With much of southern China still experiencing unseasonably warm weather, one of the hottest topics on social media recently might come as a surprise: how should the country keep rural men’s beds warm?
Last week, not long after county-level officials in the central province of Hunan published a document declaring that “the issue of aging, unmarried rural men is gradually ceasing to be an individual problem and becoming a societal problem,” and promising they would work to “encourage young women to stay in their hometowns,” local media published a companion commentary titled “Bringing Warmth to the Beds of Aging Rural Men Is a Necessary Undertaking.”
While the official proclamation was nothing new — the government has long worried about mismatches in the country’s marriage market — the language of the accompanying opinion piece proved a step too far for many readers. While fretting that “single men will have no one to wait on them when they get old and sick,” the author, an academic specializing in rural issues, seemed to reduce women to nothing more than “bed warmers.” Offensive, crude, and colored by a total disrespect for women, the piece sparked a swift backlash on social media. “So women are just bed warmers and baby machines?” one reader wrote. Another suggested that if the government was so worried about cold beds, passing out hot water bottles might be easier than passing out women.
If these responses seem disproportionate or extreme, their logic is nevertheless understandable. People should be the heart and soul of policy; they’re not tools for achieving other goals. No matter a person’s gender or age, no one should be instrumentalized in the service of policy aims. Women aren’t bed warmers or baby-makers, and if policymakers fail to consider issues like the rural marriage market from the perspective of both genders, and instead approach it through a patriarchal, utilitarian lens, they’ll end up making the problem worse, not better.
From 1950’s Marriage Law — the very first legislation passed by the People’s Republic of China — to last year’s long-awaited Civil Code, gender equality and the freedom to marry or not marry as one sees fit have enjoyed the status of legally guaranteed rights. However imperfect the implementation of these rights has been, their existence is tightly intertwined with the history of China since 1949, and Chinese, regardless of gender, have no interest in returning to the days of feudal patriarchy and its emphasis on family lineages and male privilege.
It’s true that China’s population dividend is beginning to dry up and that enthusiasm for marriage is on the downswing. These are real problems that policymakers must confront, but the solution to them isn’t backtracking from our commitment to equality. Helping rural men who have been frozen out of the marriage market can’t come at the expense of women’s rights. It is exactly this kind of feudal thinking — that women should “wait on” men, do their housework, birth and raise their kids, and put up with their abuse — that has turned so many women off to the very idea of marriage in the first place.
According to a study published by China’s Communist Youth League, nearly 44% of Chinese women say they have no intention of getting married or are “unsure” if they will ever get married. That’s more than double the percentage of men who hold similar views. Among the most commonly cited reasons for women’s marriage hesitancy are the “motherhood penalty” and an unwillingness to settle for a suboptimal partner.
In Jia Pingwa’s controversial 2016 novel “Ji Hua,” which tells the story of a woman who is kidnapped and sold to a rural village, an old bachelor reflects on his plight and the plight of others like him: “My family line is dying at my hands… We’re saving the giant pandas; why can’t we save the rural bachelors?”
Jia is sympathetic to the struggles of single rural men. So are the Hunan officials who called for women to stay in their hometowns and the editors who published the op-ed wondering how to keep these men’s beds warm. But they’re looking at the issue the wrong way. A policy based on the notion that women should serve men is built on shaky foundations: Instead of encouraging women to stay at home and participate in revitalizing the countryside, it’s far more likely to push them to get out while they still can. If you want to know why rural men’s beds are so cold, start by asking whose interests that question leaves out.
A version of this article was first published by Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Villagers carry red quilts during a wedding ceremony in Zhashui County, Shaanxi province, April 2019. Chen Tuanjie/Chinese Business View/People Visual)