BEIJING -- This Valentine’s Day, as more and more Chinese embrace the commercial aspect of the imported Western holiday, there’s another change afoot for romantic love in the world’s most populous nation. Some of China’s heterosexual single men and women are coming to the realization that, for them, the traditional “happily ever after” may never apply. In a country where tradition and family still wield enormous influence, many young Chinese are resisting the notion of settling down and getting married.
The price of roses may be surging ahead of the holiday throughout China -- but amid evolving gender norms, the digitization of dating and the upward mobility of China’s urbanites, dating and love today are a far cry from Chinese tradition.
“Marriage has become increasingly unappealing for me. The pressure, the price -- not to mention the divorce rates! How is it surprising that I’m not naturally inclined to want to do that?” said Shareen Cheng, a 28-year-old Beijing woman who works in public relations.
By Chinese standards, she should be racing to get married. In fact, she’s late as it is: She’s about to become a “leftover woman,” the label pasted on unwed women past their 20s. “My parents made me aware that my clock was ticking since around 25, but I wasn’t self-conscious about it until I turned 27,” she said.
But Cheng is in no hurry, and even mocks men who are itching to tie the knot. “I’ve been on dates with guys who are older than me who openly say they need to settle down to get their parents off their backs. Still, I’m the one who’s about to be a leftover?”
“I want to date, I want to fall in love, and maybe one day I’ll even want children,” she said, “but a traditional marriage is something that is no longer on my checklist for life. It’s not something I see in my future.”
Historically, Chinese women married earlier than their Western counterparts. The average age of marriage for women in urban areas in 1950 was just under 20; now it’s closer to 27, about the same as in the United States.
This has much to do with the fact that more women in cities are educated, gainfully employed and financially independent. They can afford to be choosy.
Still, the pressure from family and society persists.
As recently as 2012, an article in the state-run China Daily (since taken down) listed five tips to help “old, leftover girls who were born in the 1980s” find a partner. They included suggestions ranging from the laughable, like dating a friend and hoping he will fall in love, to the downright offensive, like acting dumb in front of educated men. A barrage of similar “advice” articles like this continue to be written and circulated online in China.
That mindset is on the decline, but the idea of marriage as an accomplishment to aspire to may not be. “My parents support everything I do; they are so proud of my accomplishments in school and in my career,” Cheng said. “But they still want me to have the safety net of marriage. It’s a built-in support system to them -- financially and emotionally.”
But marriage no longer guarantees the kind of financial or emotional support that it used to represent. In fact, the reputation of marriage in China is at an all-time low. Data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs from 2012 show that marriages in China are increasingly falling apart, with divorce rates in Beijing and Shanghai over 30 percent after rising for seven consecutive years.
Then there is the Internet. Online dating and dating-app culture is on the rise in China too, including location-based dating apps like Momo, a service that boasts more than 100 million users.
“I’ll go on a date [with someone] I’m not totally interested in because you’ve made such a low investment in terms of making the plans. For most of the dates I go on, there’s an understanding that we’re just having fun. … It’s not so serious,” Cheng said.
One of Beijing’s young bachelors, 26-year-old Web engineer Denny Wang, agrees. “I know it can happen, but I don’t go on Momo thinking I could potentially find my wife. It’s practice, it’s just being social, it’s just for fun.”
As a male, though, Wang faces an additional hurdle: There are many, many men per woman in China.
“People still meet organically, through mutual friends or at bars and parties, but when numbers are that stacked against you, casting a wider net [through online dating] is the best way to participate,” Wang said. “For where I’m at, dating is a numbers game.”
China’s severe gender imbalance is a product of the government's One Child policy, which has resulted in more male births since the traditional preference for sons leads to selective abortion or even infanticide. Census data placed the ratio in 2010 at 118 males to 100 females. For comparison, a typical gender ratio is 105 to 106 males for every 100 females.
Now, as many of the baby boys of the One Child policy become men, many among China’s surplus of roughly 24 million men say they can’t find a date.
“It’s competitive for sure. In the city maybe it’s less a direct result of the gender imbalance [than of] having to financially compete, but in [my home province] Shanxi I know it’s a lot more desperate,” Wang said. In some areas, especially in rural China, the imbalance is even more skewed, with more than 130 males to every 100 females.
The men Wang is talking about are known as “bare-branch” bachelors.
According to Jiang Quanbao and Jesus Sanchez-Barricarte, authors of a report called “Bride Price in China: The Obstacle to ‘Bare Branches’ Seeking Marriage,” "bare branches” are the millions of young men in rural or poor areas, like Shanxi, who will likely never marry or have children, because of their inability to provide financially for a wife. Disposable incomes are rising and the economy grew in 2014 at 7 percent but, the report says, millions of men will still be priced out of marriage.
Wang does not call himself a “bare branch” bachelor, but he sees the trend clearly. “Marriage isn’t just happening later,” he said. “It’s just not a guaranteed part of the plan, like it used to be.”
Cheng agreed. “There is no doubt in my mind that love still exists and that I want it and need it,” she said. “I just don’t think that it has anything to do with marriage.”