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    The End of the Email-Order Bride?

    Chinese women who sign up for transnational dating agencies increasingly privilege class and bearing over race and ethnicity.

    In less than 40 years, China transitioned from a poor collectivist state to an emerging superpower, a process that revolutionized Chinese attitudes to the outside world. In my new book, “Seeking Western Men: Email-Order Brides under China's Global Rise,” I explore China’s changing relationship with the Global North through the lens of gender relations: or more specifically, how Chinese women envision Western masculinity.

    In the United States, the practice of “mail-order brides” can be traced back to the 19th and 20th centuries, when Caucasian workers on the Western frontier sought wives from the east coast, while their Japanese and Korean immigrant counterparts brought wives from their native Asia.

    During that era, couples exchanged photographs and letters through the postal service. Today, this communication has been replaced by email and commercial dating agencies that facilitate romantic tours and cross-border marriages. Typically, these agencies match women from developing countries such as China, Thailand, or Colombia with men from economically advanced countries such as the U.S., the United Kingdom, or Australia. Together, they represent a $2.5-billion-dollar business.

    I conducted research at three different transnational dating agencies in China, interviewing and observing the women who signed up for their services, the Western men who flew to China to meet them, and the translators who facilitated their email exchanges. Between 2008 and 2019, I followed the lives of 61 women, most of them middle-aged and divorced, from the time I met them in China until after they married and, in some cases, moved abroad.

    What I found suggests a significant shift in preferences on the international dating market. Historically, Asian men have been stereotyped in both China and the West as weaker and less desirable than white men. In the early reform era, most Chinese men were significantly poorer than even working-class white men abroad, and a large number of Chinese women saw the transnational marriage market as a route to a better life.

    That is no longer always the case. Take Vivien, for example. (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.) Divorced and in her mid-30s when I met her, Vivien got involved in an extramarital affair with a married Chinese businessman named Kuan while still engaged to her American fiancé, John. She wanted to leave John for Kuan, if only Kuan would agree to marry her.

    Like Vivien, many of the women in my study were attracted to men who displayed what could be called “transnational business masculinity.” This type of masculinity, exemplified by corporate executives who control the global market, is prized in market-era China.

    Interestingly, many of the Western male clients in my study did not embody transnational business masculinity. A stylishly dressed businessman, Kuan was confident, assertive, and sociable. By contrast, John appeared nervous and self-conscious. While Vivien first attributed John’s behavior to the language barrier, after observing John at a party with other Western male clients, she concluded that he was simply socially awkward. Even Vivien’s translator once asked me, “Would John be considered a loser in the United States?”

    Kuan and John’s behavior aligned with their social status in their respective home countries. Individuals who occupy the highest positions in their workplace, such as heads of corporations or senior management, often show confidence and leadership, and they have experience navigating a wide range of social situations. Kuan, who owned and managed a company of five hundred people in China, certainly embodied those traits, while John, who held a technical job and managed only a small team in America, did not.

    Apart from her disinterest in John, Vivien also rejected Edmond, a white American firefighter, whom she immediately pegged as provincial when they met in person. Vivien recalled: “He brought lots of luggage, including a bunch of batteries. This shows he is not well traveled, because people who travel regularly would know you can get batteries anywhere.” Around the same time, she became infatuated with a British business executive of Pakistani descent, who traveled to China to visit her but ended up rejecting her. “He was high-class, well-traveled, cosmopolitan, and handsome — a great catch overall,” Vivien recalled.

    Vivien’s preferences suggest the increasing significance of class and the declining privilege associated with race and ethnicity on the international dating market as an affluent capitalist class emerges outside the West. Vivien liked both Kuan and the British-Pakistani suitor, even though they were men of color, while she found John and Edmond to be much less appealing, despite their being white.

    Vivien’s desire for transnational business masculinity was common among the women I observed. For example, Kristin, a former mistress to various wealthy Chinese businessmen, also rejected working-class Western suitors whose appearance and demeanor did not fit her ideal. Kristin was used to dating “clean-cut, soft-spoken” Chinese businessmen or bureaucrats. After seeing an American suitor’s rough, tanned skin, tattooed arms, and working-class demeanor, she could barely bring herself to hold his hand. Similarly, Lucy, a magazine editor, turned down several Western suitors from rural areas for the same reasons.

    At least part of this shift may be attributable to the growing wealth of some Chinese women. Among the 30 financially secure Chinese female clients I followed, only 12 ended up marrying Western men. The rest chose to remain single in China, holding out for men who better embodied their ideal masculinity. By contrast, 26 of the 31 financially struggling female clients married men from Western countries.

    Among this latter group, some were in financial straits due to a recent, one-off incident such as sudden business failure. They lamented the mismatch between their previous middle-class lifestyle in urban China and their Western husbands’ rural, working-class lifestyles after moving abroad. For example, Emily, a former business owner who practiced yoga and kept a recipe blog, watched in despair as her American husband, a construction manager, plopped on the couch every night, watching TV while sucking on popsicles, sometimes as many as twelve in one sitting. “Women like me are the cream of the crop in China, but the type of Western men we marry are the ‘trash of the West!’” she complained.

    While most of the Western men involved with the dating agencies I studied did not embody elite masculinity, a small subset did belong to the upper-middle class and upper classes. Vivien’s British-Pakistani suitor is one example. Unsurprisingly, these men were highly sought after by Chinese women, and they were just as selective, rejecting the majority of the female clients they met.

    The experiences of the women in my book challenge scholars and others to rethink the relationship between race and class in the emerging global order. In the United States, race remains an important status marker independent of class, as ethnic minorities still hold significantly less economic, political, and social power than the white majority. However, the scenario is completely different outside the American context. In the case of China, the country’s economic ascendance has fundamentally altered its geopolitical relationship with the West. Old racial hierarchies dominated by white men are crumbling, and a new capitalist class dominated by local business elites is emerging to take its place.

    Globalization has created winners and losers in both China and the West. China’s rise does not signify a uniform process of disempowerment for all Western men. Instead, relationship dynamics are increasingly class dependent. Chinese women, many of whom have benefitted from globalization, now desire men who are also part of the global economic elite. They are quick to reject non-elites, regardless of race or national origin.

    Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: Visual elements from OstapenkoOlena and Bellabrend/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)