In Gift-Giving, How Much Is Too Much?
“Should I break up with him?”
If you’ve been on Chinese social media recently, you’ve probably seen some variation of this question, likely paired with a photo of knock-off jewelry or a screenshot of a barely stuffed “red envelope” of digital cash. The responses to these posts, which are generally sent by young women in romantic relationships, tend to be overwhelmingly in favor of a split. The replies are filled with complaints from female users about “stingy untrustworthy guys” and mantras like, “If he doesn’t spend money on you, then he doesn’t love you.”
At first glance, it seems so tawdry: Women are linking money with romance in a blatant and vulgar display of mercenary self-interest. But when we view money and relationships from the perspective of gender rules and wider gender culture, things aren’t quite so simple.
In her pioneering work on culture and economy, the American sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer notes that money has the effect of differentiating roles within relationships. Other scholars, including Russell Belk in his classic work on gift-giving, make this point more explicit by pointing out that when men send gifts, they’re often expecting the female to reward them with sex. This objectification of women has its basis in traditional gender norms: Men could establish themselves in society through the exchange of gifts, whereas women — who didn’t have money or property rights — could only establish themselves by marrying men.
However, as women’s economic and social status continues to rise, the relationship between money and romance in intimate relationships merits a second look. Curious how young Chinese couples understand the logic of gift-giving and receiving, I interviewed a number of urban middle-class men and women born after 1995 — members of China’s “Generation Z.” My findings suggest that women actually don’t view gift exchanges as about money at all, but rather regard money as a symbol of their partner’s commitment and romantic attachment. “Gifts are a kind of effort; you like someone so you want to give something up for them,” one interviewee said. “That could be either time spent thinking or money. But evidence is needed to show that you like someone.”
Women will respond negatively not just when men don’t invest enough money into gifts, but also when their gifts appear overly “transactional” or impersonal. “Whenever my last boyfriend would go abroad for work, he’d create a video clip for me showing where he’d gone and what he’d done every day,” recalled one of my interviewees. “I was really moved by this at the time. But my standards have now risen, so I view this kind of gift as flashy but insubstantial. I also discovered that he would give this kind of gift to both me and his ex, which left me speechless.”
However, if the affectionate intent behind the gift comes through, then the recipient won’t necessarily judge the gift by its monetary value. “Once, he (my boyfriend) knew I had a mouth ulcer, and he purposefully selected a gift bag of snacks from a shop that wouldn’t aggravate it, and not just one of those standard snack bags you get online,” one interviewee recalled. “In that case, I didn’t bother myself thinking that these gifts weren’t particularly expensive.”
In contrast with the long-held notion that men use gifts to actively show love and females are just passive recipients, my research also found many women believe gift-giving goes both ways. Many interviewees felt pressure to give gifts of similar value in return. In the words of one interviewee: “How shall I put it? When he uses gifts that I gave him, it’s like he’s been marked by me. He’s holding the phone I gave him, he’s drinking from the cup I gave him, he’s been surrounded by me.”
What’s interesting is that, while women reported a desire to reciprocate with gifts of equivalent value, they still maintained a contradictory expectation that men should be spending more on the relationship. This expectation is grounded in their belief that their boyfriends should compensate for the inferior position of women in society.
These beliefs are rarely shared by their partners. The men I interviewed are seemingly unable to understand why women care so much about gifts, typically putting it down to women being inherently more insecure and prone to making an issue out of nothing. They feel they have little choice but to play along, an attitude reflected in online discourse about women being “unnecessarily difficult” or “gold diggers” only out for their own material gain.
Underlying all this is the growing diversity in expectations of intimate relationships: Some people, regardless of gender, long to grow old together; others just want sex, money, and a bit of fun. Those seeking the former increasingly worry about meeting the latter group, and the path to long-lasting marital bliss now appears fraught with danger. Given how widespread this uncertainty is, complying with gift-giving rituals has become a basis for getting couples on the same page.
Longing for stable romance doesn’t mean women have to fall back on old stereotypes of being “the weaker sex,” however. Indeed, many of my interviewees wanted equal relationships. But true equality, whether social, economic, or romantic, remains elusive. From this perspective, judging a man’s love based on his willingness to spend money is seen by women as their prerogative — and potentially the only privilege to which they can lay claim.
Translator: Kenrick Davis; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Alexey Yaremenko and VectorStock/VCG)