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Marriage in Modern China

Chinese Culture: Changing Dynamics of Marriage in Modern China

Between tradition & modernity | the 'falling out' type | ideal partner | alternative choices

China's marriage trends: a society in transformation

Paloma Robles

Whether out of passion or for practical reasons, marriage remains one of the most important events in a person's life. However, in some circumstances, it may also become a source of great pressure. This is what's happening to many people in China nowadays. While old marriage traditions encourage early marriage and childbirth, modern society sets standards and expectations incompatible with those values: economic independence, competition in the job market or a high level of education.

Between tradition and modernity

Yanyan is 35. She's a lawyer. She's also single. According to Chinese standards, she is already past marriageable age. To the question of whether she is planning to get married, she bows her head. "I don't know yet", she says, "I am too old, not so beautiful, I am too qualified. And I don't have a very good family background."

Yanyan is not the only one. Many surveys show that there is an increasing tendency for Chinese people to marry later, or not to marry at all. The records of the All-China Women's Federation show that registered marriages have decreased year by year. According to statistics revealed by Parenting magazine in 2004, the average age for marriage in big cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou was set at 27 for women and 28 for men. This is totally different from figures twenty years ago, when according to the population census, 74 percent of women married between the ages of 15 and 19.

Chinese wedding ceremony. Chinese wedding ceremony.

Women have gained more economic independence and secured important positions in the job market. Establishing a career or getting more years of education has become more important than building a family. The average Chinese woman has more freedom to choose her marriage partners. Consumerism and new ideas have also introduced changes in people's mentalities.

These and other similar changes have resulted in a general tendency to marry later. For certain people, marriage is no longer regarded as a 'must'. Instead of a social obligation, it is gradually becoming a choice of status.

However, in many layers of society, marriage traditions and parental pressure are still very present. Prospective wives are expected to be young and beautiful. They are expected to be less qualified than their husbands. Men must secure a job and a stable income to stand more chances of finding a wife. For people like Yanyan, not so young, "not so beautiful", too qualified, it is just not so easy to find a husband. Caught up in the transition between tradition and modernity, and "not having what it takes to become an eligible wife", the issue of marriage is much more complicated. "I want to get married, but I can't," she explains.

The 'falling out' type

Yanyan is only one example. There are many other reasons why people do not get married. Xiao Liu, 36, is gay. His parents don't know. "I can't tell them, they would never understand", he says. For many years now, his parents have been urging him to find a wife. He is from Kunming but lives in Beijing since 2001. He goes home once a year for the Spring Festival. "I don't want to go home often, because they always ask me if I've found a girlfriend". Xiao Liu knows he will never get married. He feels sad and guilty because he has fallen out of his parents' expectations. He will never carry down the family name. "But I have no choice", he says.

Luomei made a different choice. She is 38 and has been married for 9 years. But she likes women. She works as a high school teacher. Her husband is a company manager. When she finishes teaching, she meets Sunlei, her girlfriend, and they go shopping or hang around in one of the cafes near her school. "I am not in love with my husband", Luomei explains, "I got married because I couldn't stand my parents' pressure, and because I knew I could never live with my girlfriend. I didn't want to be alone for the rest of my life". For Luomei, marriage is only a matter of convenience. Her husband doesn't know about Sunlei. "But he suspects", she adds, "for both of us, this has never been a love union".

In search of the ideal partner

In these circumstances, and the marriage issue still being so prevalent in Chinese society, people use various strategies to chase the ideal partner. Ma Yan is 75. She's Yanyan's mother. She spends a few hours in the park near her house every morning. To a distracted eye, it might seem that she's just passing time. A more careful observer will notice a small badge pinned on her lapel. Many old people are wearing a similar badge, with either a "0" or "I" displayed on it. To those unfamiliar with Chinese culture, it might be difficult to understand.

In China, it is common to see young boys playing snooker in the middle of the street or women selling trinkets in unexpected corners. A great part of people's lives takes place outdoors. Among these activities, we find old people like Ma Yan roaming public parks in search of partners for their sons and daughters. The signs on their lapels, "I" or "0", indicate whether they are looking for a male or female candidate.

This is only one of the ways for people to search for wives and husbands. According to a marriage survey conducted among white collars and recently published by Chinanews, 81 percent of the young people interviewed tried to find marriage partners through friends and colleagues, 47 percent through parents' recommendation and 10 percent through other matchmaking activities.

Since 2006, the city of Shenzhen holds an annual marriage fair for white collars, and many companies organize meeting activities to promote interaction and matching opportunities for their employees.

This phenomenon indicates that people are having difficulties finding marriage partners. They also confirm the existence of heavy marriage expectations.

Alternative choices: the underground scene

Other facts point towards a change in traditional patterns of sexual conduct and relationships. A survey conducted by Durex a few years ago showed that Chinese people ranged top in the rate of sexual activity. An important element of Chinese gay culture is looking for casual partners in public toilets and parks, or 'cruising', as they like to call it. Surveys conducted on university BBS reveal an astonishing rate of one night stands and group sex among university students and a ramping increase of teenage pregnancy.

And there is still more: brothels, bath houses, extensive circulation of porn materials. All this witnesses the existence of a thriving underground sexual scene and changing patterns of relationship and sexuality. It also proves something else: Chinese society is not so traditional after all.

"I know all these things exist", Yanyan says, "but they don't appeal to me. I'm maybe too old".

It is people like Yanyan who are in the most delicate situation. They cannot identify with the young generation, but they can neither adjust to traditional demands. Caught up between the old and the new, they find it difficult to find their place in the dynamics of a society in continual transformation.

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