NKOLE NKOLE, Beijing
LIKE many societies around the world, Chinese society has from ancient times attached high value to the institution of marriage and family.
But the requirements to marry in modern China, especially in big cities like Beijing, have changed over the years as China has opened up and is now influenced by modern culture not just in areas of fashion but marriage also.
Beijing resident Zhao Lin says things were really simple during her grandparents’ time.
Her grandparents married in the 1940s and lived during a period when girls could be married as young as 16 and boys as young as 18.
Zhao, 22, explains that the common tradition then was for parents to marry off their children through a match-maker.
A boy’s parents would normally tell the match-maker of their son’s wish to get married and the match-maker’s task was to find a suitable mate for the boy.
Everything regarding the marriage would be negotiated between the match-maker and the boy’s parents. The boy and girl would have no contact with each other during that time.
It was different, however, for Zhao’s parents, who got married in an era when the traditional Chinese customs regarding marriage were no longer being practised in cities like Beijing.
Her mother and father, now in their sixties, were married at the ages of 35 and 40 which was a much older age bracket than her grandparents’ generation.
Her parents’ generation however enjoyed the freedom to decide at what age they wanted to marry and to whom.
Over several decades, as the new China was being built, people obtained more rights including the right to love whoever they pleased.
However, the match-making role did not completely phase out just yet as a man still went about expressing his feelings for a woman via a third party.
“That’s how my parents married each other,” Zhao says. “My father thought that he wanted to marry my mother, so a friend of my mother’s introduced my father to my mother and that was like their first date.”
Even though a lot had changed with respect to Chinese marriage when her parents met in the nineties, it was still uncommon for a Chinese woman to be unmarried at the age of 30, but her mother was 35.
Her mother had her own reasons for marrying at the older age of 35 and was more concerned with building a career for herself before settling down in a marriage.
Today, Zhao’s generation is even freer than her mother’s with regards the choice of a spouse.
In traditional China, a young man who wished to marry a young woman needed to have at least three possessions – a watch, a sewing machine and a bicycle.
The modern Chinese woman PHIRIwould rather get married if she is certain that such a decision will better her life and not simply in fulfilment of a societal obligation.
“I think it can be explained this way,” shares 28-year-old Dong Weiwei, “Only if my life will become better, I will get married, otherwise why should I get married if I can have a good life by myself?”
Despite Dong’s reluctant approach towards marriage, China definitely has many young men desperate for marriage.
This is compounded by China’s hugely unbalanced population with six males for every female, a demography which poses a challenge for men hoping to settle in marriage.
The marriage requirements of today for a Chinese man are also higher than in previous generations because women like Dong are more independent than ever before.
In the big cities like Beijing, a young man is today considered more eligible for marriage if he possesses a house, car and a credit card.
With these three items, it is easier for him to attract the woman he fancies.
In Chinese culture, a house is a prerequisite for marriage but owning a house in big cities is not cheap.
In Beijing for instance, housing prices go through the roof – up to US$20,000 per square metre.
Dong’s father and mother came from two very different backgrounds. While her mother was raised in a comfortable home, her father had a humble upbringing.
“Actually my father was from a poor village and he moved from the village to Beijing,” she shares.
Her father worked extra hard to create a good life for Dong and her mother and today she at least has her parents’ house to stay in.
Having a fiancé who owns a house is not a very big deal for her. Her requirements for a spouse lie more along the line of personality and characteristics.
She is particularly concerned about having a partner or companion she shares similar interests with.
Her mother came to know her father, who was only just starting to make a life for himself in a big city like Beijing, through her close friend’s husband.
Dong says her maternal grandparents were against her mother marrying her father because he was from a poor background but in the end, her mother was allowed to make up her own mind over who to marry.
After her mother married her father, she moved to a new house which was very small in comparison to her parents’ house.
“During my parents’ time there were three things required from the man, including a television but during my father and my mother’s marriage, my mother’s side provided the television and my father’s side just provided a pair of socks,” she shares, adding humorously, “But it was a very good quality pair of socks.”
Cao Chen in an article for China Daily titled The Evolution of Marriage Customs in China, explains that arranged marriages became obsolete after the implementation of the Marriage Law in 1950.
The wedding process also became simpler and marriage certificates from civil affairs authorities became the norm.
The article further notes that traditional marriage customs have become mixed with modern practices.
“In the 1960s and 70s, some couples chose to be wed in the marriage registration office. Others held their wedding ceremonies in the workplace. Some also chose mass wedding ceremonies which were less expensive,” Chen shares.
He adds that during this period classic marriage goods were watches, bicycles, sewing machines and radios and were upgraded to televisions, fridges and washing machines.
As the choice to marry whoever one pleases is now optional, so is the choice to divorce.
Either party in a modern Chinese marriage can apply for divorce today but previously only a man could apply to end a marriage.
Since the open door policy of 1978, China has played catch-up with the rest of the world, and Chinese millennials like Zhao and Dong embody the generation with the freedom to express love and choose love for themselves.
Now is certainly a good time to be young and in love in China.
NKOLE NKOLE, Beijing