It’s Complicated: Chinese Millennials and Marriage
Getting hitched isn’t what it used to be.
A generation or two ago in China, marriage was nearly universal, and arranged unions were quite common. But now it is increasingly normal to remain unwed: In 2016, more than 200 million adults in China were single, and divorce rates are ever on the rise.
According to journalist and scholar Leta Hong Fincher, more young people now are resisting marriage — especially women, who she says have more to lose through the patriarchal institution that often leaves them “beholden to a man and his family.”
Even conservatives admit that marriage is going through a crisis of faith, complaining that it is increasingly undermined by scam marriages, sham divorces, and dating hoaxes.
All this worries the authorities. Marriage is a matter of political interest for the Chinese government, as it fights to raise birth rates and revive “family values” in the face of an aging crisis. In 2016, it introduced the two-child policy, relaxing decades of family planning controls. Local governments promote matrimony with cash subsidies for newlyweds, and some provinces have floated the possibility of a baby bonus for couples who have a second child.
The message from the state is clear: Young people should get married and have children to save the nation’s future from economic collapse.
The ideology isn’t simply about increasing birth rates, as single mothers suffer myriad forms of discrimination, while unmarried and same-sex couples are unable to access assisted reproductive technologies. “The Chinese government sees marriage and family as the basic cell of society,” explains Hong Fincher. “They see marriage between a man and a woman as a politically stabilizing institution.”
For parents and other elders, too, marriage is seen as a marker of normalcy and the most significant milestone of adulthood.
Pressure from parents, peers, and state adds up — and sometimes it is these factors, rather than romance, that lead Chinese millennials down the aisle. “Many young women still marry even if they don’t want to,” Hong Fincher says, “because they feel it’s their responsibility and their duty to their parents.”
At the same time, young people have greater freedom to choose a partner — and to leave them if things don’t work out. China’s divorce rate has risen for 14 consecutive years. Nearly 4.2 million couples divorced in 2016, an increase of 8.3 percent from the previous year and more than 14 times the number in 1980. And while many still meet their spouse through matchmaking, more and more people — young and old — are connecting online and dating or cohabiting.
Young people in China today expect more from marriage than people did in the past. “Emotional support, intimacy, intellectual enrichment, sharing the pressures of life,” rattles off NYU Shanghai academic Li Xuan when asked what people are looking for. At the same time, she says that economic factors often override romance.
Hong Fincher echoes this view: “Young people date to have fun, but when it comes to looking for a marital partner, my impression is that romance and fun isn’t at the top of the list.”
From the city to the countryside, marriage in today’s China is a union of something old and something new.
The Bachelors Going South
SHAANXI, Northwest China — In some parts of the Chinese countryside, or so the story goes, a single man must be in the possession of a small fortune if he is in want of a wife. Yang Yongcheng didn’t like his chances: Fatherless, with a modest salary as a plumber and electrician, he’d been turned down once before by a girl he’d dated in his hometown because of his family’s circumstances.
Shortly after he turned 30, Yang decided to take up a job on a construction project in Laos. His uncle had been working in the Southeast Asian country for seven or eight years, and Yang knew several men with Laotian wives. Yang fancied that his chances of finding a partner would be better across the border.
Demography is a major source of worry for China’s policymakers: The country’s population is too old and too male. According to official statistics, China has over 33 million more men than women, though some suggest this figure may be inflated by underreported female births.
Courting women from abroad has long been proposed as a solution for China’s bottleneck of bachelors. In 2015, an economics professor suggested that wife-sharing and immigrant women could help address the marriage crisis for low-income men. The same year, The Beijing News even published a tongue-in-cheek infographic — with the clickbait headline, “Helping Loser Guys Win Wives” — that rated Southeast Asia as an “economy class” destination for hard-up bachelors. But it also warned of runaway foreign brides who cooperate with matchmaking agents for a split of the fees, and then abandon their husbands once they get paid.
Just a few weeks after Yang arrived in Laos in February 2016, a chef at the construction site introduced him to Thiou — who, like many Laotians, only has one name. Yang immediately took a liking to her. “I thought she seemed understanding and sincere,” he tells Sixth Tone. Thiou, on the other hand, is laconic in her halting Chinese. Her first impression of Yang, she says, was that he was just “all right.” But after just a few weeks, she agreed to marry him and move to China. In May 2016, Thiou got her first passport — previously, she did not even have a Laotian ID card — and crossed the border with Yang.
