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    Are Young Chinese Falling Out of Love With Love?

    In the wake of China’s Internet Valentine’s Day, young Chinese continue to question whether marriage is right for them.

    On May 20 each year, people across China celebrate the country’s Internet Valentine’s Day. The day, which has origins in internet slang due to 5/20 sounding similar to, and becoming shorthand for, “I love you,” is also typically a peak time for marriages, with registry offices working overtime, even on weekends. However, last year’s “520” saw a significant drop in the number of registrations compared with previous years, igniting heated discussions about the current state of matrimony.

    And it’s not just marriage that’s seemingly lost its charm; Chinese social media is teeming with pessimistic views on love in general, with one popular group on social platform Douban with close to 400,000 members adopting the slogan “Breaking up is better than making up.”

    In such groups, young people lament how the cost of marriage or stable relationships is too high nowadays. Others complain that even when they do invest time and money, they don’t receive the emotional satisfaction they expect, leaving them drained instead. As a result, some say they prefer to stay single and avoid relationships altogether.

    But are young people really falling out of love?

    The 2021 China General Social Survey (CGSS) from Renmin University of China asked over 8,000 married and single participants across various age groups to rate randomly matched potential partners based on factors such as age, income, family background, property ownership, education, and appearance.

    Significantly, over 70% of young people (those born after 1990) responded that they wished to marry for personal happiness, compared to older generations who married predominantly to have companionship in old age or to have children. In contrast, only 2.9% of respondents born after 2000 stated having children as the primary reason for marriage.

    This generational shift in what marriage represents may hint at why younger people are more discerning — and less satisfied — when it comes to modern-day relationships. Choosing the right partner is now seen as crucial, and reluctance toward marriage reflects younger people’s higher expectations regarding relationships.

    Further analysis of the CGSS data shows that for those born in the ’90s and ’00s, their ideal partner would be attractive, well-educated, and financially stable. Good looks are touted as the most appealing trait, while a graduate degree and owning property are also significant advantages.

    Age matters, too — especially for men. Both male and female respondents said they prefer a partner to be close in age, with women typically preferring older men, and men preferring younger women. Meanwhile, a significant age difference, especially where the woman is much older, is a major turn-off for men.

    Meanwhile, income is more important to women, with a man earning significantly more considered an ideal match. A low income is a dealbreaker for both genders.

    Family background is less crucial but still relevant. For men, having in-laws from rural areas can be a negative factor.

    Experience also plays a role, with life experience generally translating to higher favorability. Those born in the ’90s, the majority of whom are already gainfully employed, value homeownership and a high income more than the younger generation. For those born in the ’00s, a similar age and a college degree are critical, while a significant age gap and low education level are major deterrents.

    As well as tangible traits like age, income, education, and appearance, the survey also emphasizes the importance of shared values.

    Expected roles in the household are one potential sticking point, though there appears to be growing support among men and women regarding whether chores should be shared equally. For example, among men and women born in the ’60s, over 70% and 80% agree they should be, respectively, compared to nearly 80% and 90% now.

    Younger-generation men and women also demonstrate a more equal outlook on family roles, with a growing number disagreeing that men should focus on their careers while women should prioritize family. Among ’00s-born men, nearly 60% disagree with this notion, compared to nearly 90% of women.

    Despite these setbacks, there has been a rebound in marriage in some regions. Figures from this year’s 520 show Guangdong, Anhui, and Jiangsu provinces saw an increase in the number of registrations compared to last year, while the city of Shenzhen saw its highest single-day total in nearly five years.

    Nevertheless, young people’s cooling attitudes towards marriage overall apparently stem from their ever more stringent criteria for a suitable lifelong partner. They increasingly seek partners who meet their aesthetic, material, and emotional needs and who can build an equal, respectful relationship. Women, in particular, expect their husbands-to-be to willingly partake in shared family responsibilities. In lieu of such traits, many are opting to wait rather than to say “I love you.”

    Reported by Lü Chenan, Wang Yasai, and Chen Liangxian.

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translators: Luo Yahan; graphic designer: Luo Yahan; editor: Tom Arnstein

    (Header image: VCG)