Singles’ Day — Nov. 11 — might be China’s biggest annual shopping event, but Feb. 14 is no slouch. Every year, in the run-up to the big day, e-commerce sites, malls, and even street vendors all look to capitalize on the popularity of Valentine’s Day with young Chinese through sales and promotional events. At the mall near my home, for example, hawkers sell roses for as much as 50 yuan ($7.40) apiece. And despite the exorbitant price, there’s no shortage of buyers.
Yet, more roses does not necessarily equal more love. Like their counterparts around the world, Chinese young people appear to be in the midst of what The Atlantic has termed a “sex recession.” In part thanks to the rise of social networks, the growing prevalence of hookup apps, and the widespread availability of sex toys, more and more young Chinese are taking a materialistic, transactional view of relationships, or not even bothering to find partners at all. And among those who do have stable relationships, interest in marriage is waning.
In short, traditional attitudes toward love and marriage have been turned on their head. Statistics published by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs show that more than 10.6 million couples registered for marriage in 2017 — the most recent year with available data — bringing numbers down 7 percent from the previous year. The country’s marriage rate was 7.7 out of 1,000 in 2017, a decline of 0.6 out of 1,000 from 2016. Meanwhile, the country’s divorce rate has risen for 16 consecutive years. And although the annual data for 2018 has not yet been published, the preliminary numbers indicate that the marriage rate will continue its decline.
Historically, not getting married was not an option for the vast majority of Chinese: Matrimony was considered too vital an institution. The “Book of Rites” — a foundational text in the Chinese canon — describes marriage as the “beginning of all generations.” It’s not only about the union of man and woman, but also about passing down your family name and carrying on the family line. Classic proverbs reminded men and women to get married as soon as possible and that not having children would be the ultimate unfilial act. In essence, anyone physically able, but unwilling, to marry and have children could be seen as an ungrateful child.
Even today, these ideas still hold sway. Every Lunar New Year, young singles returning home to celebrate the holiday complain of querulous parents and relatives asking when they’ll finally settle down. Many older Chinese still cling to the notion that “A life isn’t a life without a marriage,” even as the country’s increasingly individualistic and economically independent young people — and especially young women — no longer view marriage as a necessity. If you can live well enough alone, why sign up to spend your life with someone who might not be on the same page as you?
Even those who want to get married are finding the path to the aisle increasingly fraught. In the countryside, young couples — and especially young men — face pressure in the form of betrothal gifts. For centuries, men were expected to pay their bride’s family a bride price, essentially a kind of economic compensation for the loss of an able worker.
This is not an uncommon practice in pre-modern or patriarchal societies, but, despite the country’s rapid modernization, bride prices remain common in many parts of China, especially in the countryside. A typical bride price can run as high as 200,000 yuan ($29,500), not including the cost of the wedding and reception. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2017, rural Chinese had an average annual per capita income of 13,400 yuan. In other words, the average rural man would have to save every penny he earned for over a decade before he could afford to get married — and that’s assuming he spent nothing on food or shelter.
Young urbanites face a different set of challenges: Their problem is not the bride price, but the need for men to meet certain basic requirements, including owning both a house and a car, before they can get married. In July 2017, a viral graphic offered a half-joking reference for singles looking to size up potential partners. The list ranked men and women according to their material conditions — essentially wealth, status, and looks. Unsurprisingly, the chart favored members of the urban elite at the expense of those from rural or non-wealthy backgrounds.
A classmate of mine from grad school, surnamed Jiang, once experienced this discrimination firsthand. Jiang comes from a rural part of the eastern province of Jiangxi, while his girlfriend at the time was a Shanghai native. After dating for four years and saving up for two, Jiang hoped to propose, but his prospective mother-in-law was strongly opposed to the idea of her daughter marrying a man who didn’t own a house in the city. Eventually, the pair broke up, and his then-girlfriend married a fellow Shanghainese in 2017. As for Jiang, he’s still single and renting an apartment, and he has told me on more than one occasion that he will not marry.
Jiang’s experience is not unique among young urbanites, in particular those who either moved to the city from the countryside, or who grew up in a lower middle class or poor family. Members of this group go through years of hardship to save enough for a down payment. And even then, their backgrounds pose a problem on the marriage market.
Another friend of mine, Chen, works at a media company in Beijing. In order to save money on rent, he and his girlfriend live in a 15-square-meter subdivided unit with paper-thin walls near Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road. Although his relationship is stable, he harbors no illusions about his state in life. “I don’t even dare make a sound when I’m having sex,” he once said to me. “How can we think about marrying and having children?”
Others in his position are just killing time. In some cases, an individual may have a stable partner, but view them as no more than a warm body who can temporarily give them what they need in their stressful life: a sex partner and someone to split the rent with.
Over the past 40 years, materialism and inequality have permeated all aspects of our lives. Marriage has been monetized, leading to the emergence of the same gap between the haves and have-nots that exists everywhere else in the economy. It’s not exactly a recipe for a happy Valentine’s Day.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Chen Zhigang/VCG)