It was back at Yang’s home in Taibai County, near Shaanxi’s city of Baoji, that their troubles began. Around 200 people attended their village wedding in June 2016, but it took them well over a year to obtain a marriage license. Bureaucrats repeatedly rejected Yang’s efforts to register his marriage and guarantee Thiou’s residency, citing security concerns. Though officials never explicitly said so, it’s possible that they suspected human trafficking.
Trafficking and forced marriages have been documented across China’s southern borders. In February, CCTV reported that police arrested 60 traffickers and buyers and rescued 17 Vietnamese women who had been sold as brides to men in China. And in June last year, the U.S. State Department’s annual report on trafficking around the world downgraded China to a Tier 3 status — the lowest assessment tier — for not doing enough to combat the problem.
A popular narrative is that China’s gender imbalance has motivated the trafficking of women, most often from Southeast Asia. According to many foreign media reports, capitalism and tradition have combined to create a marriage market that assigns monetary values to women. This in turn begets trafficking, because the cost of buying a Southeast Asian bride is a “bargain” compared to the local caili, or betrothal gifts.
In some parts of China like rural Shaanxi, prospective suitors must offer betrothal gifts — also known as a “bride price” — when asking for a woman’s hand in marriage. Though in the past this caili was typically a small gift or token sum, the cost has skyrocketed in recent years. Around Baoji these days, Yang says, families expect grooms to come to the table with a house, car, and 100,000 yuan ($14,600) in caili.
Others dispute this figure: Several young women in Baoji tell Sixth Tone that caili is typically around 10,000 yuan, and often the groom’s family might supply an apartment for the married couple, while the bride’s family might buy a car.
Stories that stress the importance of bride price are often “pure myth perpetuated by sexist beliefs,” says Hong Fincher, whose 2014 book “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” looks at how women have lost out on the country’s real estate boom because parents typically only invest in property for sons and male family members, in preparation for marriage. “Just look at the evidence: Who owns property? … There is nothing more valuable than property in China today,” she says. “These other gifts are insignificant by comparison.”
Nonetheless, governments across China have instituted various measures aimed at easing the financial burden of marriage, from commending brides who marry without betrothal gifts, to campaigns promoting frugal nuptials. Some counties have even gone so far as to cap caili costs. But some say that the rising bride price isn’t a sign of greed or the commodification of marriage, but rather a measure of changing social norms: As divorce rates climb, caili can function as a form of insurance for women, who stand to lose more — socially and economically — if their marriages end.
Marriage law in China offers women little material protection in the case of divorce, explains Li Xuan, assistant professor of psychology at NYU Shanghai, whose research focuses on families. Parents may have the worst case scenario in mind when it comes to negotiating caili for their daughters. “What if she gets beaten to death and the guy walks free, or they split up and all her years of childrearing and housework are unpaid, her career is ruined, and she’s too old for even a factory job?” she says.
That said, Li believes that few parents are callous enough to push their children into a union based solely on economic factors. “Most parents care a lot whether or not their children are happy in a marriage, which is not acknowledged well enough in English language reporting or scholarship on Chinese families,” she says.
While unmarried women over a certain age have been vilified in state media as “leftover women” who are too picky and selfish to settle down, bachelors are often seen in a more sympathetic light, as victims of demographics and an increasingly mercenary view of marriage. But while some popular narratives about modern marriage cast Chinese women as either heartless gold diggers or perennially dissatisfied spinsters, single men also suffer their share of stereotypes as desperate, dateless deadbeats — or worse, as would-be traffickers who naturally turn to coercion in the absence of consenting women.
Marriages between Chinese men and foreign women include trafficking cases, love marriages, and unions that are voluntary but economically motivated. In some instances, it is difficult for law enforcement officials to determine whether a woman has wed with free and full consent — especially if there is a language barrier.
Yang himself only speaks a few phrases of Lao, while Thiou’s Mandarin vocabulary is very limited. The two learn each other’s languages by pointing at objects or sometimes listening to online recordings.
According to the U.S. trafficking report, Chinese officials acknowledged that most marriages between foreign women and Chinese men had not been legally formalized — whether they involved forced marriage or not — and that they were examining “options to legitimize such marriages and formulate mechanisms to provide residency rights to foreign nationals who married a Chinese citizen.”
