Romance With Chinese Characteristics
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore (Editor, Time Out Beijing) | International Herald Tribune Global Opinion
August 21, 2012
Dating is hard at the best of times. In China the stakes are high from the outset: the expectation is that it should lead to marriage; never mind love for love's sake.
A friend recently went on a blind date in Beijing. Arriving at the coffee shop, he found not only the girl but her mother, too. Within minutes she bombarded him with questions: What does he earn? Where did he study? Does he own a house?
Romance in China is often sacrificed to practicality; dating has largely become a commercial transaction. In Beijing parents gather in parks to introduce their children to one another. Singles' clubs set people up according to requirements -- height, income, property. And tens of thousands descend on matchmaking events in cities like Shanghai looking for the perfect mate.
For Chinese men today, being the perfect mate means having a car, an apartment, a good salary and, preferably, a tall stature. Women, meanwhile, must be married by 27; after that they are branded sheng nu or "leftover women." (This derogatory term -- whose prefix "sheng" is the same word used in "leftover food" -- was listed as a new word in 2007 by the Chinese Ministry of Education).
"Marriage in many ways in China is a way of pulling resources," says Roseann Lake, a Beijing-based journalist researching a book on sheng nu. In one direction, at least. "The idea that a woman, no matter how successful she is professionally, is absolutely nothing until she is married -- it still comes down to that."
Arranged marriages were banned in 1950. However, matchmaking -- through work units and family -- was, and still is, commonplace. Yes, China has experienced miraculous growth in the past three decades, but traditions are hard to shake. And Confucian ethics stress that marriage must satisfy societal duty over individual desire.
The one-child policy has further reinforced these expectations. With no welfare system in China, the young are expected to provide for the old: whom you marry matters for your entire family.
These concerns aren't evenly shared, and they expose something of a generation gap. Children of the 1980s and 1990s -- who were born in better economic times and fed on pop music and movies -- are in less of a hurry to get married than their parents were.
The best-selling author Wang Hailing, who wrote "Divorce with Chinese Characteristics," relays stories of pushy mothers on her micro-blog. One told her daughter to attend blind dates while she's still at a "valuable" age.
Xie Yujie, a 26-year-old resident of Wenzhou, a city of more than nine million some 230 miles south of Shanghai, is unmarried. Despite a promising career as a nurse, her parents remind her daily of her filial duties to find a husband. Xie is looking for love, but her parents chastise her for not been more practical. "Money worship and materialism is the reality," she explained last week.
And so now some single women in Chengdu, in southwest China, pay more than $3,100 for a special training course in how to snag a millionaire husband. In the reality TV dating program "If You Are The One," a 22-year-old model infamously claimed, "I'd rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back seat of a bicycle."
These are extremes, of course, but the pressures are real. Although China's skewed birth rate means there will be a surplus of about 24 million men in China by 2020, the majority of these bachelors will live in rural areas. In major cities -- where the rate of housing costs to income can reach 12:1 -- finding a good match is a constant worry for educated, ambitious women.
As Chinese Valentine's Day -- this Thursday, Aug. 23 -- nears, preparations for dozens of matchmaking events, most aimed at marriage, are picking up. At the Huanleyuan Culture Club, a singles' club in Beijing -- basic requirement: a college degree; annual membership fee: about $560 -- hundreds will be attending a gala matchmaking event. Ten thousand people are expected at a mass blind date in Guangyuan city, in Sichuan Province.
They'll be looking not just for a fetching smile or that spark of chemistry, but also for the promise of money and connections.