Single Happiness: Marriage Takes a Back Seat in China

2005-11-21
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A match made in heaven? The “Double Happiness” symbol represents a traditional Chinese view of marriage. Photo: Lee Shu Ping

HONG KONG—Over the years, they have invented numerous enduring symbols of marital bliss, such as the Mandarin duck and the “double happiness” icon. But China’s younger generations now seem to be falling out of love with marriage.

Recent studies show that breakneck economic growth since reforms began 25 years ago, the empowerment of urban women and changing social mores are beginning to change the way younger people in mainland China handle family and relationships.

“I think the main factor here is the women,” Beijing-based social activist Hou Wenzhuo told a recent panel discussion on RFA’s Mandarin service. “More and more women are demanding more and more independence. They are increasingly wanting to pursue their own careers, and their own happiness.”

A recent study by demographer Tang Can for the prestigious China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) showed China’s divorce rate climbing steadily over the last 20 years, bringing China—along with Singapore—to the top of Asia’s divorce league table.

In the old days in China, it was traditional to greet a friend or neighbor with a cheery question about their dietary status, 'Have you eaten yet?' Now, times are changing, and young urban Chinese have always got plenty to eat. So now they ask each other: 'Did you get divorced yet?'

The 'me' generation

More than 100,000 people got divorced in the southern province of Guangdong last year, while Beijing had the highest divorce rate in the country, Tang’s study found.

Chen Jieming, assistant sociology professor at the Texas A &M University, agreed that increased independence for Chinese women was a major factor behind the divorce findings. But he told RFA reporter Han Qing that attitudes to family life were also changing in society as a whole.

“In the past, a marriage used to be regarded as a joint enterprise, and the couple would think about keeping it going,” Chen said. “But nowadays young people are more likely to be thinking about their personal development, so they are investing less emotionally in their marriages.”

“Children represent a massive investment in a marriage. The more children there are, the harder it is to split up a family. But nowadays, more and more young couples in Shanghai, for example, are opting not to have children at all,” he said.

Some experts say marriage in contemporary China has yet to catch up with a social reality in which consumer-based concepts of choice and gratification now play a major role.

A recent study found that around a quarter of Chinese wives seldom or never experience sexual pleasure in their marriages.

Family less important

Extramarital affairs and divorces are increasingly the butt of wry popular humor.

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A young couple walks past an advertisement for foreign chocolate in Shanghai. Photo: AFP

In the old days in China, it was traditional to greet a friend or neighbor with a cheery question about their dietary status, “Have you eaten yet?”

“Now, times are changing, and young urban Chinese have always got plenty to eat. So now they ask each other, ‘Did you get divorced yet?’” said one Chinese office worker.

Traditional values that give precedence to men in society are proving inadequate when negotiating the subtle emotional terrain of modern relationships, in which working women are on a more equal footing with their male partners, according to sociological researchers who took part in an in-depth series of programs on marriage broadcast by RFA.

In another blow for China’s bid for double happiness, more and more young people, especially in the cities, are postponing marriage, leading to what official newspapers have dubbed “the great singles crisis.”

Increasingly, young people are beginning to believe that they are better off single than they would be in marriage, researchers said.

“For men and women both, individualism is taking more and more of a front seat, and a sense of duty to family more of a back seat,” Hou Wenzhuo told panel host Gao Shan. “What’s more, as attitudes to sex become more liberal, people are no longer reliant on starting a family to satisfy their sexual needs.”

Materialism and snobbery

U.S.-based commentator Liu Xiaozhu agreed. “Of course, society is changing regardless of what we say about it,” he said. “On the plus side, young men and women in China are taking their own development as individuals, their own identities, far more seriously than they were.”

“On the minus side, it certainly will have a detrimental effect on traditional ideals, on family structures,” he said.

Liu and Hou also pointed to materialism and unrealistically high standards among successful young people in search of a mate. “In China they will advertise their university degree level, whether they have an apartment and a car... Both men and women share this rather materialistic attitude,” Hou said.

And rural workers, who have migrated into China’s booming cities in their tens of millions to find work, often had trouble finding a life partner, Liu added. “In China, your social status is something you are born into, and it’s fairly inflexible.”

“There is the gap between the countryside and the cities, and also various divisions of class, income, and locality, and I think these distinctions have driven all those unnecessary materialistic requirements in the marriage market.”

Original reporting in Mandarin by Gao Shan and Han Qing. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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