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    Cinderella’s Glass Slipper: Why China’s Women Can’t Marry Down

    Contrary to stereotypes of female “gold diggers,” it is men and their families, not women, who enforce female hypergamy.

    In the days when Chinese parents had absolute authority over their children’s marriages, the ideal union was one in which the couple “matched doors” — that is, came from similar family backgrounds. Consistent with Confucian doctrine, which believed men to be the superior gender, women also frequently married into wealthier, higher-status households, a practice known as hypergamy. The reverse was exceedingly rare.

    As a practice, hypergamy has become increasingly untenable in recent years, in part because women now account for more than half of university enrollments in China and a growing percentage of high-paying professional positions. Elsewhere in the world, women’s rising professional and educational attainment has already opened the door to greater gender equality and a more egalitarian approach to marriage.

    That hasn’t happened in China, however. Instead, expectations that women marry up, or at least not marry down, remain entrenched. With the marriage rate cratering — just 6.8 million couples tied the knot last year, the lowest number since the Ministry of Civil Affairs began reporting marriage data in the mid-1980s — experts have tried pushing high-achieving women to lower their standards, so far to limited success.

    Perhaps that’s because they’re looking at the issue backwards. For all the stereotypes about female “gold diggers” who only want to marry high-status men, my research team’s work suggests the opposite is true: It is men, not women, who are keeping female hypergamy alive in China.

    The idea that women are the ones choosing between hypergamy and hypogamy — in which an individual marries someone of a lower socio-economic status — is so widespread that the terms are often used interchangeably with female hypergamy and female hypogamy. It is taken for granted that imbalances in the marriage market are due to women desiring to marry up, while men seem to be missing from the picture entirely.

    In fact, at least within heterosexual marriages, female hypergamy is male hypogamy, and vice versa. And our research suggests that the motivations and choices of men and their families play a much more active role in driving so-called female hypergamy — at least among the urban, college-educated, middle-class women that Chinese society is so anxious to see paired off.

    To better understand how preferences for hypergamy and hypogamy shape China’s marriage market, my research team conducted a series of 42 face-to-face parent interviews and years of participant observation at Shanghai’s People’s Park — the site of one of the country’s best-known matchmaking markets.

    It’s fair to question the rationale behind interviewing parents instead of the prospective couples themselves. But despite the increased freedom enjoyed by many young Chinese, understanding their shifting perspectives on marriage requires an understanding of parental attitudes. Modern, self-directed relationships have replaced traditional parental-arranged marriages in China, but parents did not entirely relinquish their roles in guiding their children’s love lives.

    Instead, a new bilateral family pattern — what I call “mosaic familism” — seems to be emerging, as parents take into account their children’s preferences and desires while still playing a significant role in major life decisions. Intergenerational ties have proven resilient, and financial assistance, intimacy, and care provisions are closely interwoven in parents’ and children’s daily lives.

    Nowhere is this emerging family type more visible than China’s bustling marriage markets, where parents go to scout prospective partners for their children. Traditionally, for the parents of daughters, a key criterion for determining a suitable match has been the groom’s family’s ability to provide the couple with a wedding apartment. Intriguingly, that no longer seems to be the case: Approximately 40% of the parents of daughters we interviewed expressed a willingness to directly contribute a wedding home, while a quarter of respondents said that the groom’s housing situation was of minimal importance.

    Evidently, the idea that a groom should provide a house is no longer non-negotiable for a bride and her family. The increased flexibility of parents of daughters can be attributed to the intersection of the longstanding one-child policy and the rapid accumulation of wealth among China’s urban middle class. A profound emotional and economic bond has formed between these parents and their meticulously nurtured daughters, leading to a newfound openness and more progressive attitudes toward marriage. Mosaic familism, with its orientation toward strong intergenerational bonds, seems to have fostered a modern, egalitarian approach to matrimony.

