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Marriage In China: What’s Love Got To Do With it?

Like most things in modern China, marriage is complex, and the country’s youth are caught in the middle of tradition and modernity as they seek the Chinese Dream.

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“It is good to study but not as good as to marry well.” -Old Chinese saying

A Chinese woman’s wedding day isn’t necessarily suppose to be the best day of her life. Feelings of joy are often mixed with those of sadness, trepidation, and despair — as it is on this day that a girl becomes a woman in this culture, and must bear the responsibilities of this new role. So weddings are often bittersweet events.

This is how marriage was explained by a young Chinese woman being pressured to the brink of marrying a man she neither loves nor even likes. He is the son of one of her parent’s friends, and her family feels that he would be a good match. Though she despises the guy, she will more than likely comply with her family’s wishes and dwell in a miserable matrimony her entire life. I guess that’s the Chinese way.

She was 23 years old and her family began worrying that her marriage equity may have been running out fast. So her mother told her to marry the first man she met that had a good job, and a few months later that’s exactly what she did. But she quickly discovered that along with her new husband’s good job came the personality of a traffic cop and the lovableness of a rock. She doesn’t like him. Her friends don’t like him. The last words her friends had to say about here is that she can’t “come out and play” anymore.

It’s perhaps no wonder one third of unmarried Chinese people fear tying the knot. But this is a rapidly changing culture, and these traditional marriage values seem to be on the brink of disintegrating into history.

These two cases above provide a window into the traditional ethos of marriage in China. It’s not all big smiles and beautiful dresses and thousands of photos in flower gardens. Often, there are very sinister feelings and confusion brewing beneath the surface of Chinese weddings, and it is clear that these unions are social and economic, more than emotional, arrangements.

Wedding in China

Perhaps needless to say, the Western/ Globalized notion of “love marriage” is now highly romanticized here.

“I like how you marry for love,” a married Chinese woman told me. “I think it is good.”

Marriage is a family arrangement, it is a financial arrangement, it is an emotional arrangement just about everywhere. The order of importance of these three attributes vary according to culture, but in China they seem to go as outlined above: family first, money second, emotions and personal preference a distant last.

Many young Chinese often marry who their parents want, for money, out of fear for future security, or because they feel as if they may not be afforded a better opportunity farther down the road, and some spend their lives feeling as if they missed out on something — a little thing called love.

“I don’t write about love,” a Chinese woman explained.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I have never known love so I can’t write about it.”

“Are you married?”

“Of course.”

Love marriages, where two people choose to marry each other based solely on emotion, attraction, and personal preference, are becoming more and more common in China, though they are still not the norm.

“I have a friend who married for love,” one Chinese girl told me excitedly, as though she was expressing a novelty. She was.

“We don’t marry for love,” another woman explained. “It is not the most important thing for us.”

Marriage is a very pragmatic social arrangement to get ahead and secure a future here.

“It is irresponsible to marry for love,” she explained further.

There was something about this statement that stuck with me, because, though I did not want to admit it, I knew it was true. Marriage is a partnership to achieve a common goal for two families, and the Chinese still understand that this is more important than the whims or passion of any individual.

Love comes and goes, it is pliable, fleeting, ephemeral, but marrying a person who fits well into your socio-economic pursuit, who does what their culture and family expects them to do is forever. So buck up and do what you’re supposed to.

“In the USA, the families are very small. Here in China when you get married you also marry another family,” a 30-something Chinese woman explained.

Marriages here are not generally directly arranged by parents. China isn’t that traditional of a country. Rather, I would say that marriages are “strategically organized” by all parties involved. Generally, family members, the people who are marrying age, and sometimes even professional matchmakers will scout out appropriate suitors who meet the established criteria, and put together a union that appears good for everyone involved.

Though it is very common for people here to find and chose their own partners — especially as many people now live far away from their families — and then get family approval prior to marrying. This is not dissimilar to the Western model, the difference here is in the shear amount of influence that the family has. Parental opinion reigns over all, and many young Chinese people are still finding themselves stuck up on the wedding platform with people they may not have preferred or even like.

But if a person marries someone that their family disapproves of, there is often lasting consequences.

“My family did not want me to marry my husband,” one young Chinese woman explained to me. “They said that he did not have enough money. They wanted me to marry someone with more money than me.”

“I used to talk with my family often and have a close relationship,” she continued. “But now we don’t talk very often because they did not like who I married. My husband was very handsome, but he didn’t have a lot of money.”

“So you married for love then?” I inquired.

“I think maybe. Maybe that is what it was.”

Though cases of family conflict resulting over marriage arrangements are not uncommon, the factors that both the person looking to get married and their parents are often the same. From what I can ascertain, wealth, property, and possessions are the prime criteria for selecting marriage partners here.

“Women here want men who can make a lot of money,” I was told my a young woman when I was doing a survey of what Chinese women look for in marriage partners. “It is very difficult living here if you don’t have much money.” She then paused before adding dreamily, “You can do a lot of things with money.”

In a recent survey by a major Chinese online dating service, it was discovered that over 50% of women expect their husbands to earn at least twice as much money as they do.

Like so, a good job, a big bank account, a house, and a car are often requisites for a man to attract a desirable spouse. And, all too often, these are pretty much the only requisites. While tall, fit, light skinned men are of course preferred, good looks are rarely valued over cold, hard cash. If he is wealthy enough, he’ll do — even if he looks like a toad.

This is the New China, “to be rich is glorious.” The centuries old practice of mendang hudui (“family doors of equal size”), which pretty much means matching people of similar wealth and social status together in marriage, has been thrown into the trunk of history. Now, hypergamy is the rule. Even daughters of peasants are being pressured to marry nothing less than a middle class or rich man. Besides the fact that outrageous bride prices are now being demanded by parents, marriage is one way for a woman to rise in this country’s socio-economic ranks.

The flip side is that a woman’s marriage value is often based on her appearance. Rich men want beautiful women, beautiful women can climb the social ladder and marry rich men.

“A-class women don’t match with B-class men.”

This is a similar arrangement all over the world, but here in China, as with most things, it seems to be taken to the extreme — or, at least, people talk about it in a more upfront and open way.

As far as climbing the social ladder, getting married seems to be as much of a sought after option for some young women as getting a higher education and a good job. Many women are actually stepping up to the wedding platform as an alternative to stepping into job interviews.

“I will get married sooner or later anyways, and I might as well start looking now,” said one young Chinese woman to Time. “If I find someone I like and who is well off enough to take care of me, I will feel less stressed about not finding a job.”

Marriage here is a gamble, and the window for cashing in on a good bet is perilously short. Many women are rushing into weddings out of fear of not being afforded a better opportunity in the future. The threat of being a “forgotten woman” — unmarried beyond prime courtship years (after 30) — creates a lot of pressure and rushes decisions.

What is interesting here is that a woman’s prime years for getting an education and advancing in a career is the same as that of finding an “A-class husband.” All too often, women are being forced to chose between a family and a career.

More on Vagabond Journey: Women In China, Professional Gender Lines, Work, and Family

It’s a superficial game played by both teams. All too often, there is no conflict between the influence of family and the pursuit of matrimonial wealth, as the criteria for marriage on all fronts is the bottom line.

Like most things in modern China, marriage is complex: it’s a combination of tradition and modernity, outside and indigenous influence, intensified by a voracious pursuit of wealth. This is a society where the wheels of tradition have not yet been ground down to a halt by modernization/ globalized culture. Rather, the two forces are both running at high speed, grinding up the country’s youth in the middle, as they seek the Chinese Dream.


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Filed under: Changing China, China, Culture and Society, Love/ Relationships/ Sex

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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