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    Bachelor Boom: What’s Keeping Rural Chinese Men Single?

    Despite government efforts, rural single men are still grappling with a persistent gender imbalance, expensive marriage customs, and rapid urbanization, complicating their search for a spouse.

    Underscoring the widespread challenges facing older single men in rural China, a recent survey covering 119 villages in 26 provinces found that 42.7% of village officials and 46.1% of households report significant obstacles to securing spouses for this demographic.

    The study involved 1,785 rural households and also revealed that this issue is particularly acute in central provinces, including Henan, Hubei, and Anhui, where cultural and economic factors combine to exacerbate the marriage crisis. Part of an annual study of rural issues initiated in 2006, last year’s edition of the project focused more specifically on family building in the Chinese countryside.

    Professor Huang Zhenhua, from the Institute of China Rural Studies under Central China Normal University, who led the research team and has focused on studying Chinese politics and rural issues for over 10 years, told Hongxing News that the marriage crisis for older bachelors in the countryside — defined as men over 30 — has intensified in the last decade.

    Authorities have rolled out a series of policies designed to support those who face challenges in securing spouses in recent years, including reforming wedding customs and promoting matchmaking. But despite these efforts, experts caution that such measures might not be enough to fundamentally solve the underlying issues.

    To understand the deep-rooted complexities at the heart of this crisis, Sixth Tone spoke with Lü Dewen, a professor at Wuhan University’s School of Sociology whose research focuses on rural governance. In 2023, Lü conducted a similar nationwide survey, in which over 65% of participants from rural areas reported a local unmarried male population exceeding 10% in their villages.

    According to Lü, the myriad challenges confronting older single men in these regions include the significant gender disparity that still exists in much of rural China, the economic hurdles posed by traditional marriage customs, and broader societal shifts towards urbanization.

    Marriage squeeze

    A significant factor complicating marriage in rural China is the disparity between male and female populations. “This imbalance, known as the ‘marriage squeeze,’ limits men’s options for finding a spouse,” says Lü.

    Data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, released on Feb. 29, shows that by the end of 2023, the country had more than 30 million more men than women.

    “Today’s marriage-age population was born during the peak enforcement period of the one-child family planning policy,” Lü explains. He adds that this imbalance is even more pronounced in rural areas due to traditional preferences for male children: In 2020, there were 108 men for every 100 women born in rural China, compared with an urban gender ratio of just under 103 men for every 100 women.

    The wide gender gap means that, generally, men may find it challenging to marry, but those in underdeveloped regions face even greater pressure compared with their counterparts in more developed cities. Lü attributes the regional differences in the marriage squeeze to the massive migration of labor from rural to urban areas.

    “Except in a few developed regions, almost all single males in rural areas of central and western China are under pressure from marriage competition,” he says.

    Official data indicates that, in 2022, 171.9 million migrant workers were working outside their home villages. About 30% of these migrants were female, and nearly 70% originated from central or western China. The trend continued into 2023, with the number of migrant workers surpassing 176 million.

    “Nowadays, the whole country functions as a unified market. This market isn’t just about labor, but in fact also affects the marriage market,” says Lü.

    Market dynamics

    While the transition to a unified national marriage market has broadened the scope of choices for marriage, Lü explains it has also placed single men from underdeveloped areas at a disadvantage.

    Not only has competition for marriage become fiercer, but the entrance barriers for rural single men have risen, especially with the rapid urbanization taking place across the country.

    For instance, many rural families move to urban areas, where they find that a house has become a prerequisite for marriage. “Rural youth not only have to get married but also need to accumulate enough assets to get married,” says Lü, adding that this, in addition to the high bride prices demanded in rural settings, makes marriage unaffordable for men from poorer backgrounds.

    “Among rural unmarried men aged over 30, a considerable proportion of them have been eliminated from the marriage market and are highly likely to remain unmarried for life,” says Lü.

    Policy response

    From the central and provincial governments down to village administrations, China has implemented a slew of policies to ease the challenges in the rural marriage market.

    For instance, the central government has advocated for the removal of costly wedding customs, including high bride prices, and has promoted reforms aimed at fostering a “healthier marriage culture” and reducing the economic strains on young couples.

    Additionally, local authorities have introduced initiatives to encourage marriage in rural China, such as creating matchmaking platforms and events, offering incentives for matchmakers, and imposing limits on bride prices.

    While Lü acknowledges the potential of these policies to shift traditional marriage customs among rural youth, he cautions that such measures alone are insufficient to address the existing 30-million gender gap.

    According to him, urbanization holds the key to resolving the dilemma, by bridging the disparities between rural and urban areas, especially regarding public services and lifestyle quality.

    “As the economy grows and urbanization progresses, rural youth will find better living conditions in cities, opening up more opportunities for their future,” he says.

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: At a wedding in rural Jinzhong, Shanxi province, 2017. Zhao Ming/VCG)