With a round face and ruddy cheeks, Yang looks younger than his age, but as he explains his struggles with bureaucracy, he looks fatigued. Much of the couple’s paperwork — their official engagement letter, and documents certifying that Thiou was single — expired while they waited for officials to approve their marriage registration. Yang says that the documentation alone cost him over 10,000 yuan — including translation fees and bribes to corrupt local officials in Thiou’s hometown — plus the more than 10,000 yuan he gave her family in betrothal gifts.
In Yang’s eyes, it should have been up to the public security bureau to assess security risks, not the civil affairs office that denied and delayed his marriage license application. He is furious at the attitudes of the officials he encountered: At one point, he tells Sixth Tone, one bureaucrat suggested that he should give up and find a new Laotian wife. “We have feelings!” he retorted.
Yet feelings alone often aren’t enough. According to Wang Xiaoyong, a restaurant owner in Baoji who is considering seeking a foreign wife, matchmaking agents offer peace of mind when it comes to navigating red tape. He says that they charge 130,000 to 150,000 yuan for their services, but the package guarantees obtaining a marriage certificate and securing the bride’s residency.
His mother supports the idea of utilizing a cross-border matchmaking service. “She’s anxious to see me married,” Wang tells Sixth Tone. Though his younger sister married a man of her own choosing without receiving any caili when she was just 20, Wang doubts his chances in the domestic marriage market. With property prices increasing and wages stagnating, he says it would be near impossible for him to meet the material expectations of most local families.
At 37, Wang is considered well over-the-hill. When asked what he is looking for in a wife, Wang snaps, “Can I still even have requirements at this point?” But then he turns serious. “At the very least, you have to have filial respect for your mother-in-law. That’s mandatory,” he says. “And then, you have to have your own opinions.”
Wang is shrewd and sure when it comes to what he needs from a partner. While some men might chase after young, attractive women, in his eyes, “the pretty ones are just like vases.”
“We’re country people. There’ll always be hard work. I can’t have a vase to put at home,” Wang explains. “A married couple has to strive together.”
Getting Married in a Flash
SHANGHAI — Peng Zhenhua’s marriage two years ago shocked everyone, including herself. As a self-proclaimed “party girl,” she thought she might never settle down. But then, at a friend’s party, she met the man who would quickly become her husband.
“I’ve had so many boyfriends, but I knew I was just having fun with them,” Peng, a Shanghai native, tells Sixth Tone. With her husband, things got serious, fast. In February 2016, just two months after they met, the couple registered their marriage — without a ceremony, or even a proposal.
“I used to believe that only a grand romance was true love,” Peng says while holding her 1-year-old daughter. “But when I was with my husband, I realized that real love is plain and unexciting.”
At first sight, Peng, 32, felt attracted to her husband, who is two years her junior. She says he respects her and doesn’t grumble when she asks him to do something. They’re opposites. While Peng still likes the occasional party, her husband prefers watching American TV shows at home. She doesn’t mind — Peng always knew that if she’d settle down, her husband would have to be an introvert, someone stable. “When you have enough dating experience, it’s easy to know what type of man you want to spend the rest of your life with, and a ‘flash marriage’ just made sense to me.”
Flash marriages, where couples tie the knot quickly after meeting, are on the rise, according to Cherish Love — a major dating service in China that is also known as Zhen’ai. In 2017, the site’s statistics show, the average married couple that met through Zhen’ai went from total strangers to wife and husband in less than 100 days. Going from a first date to a relationship took on average a month; marriage followed two months later.
Some young singles decide on a flash marriage because they’re under pressure to find a life partner — most Chinese 20-somethings get nudged and nagged by relatives to settle down sooner rather than later. When Peng told her parents she was getting married, they were surprised by the short notice, but relieved that their daughter had finally chosen a stable life path. “They’ve been pushing me to get married for years," she says. “They didn’t want to see me changing boyfriends so often.”
But marriage counselor Liu Xuelin attributes the emergence of flash marriages to more freedom and open-mindedness among young people. Liu, who runs a practice in eastern China’s Anhui province, says he has noticed the phenomenon most among millennials, though there are no official numbers to support his observation.
Traditionally, a marriage wasn’t so much a union of two individuals but of two families, who required careful examination of each other to make sure the match was right, Liu says. Modern marriages are simpler. “There is no need to carry out such a thorough investigation before getting married, as there is no pressure to establish a lifelong relationship,” Liu explains. “When the passion fades away and the couple feels like they are no longer suitable for each other, it’s also easy to get a divorce.”
