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Understanding ‘The Price of Marriage in China’

The New York Times recently covered two very different match-making stories that unfolded in Beijing (read the article here). In one, a wealthy bachelor nicknamed “Mr. Big” paid more than half a million dollars for a squad of “love hunters” to scour the country looking for his vision of the ideal wife: a milky-skinned virgin eighteen years his junior. In the second, Ms. Yu, the desperate mother of an unmarried forty-year-old man, spent her days making fruitless trips to the local match-making park. (Yes, there really are parks for parents to meet other parents and set their mutual children up on blind dates—more on this below.) She had been searching for a daughter-in-law for four years, but her son’s “pickiness” and meager financial prospects quashed every lead she could generate.

A Science of Relationships reader asked us to comment on these startling stories. On the surface, the bachelor’s use of “love hunters” may seem questionable, like a mail-order-bride scheme. Conversely, the pitiable park-trekking mother seems overbearing. Why can’t she let her son search for his own girlfriend? Americans may outsource everything from grocery-shopping to childcare, but we prefer to choose our lovers on our own, thank you very much (with the notable exceptions of shows like “The Millionaire Matchmaker").

I currently live in Shenzhen, China, where I am working on a book about love, matchmaking and marriage. I have spent a lot of time talking with local residents about these very questions, and while these two cases certainly contain extreme elements, American readers may be surprised to hear that the NY Times article captures normal Chinese spouse-finding strategies.

Let’s start with a bit of history. Urban revolutionaries in China first embraced the ideal of marrying for love about a hundred years ago. Then in 1950, the Communist Party (tried to) outlaw multiple wives and arranged marriages on a national scale. They wanted young people to have a say in whom they married, and that idea that was still exceedingly controversial just sixty years ago.

Change rumbled slowly across the tradition-rooted nation, but eventually everyone acknowledged three types of marriage: arranged marriages, “match-by-introduction” marriages, and “free-choice” marriages.1 “Match-by-introduction” meant that potential spouses were introduced by a trusted source, much like a blind date, and then decided whether to begin a courtship. The méirén (媒人) or “matchmaker” could be a friend, local Communist Party leader, or parent, and singles often rejected a few possible partners before selecting one. A “free-choice” marriage was one in which partners met on their own and loved each other before agreeing to marry.

Despite these new options, anthropological fieldwork shows that arranged marriages didn’t disappear on a large scale until the 1980s. In 1999, matches-by-introduction were still more prevalent than free-choice marriages in rural China.1 So, while the NYT’s wealthy bachelor parted with an astronomical sum of money, he did so to pay for a match-by-introduction, a normal and socially acceptable way to meet someone. While paid love-hunters are not normal, they are essentially just the commercial equivalent of the vigilant phalanx of parents, friends, and colleagues who conspire to set up the nation’s over-ripe singles.

The mother who searched every day for her son’s match admittedly spent more time than most parents do, but such match-making parks are a common last-resort for parents (I’ve been to one in Shenzhen’s Liuhuashan Park). The belief that everyone should marry and have a child (see our past article on this topic here) is hard-wired in the Chinese parental psyche and has its roots in Confucian tradition. While Americans rarely plan to marry before falling in love, Chinese parents push their children to marry before their late twenties, with or without love. Their methods are quite effective, as only 20% of Chinese women aged 25-29 are single, in contrast to 40% of American women in the same category.2 The Chinese give more leeway to their sons, but a single boy in his mid-thirties would inspire desperation in most mainland mothers.

Lastly, we have the issue of the brash and unromantic spousal criteria cited by both Mr. Big and the ladies Ms. Yu tried to introduce to her son. Mr. Big’s demand for youth, beauty, and sexual innocence may sound boorish, but it’s hardly different from what evolutionary psychologists tell us human males have always wanted around the world: youth and health. As single men get older, the women they marry get comparatively younger (see more on this topic here). Recent research on speed-dating also shows that as options increase, height and weight become the best predictors of which matches a participant will accept.3

Ms. Yu lamented the similarly unromantic demands made by the Beijing women she tried to set up with her son. Their first question was always, “Does he own an apartment in Beijing?” They didn’t stick around to ask about his personality or values after Ms. Yu said no. At face value, their gritty materialism looks even more vulgar than Mr. Big’s specifications. While some Chinese people do wish to marry for love these days, it is also very normal for women to demand that a man buy a house or a car before the wedding. One 28 year-old woman told me that she and her American husband of two years are still renters. While she finds fault with the popular materialistic mindset, she has nonetheless “lost face”—suffered social shame—over their lack of real estate. “What will friends and classmates think of me, being married for two years without a house? It’s embarrassing for me to answer this.” Such expectations are the modern-day translation of the traditional “bride price.” Rather than a wife-provided dowry, Chinese engagements have long been sealed by a gift of cash or goods from the husband’s side.

Pinning marriage decisions to such flagrant commercial transactions may run counter to the American ideal of marrying “for richer or poorer,” but our own memory falls short. A poll in the early 1970s found that almost two-thirds of college women said they would marry a man they didn’t love if he had everything else they wanted in a partner. By the 1990s, fewer than ten percent said the same.4

China is not yet post-materialist in their marriage decisions, and many struggle over whether to place love at the center of marriage. When romantic love is not the foundation of this relationship (as it rarely was prior to 1800), financial or political necessity will undergird the institution instead. As one twenty-two year-old female contestant infamously said on a Chinese TV dating show: “I'd rather cry in a BMW car than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle.”

Such an attitude certainly helps to contextualize the “price of marriage in China,” now doesn’t it?

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1Yan, Y. (2003). Private life under socialism: Love, intimacy, and family change in a Chinese village 1949-1999. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

2UN: World Marriage Data 2012

3Lenton, A. P., & Francesconi, M. (2011). Too much of a good thing? Variety is confusing in mate choice. Biology Letters, 7, 528–531.

4Coontz, S. (2006). Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books.

Melissa Schneider - Science Of Relationships articles | Website
Melissa is a licensed Dating and Relationships Counselor and the Co-Founder of LuvWise.com. Follow her blog or connect on Twitter. Take her free relationship test or work with her to get over that breakup and learn how to build your own great relationship, right from the very first date-- find out how.

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