The jigsaw puzzle of love and marriage

Writer: Debra Li  |  Editor: Zhang Chanwen  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  |  Updated: 2023-04-21

At a carnival-styled wedding ceremony – think of DJs, band performances, a quiz show and other games with prizes and souvenirs for winners in addition to food and beverages – held in a courtyard in the fashionable OCT area, Le Le tied the knot with her designer husband this January. Witnessed by some 100 close friends and extended families of the newlyweds, the groom said “I do” to a long and detailed list of commitments that range from sharing the housework to setting aside time for vacations together.

Le Le, 28, works on the staff of a university in Shenzhen. At her age, most women of her mom’s generation had already become a parent; three decades on, Le Le is one of those who get married early among her peers.

The 2020 national population census found that the average age for a Chinese person to get married for the first time was 28.67 years, in contrast to 24.89 years back in 2010. The Paper, a Chinese news site, reported in February that four cities in Central China’s Henan Province saw women’s first marriages there happen after 30 on average according to 2022 statistics. Although the official figure is unavailable for Shenzhen, it’s reasonable to believe that young people here are not getting married any earlier, given the fast-paced lifestyle in this migrant city.

Work first, romance a plus

Marriage, a legally-binding exclusive relationship, is traditionally associated with such benefits as improved financial status, more comfortable living, care and company pledged by another human, sexual satisfaction and a sense of belonging.

Those functions, however, can be easily achieved through other means in today’s modern society, explained Zheng Jing, a sociology scholar with Shenzhen University.

Zheng Jing.  Courtesy of the interviewee

“If you don’t want to cook, you can eat out or order a takeout; there are a million ways to spend the limited leisure time not taken up by work: games, social media, going to the gym … For women, actors from K-dramas and virtual boyfriends can provide more satisfaction in the form of a perfect love interest than real-life males. The young also find a sense of belonging in fan or hobby groups on such apps as Douban and Soul,” she said.

In fact, Le Le didn’t have a boyfriend until she met her husband during the Mid-Autumn Festival break in 2019, introduced by a mutual friend.

“My parents and relatives raised the question (why I remained single) from time to time, but no one was actually pushing me hard,” she recalled.

“My previous job was with a leading internet and games company. The workload was heavy, naturally, which left me little time for other pursuits. I’d rather watch a movie, attend an exhibition or eat at a gourmet restaurant by myself in my spare time. Work came first; romance could be a plus experience, but not essential or necessary in my life,” she said.

A guest signs his name on a bottle of red wine at the reception of Le Le's wedding. Courtesy of Le Le

True love elusive 

While many young adults view romance and marriage not as an urgent necessity, the rising divorce rates in Chinese society, the annoying trivialities and conflicts of married life vividly presented through reality shows and opinionated posts on social media have all deterred them from seeking romance or entering into a marriage.

Ye Zi and her boyfriend went separate ways after a yearlong relationship. “I was contributing a lot but he just took things for granted,” said the commercial bank employee in her late 20s. One evening, she returned to their rented apartment after a long day’s work, exhausted, and went into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water. There was no hot water in the thermos bottle, and dirty dishes piled up in the sink. “My ex was sitting comfortably in the sofa glued to his mobile phone. So I asked myself, what’s the point?”

While many posts shared by women on Xiaohongshu complained about difficult mother-in-laws, countless men confided on about hurtful experiences of their girlfriends cheating on them or leaving them for a wealthier man.

Hupu, which started as a sports fan site in 2004, has more than 80 million active users, 90% of them male. A popular “green” literature thrived at the site, the green color referring to the Chinese expression of “putting on a green hat,” which is the English equivalent of “being cheated on.”

One such post, perhaps the earliest of its kind, was viewed more than 1 million times. Back in 2012, a user recounted how he found out about his girlfriend’s cheating on him and how he suffered, in a quasi-literary narrative, which compared the trauma to the “East African Rift.” Netizens were captured by his vivid descriptions and the post immediately went viral. 

Practical hurdles 

Another thorny topic at the site is the discussion of caili, the betrothal gift a man usually gives to the bride’s family, viewed as a heavy financial burden for men. Some users have become very realistic after weeding out their delusions about romantic love. “It’s business; don’t pretend we have romantic feelings,” said one comment. 

Newlyweds pose for a photo after having officially registered their marriage at Xiangmi Park in Futian District in this photo taken in February. Sun Yuchen

While some women have left posts seeking male friends at this online community of straight men, those from a certain southern province have been cold shouldered, because the region is notorious for whopping sums of caili demanded by the bride’s family. “Such polarized perceptions are not necessarily true, nor do these views represent what the majority of our society believes, but they certainly appeal to and influence a lot of people on the internet,” explained Zheng.

“Many university students today, particularly male, have reached the consensus that they first need to become financially successful before they can have a viable relationship,” Zheng said. “The typical belief is that, when they become rich, say, in 10 or 15 years, they can have whatever girlfriends they like.”

Official statistics revealed that in the years between 2000 and 2017, more than 90% of the Chinese aged 35-55 were married. Marriage remains the mainstream choice; only people need a longer time to prepare for it.

Whereas love certainly has its fundamentals based in reality, people have more practical thinking when it comes to marriage.

Le Le never wavered in her relationship, although tested by a long-distance romance, because she and her husband had many things in common. Both born and raised in Shenzhen, they knew they would come back to live in the city someday, although she worked in Hangzhou and his job location was in Beijing when they first met. “We discussed such things at the outset of our relationship,” she said. She’d rather not waste time on a relationship that’s not going places.

“Both our parents have property in the city, and we are okay with living in a rented apartment until we have a kid,” she said, adding that the couple is considering buying their own home next year.

Kids a huge investment

Not in a hurry to bear a child, Le Le joked that she needs at least a yearlong “probation period” to vet her husband before making the big decision. “Is he a good partner; will he make a good parent? Raising a child is a huge investment of time and money, not to mention the physical burden and pain experienced by women during pregnancy and giving birth,” she said. “I know people who really love kids and want to have more, but I think one is challenging enough.”

Her stand is typical of young educated women in Shenzhen.

Xin Xin, who works for a financial institute in the city, plans to marry his longtime girlfriend this May. He hopes they will have two kids and she will quit her job as a tutoring center teacher to become a housewife and mom. “She isn’t keen on the idea,” he reckoned. “Of course I will respect her choice, but I will try to persuade her and let her see my points.”

The time, money and energy required of the parents, particularly on the part of the mom, discourage young people from raising more children.

A newly-wed couple during a photo shoot at Rose Coast in Dapeng New Area in this file photo. Sun Yuchen

That’s the part the Chinese authorities are concerned about, Zheng said. An aging population compounded with a low birth rate doesn’t paint a rosy picture for the future economy.

“The third-child policy is not enough if the government wants to see more newborns,” she said. “It’s more essential to provide better childcare services, more affordable housing, and more favorable workplace environments for working moms.”

“It’s interesting to see widespread discussions about Chizuko Ueno in the Chinese society recently,” Zheng said, referring to the Japanese sociologist and Japan’s “best-known feminist.”

“These discussions, hopefully, will become the starting point where people stop seeing the other sex as their rivals, but try to respect their differences, seek dialogues as equals, and cooperate for a better future.”

(Le Le, Ye Zi and Xin Xin are aliases as the interviewees wish to keep their real names private.)