. This puts immense pressure not only on young people, but on their parents as well, since their kids’ marital status then suddenly becomes a referendum on their parenting skills.
Parents claim they are just trying to do what’s best for their children, but they should recognize that there is a real values gap between the two generations. Increasingly, young people crave independence in marriage — and life — including the freedom to not get married at all. Yet concerns about seeming unfilial or disrespectful prevent them from broaching this topic with their families. And even if they do try and push back, they are often constrained by their lack of financial independence.
At the same time, young people must understand that if their parents are so anxious about their children’s love lives, it is not just because they are bored and have nothing better to do. China has an extremely porous social safety net. Not only must many parents rely on their children in old age, they also worry about how their children will age without a family support network of their own. If the government took a more active role in providing for its citizens, then perhaps parents would be less insistent on the practical benefits of getting married and young people would have more room to decide for themselves who and when they marry.
But this is ultimately a family matter, and not one that can be solved through guilt-tripping or harebrained schemes involving escorts. If the gulf between parents and their children is to be bridged, the two sides must learn to communicate honestly and respectfully with one another. Young people must accept that their parents really do just want the best for them, and parents must learn to treat their kids as adults, with lives and goals of their own.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Family members watch on as singles take part in a speed dating activity in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, July 7, 2018. Ni Yanqiang/Zhejiang Daily/VCG)