Peng disagrees that a flash marriage is more likely to end in a separation, arguing that couples who’ve been together for a long time split up, too. Though the quick addition of a child — “I knew that sooner or later I would be a mother; why not do it quickly?” she says — has created some friction. The couple moved in with Peng’s parents, and Peng sleeps with the baby, while her husband sleeps in another room. “Sometimes he complains about our lack of a sex life,” Peng says, admitting that the time when it was just the two of them was very short.
When Wu Genxiang told his parents that he wanted to marry his girlfriend of only two weeks, they were concerned. Apart from not knowing each other well, they didn’t like that their future daughter-in-law wasn’t from Shanghai, meaning their son would sometimes spend Chinese New Year in his wife’s hometown in Anhui. His future in-laws also had concerns. They were disappointed that their well-educated daughter didn’t even tell them about Wu — who had less schooling — before she agreed to marry him.
The two met at a karaoke event arranged by mutual friends in 2011. “It was love at first sight,” says Wu, now 37. After chatting on MSN Messenger for a couple of weeks, he planned a proposal at Shanghai Century Park. A dozen friends each held 99 red roses as he went down on one knee under rows of cherry blossom trees. “I was fully confident that she would say yes, as I believed in the chemistry we had,” Wu says, smiling at the recollection.
Wu had previously been in two long-term relationships, but, he says, “Time couldn’t solve the conflicts we had.” The Shanghai native never thought about marrying his previous girlfriends, saying you can only know what kind of partner suits you once you’ve formed your values and outlook on life. “Once you know what you’re looking for in a partner and find someone who fulfills that, there is no risk in getting married after a short time,” says Wu, adding that he knew he wanted someone “sweet, smart, and silly.”
Nevertheless, Wu and his wife knew there was a chance they’d sour toward each other after their honeymoon period, and agreed to first spend a year together before becoming parents. Their daughter is now 6, and, after the government allowed all couples to have a second child, they had a son last year.
However, Liu, the marriage counselor, says that such success stories are relatively rare. “Whereas a solid and happy marriage is generally built on having affection for and being in the company of one another for a long time,” he says, “a flash marriage often ends in tragedy because of a lack of mutual understanding.”
Liu believes couples need around a year to get to know each other before walking down the aisle. “Generally speaking, after a year of being in each other's company, you can more or less tell someone’s true personality and attitude toward marriage,” Liu tells Sixth Tone. “But even these couples will face marital trouble, let alone couples who opt for a flash marriage who barely know each other.”
Zou Xiaoyi married her husband 20 days after they met on a dating website. Now 24, she regrets her decision and is mulling over a divorce. After they wed last year in her hometown, a small county in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, the couple returned to Shanghai, where they’ve both worked at multinationals since graduating university.
The young couple got married in part because both their parents pushed them hard — in the countryside, traditions dictate that people should marry early. “I just thought I needed to get married, and he was just right there and seemed reliable,” Zou recalls. But in the three months they have lived together, daily life has been filled with conflicts. “Some are just unbearable," she says. “For instance, he never picks up his dirty socks, and he takes it for granted that it’s my responsibility to do the housework.”
The same thing happened to Dolly Wang, who divorced last year. She had met her ex-husband at a company meeting. At the time, she lived in Shanghai and he lived in Beijing, but the two quickly fell in love due to their shared passion for travel.
“When I look back now, we never had enough time to get to know each other,” says Wang, who just turned 28. As the couple lived in different cities, they only met when they traveled somewhere. “I thought it was a great idea, because we could spend time with each other and see the world together,” she tells Sixth Tone.
In half a year, they went on five “dates” in four countries, walking hand in hand on the white beaches of the Philippines and hiking for days on New Zealand’s North Island. They married in Shanghai in 2016. Even though they had never lived in the same city, Wang was confident their marriage would be a happy one.
But neither of them wanted to relocate for each other. Before they married, they would talk about the future, and he promised he would move to Shanghai. But when he realized he couldn’t find a job better than the one he had in Beijing, he tried to persuade Wang to move instead. “I wanted to try, but then I found out I was pregnant, and I preferred to stay in Shanghai where my mother could help take care of me,” Wang says.
In the end, Wang had a miscarriage, which doctors said was because of mental and physical exhaustion. She filed for a divorce just five months into the marriage. “Flash marriages aren’t suitable for young people,” she says. “I chose to marry him because it felt right for me, but now it occurs to me that when I was that young, I was unable to judge what kind of feeling is right.”
Additional reporting: Liang Chenyu; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A young woman in a wedding dress poses with a young man for performance art in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Oct. 15, 2015. VCG)