Image of young women browsing rows of marriage ads strung up at the wedding market at People’s Park, Shanghai. Image courtesy: DAVE TACON/AlJazeera.com
Shanghai Diary entry 01/2019
Back in 2008, when I was a fresh undergrad kid, I happened to watch a not-so-famous Bollywood movie “Turning 30”, featuring the actress Gul Panag. My friend and I are laughed at the film and declared that single women in their 30’s are desperate and we are not going to be one of them, instead we would be happily married. My friend did get married in her mid-20’s and is now raising a kid. Zooming forward to the present, I had watched the movie again recently, and was driven to think about the social pressures for getting married by a certain age. It led me to wonder how Chinese woman deal with it. Especially given that in China, there is a specific term to describe an unmarried woman in her late 20’s or 30’s: Sheng nu, which means “Left over woman”.
Still image from the film Turning 30
Image courtesy: lyricsio.com
It so happened that last weekend, when a Chinese friend was visiting Shanghai and we were out for dinner, the first thing I asked her was, “How do you feel being not married in your 30’s?” I felt guilty asking such a question, worrying that it might be awkward. But my friend, who happens to teach American literature at a Chinese University, is well-traveled and also considers herself as feminist, took the question in a sportive spirit. It was amazing to hear that she feels fine about being single, and moreover being called a sheng nu does not bother her at all. She still has her dreams to pursue and prioritize. However she expressed about how it has an impact during family gatherings, especially during festivals, when she feels self-conscious. She is not alone. The prevailing scenario of single youth in China has led to the concept of “rental boyfriend/girlfriend’’ in the country during the festive seasons. This concept is essentially popular among unmarried men and women to pretend in front of their families that they are not single.
Desperate times calls for desperate measures, right? However, the whole “rental lover’’ concept is still debatable, as it has been reported to involve fraud and unfair business. Another downside is that it is ridiculously expensive to rent a boyfriend or girlfriend, let alone considering the psychological trauma involved. I have not met anyone yet personally who is a beneficiary of the service. But I did find many online sites, including the e-commerce giant Alibaba which has the largest online buying app Taobao, advertising for rental boyfriend/girlfriend. The issues involved with these advertisements are by themselves a separate topic, to be written about another day.
Meanwhile, my friend and I went on to talk about how Chinese woman perceive relationships and marriage. In large Chinese cities like Shanghai, women are not too worried about being termed as sheng nu, as they are intensely career-driven. Marrying late does not bother them, as much it would someone hailing from small towns or rural parts of China. Regardless of one’s background, when one is in the age group of late 20’s or early 30’s and single, most lunch break conversations lead to the question of marriage. I have often encountered the query and the eagerness of the questioner to know how my parents or the Indian society perceives my single status. One finds it annoying sometimes, having to answer every new Chinese friend I make about my single status. But I do not complain, as these conversations also let me learn trending Chinese words, like duli (independent), kaitong (open minded), etc.
Many single Chinese women ignore the label of Sheng Nu
Image courtesy: newofficeasia.com
I have realized, most of the Chinese girls I know prefer to be in a secure, long-term relationship, which usually starts in school or college. Live-in relationships are no longer a taboo in China. Last week, another good friend of mine asked me to join her while she was shopping for her boyfriend’s mother, who is going to visit them soon. She and her boyfriend are in a relationship for more than 8 years and now share a house. I was curious and asked her the obvious question, of whether their parents are good with the situation. The surprising answer was, “Of course! It save us a lot of money as well”. Renting a decent apartment in Shanghai is almost like opening a can of worms, given the sky- rocketing prices. Having a partner to share the rent eases life for the Chinese. My friend who is 28 years old does not know when she wants to get married and have children. But she is sure of wanting more success in her career. In fact she has already cleared the IELTS examination, and is thrilled with the prospect of working in a foreign land in future, with her top choices being New Zealand, Canada, or Australia. I can see that she is not very different from any young Indian woman pursuing their dreams while residing in big cities, except for the social taboo of live-in relationships in India. I recall watching a documentary named “Bachelor Girl” which was set in major Indian cities like New Delhi and Mumbai. It portrayed how difficult it is for a single Indian woman to find an apartment and rent a house, let alone one who has male company.
While women in China are experiencing unprecedented financial freedom, the question that still lingers is, are they bound to Chinese traditional values? The Indian situation comes to mind. Once when I was having a conversation with my Chinese professor, who also specializes in Indian studies, She asked why is the dowry system still prevalent in India. I openly explained that most of the urban educated youth in India are against the idea of dowry, and it is practiced only in certain parts of India. However, in my heart I knew the reality that many Indians are still fighting the evil of dowry.