    Sun, who owns multiple properties in Shanghai, was blunt about what mattered in a prospective match for her daughter. (To protect the identities of my team’s research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.) “I don’t attach much importance to this (property ownership),” she said. “I have my own possessions, so I don’t care about these things.”

    Surprisingly, the groom’s family’s ability to buy property sometimes even had a detrimental effect. Wei recalled an incident in which her daughter broke off an engagement with a promising match. The pair got along well, he had favorable attributes, and he already owned a wedding apartment. Things took a sudden turn, however, when her daughter learned that the man’s mother planned to purchase another property adjacent to the couple’s future home, in part for the convenience of taking care of them and their future child. Fearing excessive interference from the in-laws, her daughter promptly ended the relationship.

    Education and employment play more pivotal roles in the contemporary matchmaking market. The parents of both sons and daughters placed paramount importance on a match’s educational levels, albeit for different reasons. For the groom’s parents, a highly educated bride meant excellent genes and the ability to provide superior care and educational tutoring to their grandkids. Conversely, for the bride’s parents, a highly educated groom signified competence and the potential for career advancement.

    However, more education wasn’t always better, at least for women. When screening potential spouses for her son, Qi set precise requirements for the bride’s educational background. She should have a bachelor’s and preferably a master’s degree; a Ph.D. was not just unnecessary but also unwelcome.

    Tao, who was looking for a match for his son, prioritized women who graduated from China’s elite “985” universities. “Your workplace can be slightly less prestigious,” he explained. “But your college entrance exam score and bachelor’s degree should be excellent, to ensure that the next generation can attend renowned institutions.”

    Indeed, the parents of sons we interviewed preferred women with what they saw as good, stable jobs, such as teachers or civil servants. They were notably cooler toward women in professions that require frequent overtime or night shifts, such as doctors. For instance, Tao hoped that his son would marry a woman with a stable, but not overly demanding job, so she would have time to take care of the family. He was not interested in women who made frequent business trips, stating that it would not only hinder her ability to care for the children, but also might lead to “ambiguous relationships or extramarital affairs” with her male colleagues.

    In contrast, the parents of daughters we interviewed had more relaxed and diverse expectations regarding a prospective groom’s occupation and education. Only two individuals mentioned that a man’s income should be higher than his wife’s, while seven indicated that it was enough for him to have an equivalent education to their daughters. Five individuals said they would be fine with a son-in-law who had a lower income or education level than their daughters.

    Instead of demanding more from their prospective sons-in-law, many parents of daughters downplayed their kids’ exceptional achievements. For example, 68-year-old Yan’s daughter earned 1 million yuan ($153,000) a year, a fact he was eager to conceal from prospective matches. “This cannot be written (in his daughter’s marriage ad),” he explained. “Why? Because if it’s written, the boys will feel too much pressure ... Some boys will reject (my daughter) over this.”

    In our fieldwork, it was clear that parents of sons still largely adhere to traditional gender norms, in which men are seen as superior and women as subordinate. The more interviews I conducted, the more I found myself thinking of Cinderella and her glass slipper. Just like Cinderella’s prince, the families of grooms measured women by how well they could fill the shoes laid out for them. A bride should be accomplished, but not too accomplished; responsible, but not burdened with too many responsibilities outside the home; and high status, but not so high status that she might outshine their sons.

    Inspired by the concept of the “glass ceiling,” which describes the invisible but very real barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace, I termed this phenomenon the “glass ruler.” No matter how successful a woman is, in heterosexual relationships, she still has to measure up — or down — to a standard set by men.

    The parents of daughters are not oblivious to these expectations, and they consciously tailor their daughters’ resumes to downplay, conceal, modify, or diminish their achievements. As long as this pattern holds, female hypergamy will continue to be practiced in China. Not because women want to marry into wealth, but because men and their families insist on marrying down to secure their position within the family. Wealthy mothers like Sun don’t care if their daughters pick a rich, successful husband; their counterparts across the aisle aren’t so sure.

    Editor: Wu Haiyun; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao. 

    (Header image: Shijue/VCG)