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Part 1: The parent’s role in searching for and choosing a life partner

People of all cultures have the desire for togetherness and safety. At a certain stage in life, they look for their significant other or sometimes only for a short romance applying different strategies. The search process and decision-making criteria of those who look for a partner and how they (and their parents) tackle this challenge can be very different from culture to culture.

From a Western perspective, there are a couple of interesting phenomena and very different approaches to searching for the right partner in China. However, especially the internationally oriented, well-educated young generation living in bigger cities seems to increasingly adjust to the Western way of behaviour and Western points of view.

The search for a partner in China primarily concentrates on the time frame between 20 and 25 years. Before the age of 20, parents give their children only little freedom to gain some experience with the other gender. They are too scared to risk their children’s school education, not to speak of the much more dramatic consequences of an unwanted youth pregnancy in China in comparison with most Western countries.

Once the partner search is finally permitted by the parents, children are put under a lot of pressure to quickly find a life partner within 5 or 10 years at the most and to marry as soon as possible to secure the partnership. It is widely seen as a waste of time if couples stay together for years without being married. While others want to be really sure before taking such an important step, in China it is considered a sign of insecurity.

In case the daughter or the son does not manage to find a life partner within the given time frame the pressure by the parents can increase tremendously. It often happens that the parents themselves take the initiative to look for a partner on behalf of their children. The moral pressure that parents can put onto especially their daughters can be enormous and is caused by pure helplessness. They are frequently accused of being a bad daughter because they still haven’t married. In some extreme cases, parents even threaten their daughters to kill themselves if the daughter does not marry by the age of 30. Many parents in China see it as their life task to get their children married. They are concerned that in case their children do not marry they have failed as parents and this would mean a loss of face in the Chinese society.

One possibility how parents can support their children in finding a life partner for instance is to arrange blind dates in coordination with other parents who are also looking to make their offspring marry.

In bigger cities parents even meet with other parents in parks to offer their grown-up children on “wanted posters” which they typically stick on open umbrellas standing on the ground. The “wanted poster” contains their children’s data like height, age, education, income, car, apartment, sometimes with and sometimes without a picture. Sometimes they also put a small table flag of a foreign country next to it in case their child lives abroad and they want to promote its internationality as an additional plus. Since not all parents have the time and patience to stand in the park every day, they sometimes also hire so called brokers who then offer a couple of “willing to marry” children. However, this form of searching for a partner is dying out in times of the Internet, very much to the glee of the children embarrassed by those parents.

It is not possible to completely resist the pressure from the parents and their organized blind dates. The only two options are either to avoid or to ignore the parents. In case someone is homosexual, but cannot or refuses to come out to their parents it may happen that the arrangement of blind dates continues for decades unless they find another homosexual of the opposite gender willing to enter a “paper-marriage”. Most of them, however, just marry a heterosexual and lead a double life.

To escape the pressure by the parents, many flee to another city. However, every visit at or by the parents as well as the regular telephone calls with them can be dangerous since there is always a chance of being confronted with the topic. From a Western perspective, you might ask yourself why these grown-up children don’t tell their parents to stop interfering with their lives and leave them alone for god’s sake. Yet in China there is no real alternative to obedience and respect towards the parents. This requirement obviously does not stop when being an adult. More recently there is however, a strong tendency of more and more rebellious behaviour by the younger generation towards their parents. This can be quite shocking for their parents, but even the younger generation would not break the taboo of officially interrupting the contact to their parents or even ending it. This would mean to risk the trust of all friends and colleagues since those who do not respect their parents enough, lose all respect in China.

The parent’s fear that their children may not find a partner on the wedding market is not unfounded. It is brutal how time is pressing upon especially Chinese women. At the age of 25, it is starting to get more and more difficult and by the age of 30, it is very difficult to find a good relationship. Over 35 years, parents are already in despair and with 40 years they usually have lost all hope. There is a Chinese saying that, there is a discount on women who are older than 25 years and that this discount increases by 10 % with each additional year. 

On the other side, men suffer under the pressure of having their own apartment. If a man cannot provide a home to his potential wife, he has little chances on the marriage market. This is an enormous financial act for the entire family since the apartment prices in bigger cities are increasing dramatically. Many families have to go into high debts in order for their son to be able to win over a woman (and her parents). To wed two sons normally means a total bankruptcy for a family. This is one of the reasons why families that already have a son do not dare to have a second child even after the one-child-policy expired.

A young man could wait until he has earned enough money himself to buy an apartment. However, that is a rather risky strategy. Besides that, a large age gap between men and women is also not wanted since there is an increased fear of only getting women of supposedly “second, third or fourth choice”. A difference in age between men and women from one to two years is considered as ideal while five years of difference are the absolute maximum. Otherwise there is the threat of losing face among acquaintances and relatives.

In addition, there are notably more men than women in China. This is particularly a big issue in the rural areas. Interestingly enough, there is a slight surplus of women in the so-called Tier 1 cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Since many women want to improve their status by means of a marriage and many Chinese men do not want to marry a woman that is superior to them with regards to education, the choice is getting even smaller which of course generates a tough competition.

At the same time, there are also parents that have a lot of money but who have an unmarried daughter. Sometimes those parents openly offer their daughter without any financial conditions to a potential husband (and his family).

One more difference between East and West is that sometimes even the supervisors provide support in finding a matching partner for their single employees, especially in the state-owned enterprises. Those managers who look after their employees are considered as especially caring since they show true compassion and interest in the employee’s well-being. In the Western part of the world this would rather be seen as a transboundary interference into private affairs.

author: Tilman Rieger