Finding a Spouse in China

by AFP/Cindy Sui, Aug 30, 2005 | Destinations: China / Beijing

BEIJING, June 28, 2005 - During her visit home for Chinese New Year, Gan Xiaoge's parents lined up five suitors for her, hoping the migrant worker, already considered an old maid in her village, would finally get married.

"I met one man a day, but I didn't like any of them. They were either construction workers or factory workers. I don't want to marry someone who is not doing as well as I am," says Gan, a kitchen cabinet saleswoman in Beijing.

Gan, 26, was once engaged, but dumped her fiance last year because he seemed incapable of ever matching her salary.

Since then, she has not been able to get a date with someone she likes.

"There are a lot of girls like me," Gan says. "We all want to get married, but why should we settle for less?"

China's economic reforms have not only changed people's fortunes but their views about marriage and what they look for in a partner. Only a generation ago, finding someone with the right political background was enough, now for many, it's finding someone with a large bank account.

"Unlike in the United States, in China, it doesn't matter how good looking a man is. No girl will go for him if he doesn't make a good living," says a Beijing office lady.

For decades under Maoism, people found people to marry in nearby villages, as Gan's parents did, or from the factories where they worked. They were hardly picky, often tying the knot with the first person they dated, with no comparisons of wealth, as everyone was poor.

But two decades of economic opening up have made many much more aware of what they want out of life and many are far more choosy than their parents about who they marry.

Official statistics show that since China launched economic reforms in the 1980s, its marriage rate has been steadily declining, from a 1981 peak of 2.08 people getting married for every 100 people, to 1.26 in 2003.

Migration from the countryside is a key reason for the decline, experts say. Most of the migrant workers are women who work in factories such as those in southern China's Shenzhen city, or in shopping malls and restaurants.

There are more jobs for migrant women and they have higher earning power than the men, who tend to be poorly paid construction workers. Few migrant women, however, are willing to return to the countryside to marry farmers. And they also frown upon male migrants in the cities who earn less than they do.

High demands for potential partners

With so few eligible women in the countryside, some rural men have resorted to buying a wife from poorer areas. It's not a problem that keeps China's leaders awake at night, but experts say it's a concern.

"We're talking about a social tragedy here," says Andy Xie, a China economist for Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong. "There are 150 million migrant people moving around. They're mostly young people. They want to get married, but they have no choice. They're trapped."

Gan met her ex-boyfriend six years ago as she rode the train from her poor village in central China's Anhui province to the Chinese capital to find work. He was also from Anhui. They hit it off right away. He was tall, handsome and funny and she was petite, pretty and spunky.

Over the years, her monthly salary steadily rose to 2,000 yuan (240 dollars) as she first worked as a maid for foreigners and then a saleslady, but his remained stagnant, at about 800 yuan as a grocery purchaser for restaurants.

"I felt we couldn't go on like this forever. If I have a kid and can't work, how can we live on his salary?" says Gan.

There are still plenty of people getting married in China and the wedding business is a major money earner, but finding a spouse has never been so complicated.

Urban career women and men are also having a hard time, with the marriage rate in big cities like Beijing the lowest in the country. Mu Rong, 35, runs her own image consulting business, owns an apartment and a car and dresses fashionably, but hasn't had a boyfriend in years.

"I don't think my social circle is small. Social circles have actually gotten larger, but everyone's requirements are higher," says Mu. "Since my qualifications are good, I have certain demands for the other party.

"The guy has to be spiritually compatible with me, that means he must have the right social, moral views. Political views are not important. And he has to understand me, not just give me flowers or pick me up from work, but share my feelings about life."

Mu's list of requirements goes on and reflects those of many urban women.

"If I make 10,000 yuan and he makes 8,000, that's ok, but if I make 10,000 and he makes 5,000, that's not ok. Preferably he should own a home, rather than us having to save up to buy one," says Mu.

Men struggling with emotional commitment

Ding Juan, a researcher at China's quasi-governmental All China Women's Federation, says the main reason why an increasing number of people in China are still single in their mid-20s and even mid to late 30s is priorities have changed.

"There are more and more people putting career ahead of starting a family," says Ding. "The pressure to find a good job is much greater these days."

City women are facing an especially hard time as their new found success often intimidates men.

"I dated a man for several months, but since the weekend when I asked him to help me pick out a car, he never called again," says Christina Yue, 26. "Since then, I realized many men don't like it if their girlfriend owns an apartment."

For men, trying to win the heart of a woman has never been such a headache.

"Women are no longer just making material demands on men, but also emotional demands," said a man during one of Beijing's recent Friday night "speed dating" gatherings, which, along with Internet dating, have become a popular venue for picky singles seeking a larger pool of potential mates.

"Women nowadays need men to be attentive to them, to understand them. This is hard for men to accept all at once. Traditionally in China, you don't need this."

The pressure for both men and women is high because however open Chinese society has become, people are still expected to get married and have children.

Some people are starting to question whether their parents' generation were better off.

"People back then were simply looking for someone to pass their days with. They were happier because their expectations were lower," said the man at the speed dating event, who shyly declined to reveal his name, after failing to get any girl's phone number.

Yue, the girl dumped after going car shopping, agrees. "Nowadays it's easy to meet people, but very hard to find someone to marry. Everyone talks about feelings now. Once you talk about feelings, it gets complicated."

Gan, who like other migrants works every day of the week, has less time and money than her white collar counterparts to explore the dating scene. She doesn't go out of her way to find a boyfriend, but goes along on blind dates set up by concerned relatives and friends.

"I feel lonely sometimes ... I really want to get married," says Gan. "Sometimes I wonder how things could be so easy for my parents, but we can't go back to those days. We are smarter now and want a perfect life."

* * * * *