However, traditions vary in China, where it is the groom who has to buy a house or apartment to show his wealth to the bride’s family. It is quite unlikely that parents will agree to give their daughter’s hand to a man who does not have a house of his own. In such cases, the potential groom’s parents’ house does not qualify as his own. As a result, the main goal for most Chinese young men in their 20’s is to earn enough money for owning a house. Many Chinese parents also financially help their sons to buy a house. As the saying goes in China, “No house, no marriage!”. The entire house-ownership issue is a debatable issue at the societal and legal level in China. This is because sometime, in order to save the boyfriend/fiancé from hassle, many a woman provides partial financial help for buying a house, thus allowing their marriage to take place. This leads to a major issue in the case of divorce, over “Who gets the house?”. With the recent rise in divorce rates in China, there are many such cases coming up. Another recent phenomena in China’s real estate sector is that of fake divorces. According a report in one of the most liberals Chinese magazine Sixth Tone, some couples choose divorce in order to evade debt obligations. Others separate because the local government puts their home up for demolition, and by splitting up, the couple can re-register as two separate households and thereby receive more money in compensation. However, the majority of couples who get a fake divorce do so to circumvent regulations limiting the number of properties they can buy. When I asked a female law professor about the issue of fake divorces, she replied that the social havoc created by this trend is enormous. Nevertheless, I felt glad that back in my country materialism has not yet gotten to that stage of causing fake divorces. Or am I being naïve?
Fake divorces for property gains is a common issue in China
Image courtesy: Bloomberg.com
Coming back to question of working and wealthy Chinese woman being still bound by traditions, as seen earlier many women do not bother with people calling them sheng nu, but it seen that Chinese parents are not much different from their Indian counterparts. They too want their daughters to get married before 30 or at least latest by 35. I discovered there is another term popular among the Chinese nowadays to describe a career driven woman: Nühanzi, which mean “kick-ass woman”. It might sound exciting at first but the term is often used in a derogatory sense. It means such women do not care about social values. Most Chinese parents do not want their daughter to be called sheng nu, let alone Nühanzi. So, as they would say in China, “Zenme ban?” (“What to do now?”). In other words, how to get their daughters married? Even though the traditional practice of arranged marriage has been illegal in China since the 1950’s, Chinese parents like Indian parents are heavily investing in their children’s marriage. Matrimonial sites may be a favorite means for many Indian parents, but Chinese parents they their own way. Consider this- a market for marriage!
Go to any big park in China during the weekends, and you will see a gathering of Chinese parents with a portfolio of their single daughter, or son, trying to find a mate for their unmarried child. These portfolios are printed pamphlet biographies which include details such as birthdays, height, weight, hobbies, job of the ‘candidates’ and figures such as monthly incomes. They also contain photos of the prospective bride or groo, which makes the whole scenario look like a real life dating website, except it is handled by their parents, uncle, aunts or even grandparents. While I was talking a walk at Shanghai People’s Park, said to be the city’s biggest marriage market, I was shocked to see the size of the crowd enthusiastically showcasing portfolios. It could have been compared to a village fair. I found most of the eligible bachelors were above 27 years of, which is not a surprise. Or else, where would parents of all the sheng nu or nuhanzi go to find a match for their daughters. I could not help but wonder that whether the people whose profile pamphlets were floating on the air of Shanghai’s People Park were even aware that their parents were there, trying to fix their child’s marriage.
Crowds thronging Shanghai’s People’s Park, browsing marriage portfolios
Image courtesy: DAVE TACON/AlJazeera.com
Although I originally intended write only about Chinese women in this column, I conclude this column with insights from Chinese men regarding the issue of eligibility for marriage. While single Chinese women have to grapple with terms like sheng nu or Nühanzi, Chinese men are also worried about high expectations for the socio-economic status associated with marriage in the country. In fact, some Chinese bachelors call themselves “bare branches” given their single status due to financial pressures. The People’s Daily recently declared that the aspect of “bare branches” or unmarried man is a more pressing issue than that of the “left over” women.
Single men in China face their own set of socio-economic pressures
Image courtesy: South China Morning Post
One can understand why Chinese men are feeling threatened. As reported by China Daily, according to the 2011 Grant Thornton International Business Report, China has the second highest number of female CEOs among 39 countries world wide. A study has suggested that China’s marriage rate has been dropping by 30% since 2014. A 2016 article which appeared in The Conversation argued that this trend was because of millennial independent woman in China choosing career over marriage. It is also because these powerful women choose to remain single unless they find a suitable match. With my experience with Chinese women in the academic field, I have realized they mostly prefer to marry someone from academia, even if not the same branch of study. Most of the female professors I have taken classes with are happily married with someone who they either they met with in grad school or much before in college days, and are also pursuing a career in academics. A few of my recent graduate friends have taken the same path. However, these are just a few examples and I would not generalize the trend.
Nevertheless, I would like to say to my Chinese sisters who are daring to make their dreams a priority, despite being called Sheng Nu or Nuhanzi: Jiayou! (a term of encouragement used in everyday China).
“Jiayou!” to Chinese single women
Image courtesy: theculturetrip.com
(Jayshree Borah is a PhD Scholar at the School of International Relations and Public Administration, Shanghai International Studies University, Shanghai. She is Member, Young Minds of C3S. This write-up does not reflect the author’s political opinion. It is based on her personal experience.)