Chinese Marriage: A Pragmatic Venture

Published on Author Charlie

The institutions of marriage and family have undergone a shift in terms of their role in Chinese society. The gender-skewing impact of China’s one-child policy has left the nation with a dearth of young women relative to their male counterparts (a product of many Chinese parents’ preference that their only offspring be male). This, along with China’s growing economy and influx of new wealth, has induced both an imbalance in terms of bargaining power between men and women, as well as the advent of a more utilitarian culture around the practice of marriage.

The forces that led to this phenomenon have left a gap that is still growing between male and female, with one source estimating “…there could be 24 million Chinese men unable to find wives by the end of the decade” (NPR). The leverage this has lent to young, marriageable Chinese women is staggering. Once forgotten, or at least downplayed, traditions of lavish dowries and parental generosity have made a comeback. The “bride price” is driven up both by the aforementioned gender disparity, as well as the growing urban Chinese middle class; it is such that the current state of affairs is strikingly different from the cost of Chinese marriages even just a decade ago.

As with mere money, housing too has become a more prominent part of the modern Chinese courtship process. A groom is expected to provide an apartment to any new urban bride, often taking out loans to finance the purchase. In such a competitive market where women are largely free to refuse any advances made by a man perceived to be of insufficient resources, the parents of grooms-to-be must often help foot the bill.

There is an economic impact to this story as well, however. One Professor at Peking University asserts that “rising sex ratios contribute to two percentage points of GDP growth” (NPR). This is due to a combination of factors: in addition to the mere consumption boost of more extravagant weddings, the aggressive ambitions of many young Chinese men are being propelled by a desire to appear more marriageable to potential brides. This increased financial ambition also manifests itself in the form of foreign demand for Chinese men; among Korean women seeking foreign-born husbands, Chinese grooms are seen as the most desirable (Korea Biz Wire).

The increased focus on the financial is not only from the bride’s perspective, however. Marriage in general has taken on a more monetarily minded and pragmatic tone as more and more couples marry for convenience or advancement rather than love. In Beijing, where a stingy license plate lottery has capped the number of new cars allowed in the ever-expanding metropolis, “license plate marriages” are becoming more common. With only about a 12% chance of landing a license plate via the city’s lottery (WSJ), many individuals will seek marriage partners, even temporary ones, simply for the convenience of transferring the spouse’s plate number to themselves.

All told, the culture of marriage in China is rapidly divorcing itself from Western conceptions of romantic marriage and becoming more calculated. While some of this is cultural, much of it appears to be driven just as much, if not more, by economic or demographic factors.


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11 Responses to Chinese Marriage: A Pragmatic Venture

  1. I would love to see a study done on the size of the “ambitious male” effect among Chinese men. A two percent growth in GDP seems staggering to me, and it would surprise me if that came solely from men wanting to appear more favorable to women. But maybe I am underestimating the competitive factor that a shortage of women has created.

    • I totally agree, two percent economic growth seems astoundingly high. Two percent bumps in GDP are generally associated with rapid technological innovation, not men trying to make themselves more attractive. I wonder if the positive effects of single males on GDP will begin to wane. If male’s have an increasingly difficult time finding a partner for marriage, it could cause a “brain drain” or net-outflow of human capital in the future.

    • I agree with both of you, that number seemed preposterously high to me as well. While I don’t think the academic in question who made this assertion is solely relying on the “ambitious male” effect (he also included consumption boosts associated with more expensive weddings), it still seems a bit of a stretch that more expensive rings or fireworks displays could lead to such growth boosts either. Examining the professor’s methodology would indeed be worthwhile.

  2. The phenomenon of low supply and high demand of women does create a nice economic model for us to consider the “price” of marriage. Interestingly, the bride price has been around for centuries, and only recently have prices started to skyrocket, as you note. I wonder what this phenomenon will look like in the long run. It could be that the Chinese will simply see a decline in population growth, as poor male bachelors have no recourse to find a suitable bride.

    • Mason, you pose an interesting point. With an imbalance in the supply and demand of suitable brides, we may see a decline in population growth. That being said, I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing. If China’s population continues to grow at historical rates I believe that the country would most certainly enter crisis mode since they can barely provide basic resources to their current population.

  3. The idea of a license plate marriage is hilarious to me. Sitcoms and comedians joke about green card marriages, but marriage for the ability to own a car is a wholly new and interesting. Really not the stuff romantic movies are made out of.

    On a more serious note, this seems it won’t help the growth of the Chinese middle class at all. It seems that women from middle class families will “marry up” to upper-middle/upper class families. Many of China’s poorest citizens are those left in rural areas where I would imagine the impact of the gender imbalance is not quite as bad due to a lack of enforcement of the one child policy. This means that the middle class will compose more of single men than families, which does not give them a lot of political clout in achieving things greater property rights or freer markets.

  4. A blind mountain is a movie I HIGHLY recommend everyone to watch on issues like this one. It is a chinese film directed by Li Yang that follows a woman kidnapped and sold for marriage to a male in a small rural village. The village has a huge lack of females primarily due to both the one-child policy and the desire to have a male heir. Fair warning, it is an intense movie and a fairly dark view of the treatment of women in a old-fashioned rural village, especially this particular village has bought multiple women for wives. The Chinese government has (for obvious reasons) banned this movie from China and multiple endings/versions exist to comply with certain rules depending on which country the movie is being shown.

    I do not doubt that events like these are happening at a much higher rate than before. It’s difficult to imagine such a huge disparity between genders. I am worried and curious to see the economic and further social impact on China in the future with the Chinese males of this generation.

  5. This is a really interesting article, and one that may be relevant in every country given the startling rate of social change across the world today. Like the comments above, I wonder how accurate the 2% figure actual is. I also wonder if this severe disparity will result in an even more extreme slowdown in population growth as fewer people get married and have kids over the next two decades.

  6. As the prof stated in his response to my ‘Marriage Market’ post, Chinese men are marrying-down at increasingly high rates. Chinese businesses have historically opted to hire male workers, leaving women in low-paying and low-skill jobs. If the reversal of the One Child Policy does not have a substantial effect on China’s gender ratio in the foreseeable future, Chinese men will continue to marry-down in terms of social and economic status. I wonder if women with high levels of education will do the same, or if they will seek suitors of the same status. All hypothetical, but this could potentially create a small cohort of advantaged couples to the rest of the population.

  7. I wonder how this phenomenon will effect marriage rates outside of the country (i.e. Chinese men leaving the country to find a partner). If the number of men finding partners outside of the country increases, will this spur immigration from China into other countries, and if so, what countries will Chinese men most likely gravitate towards?

  8. When I caught wind of the details of the one-child-per-family policy a few years ago, I was unsure as to how many families it truly affected. However, recent data since the relaxation of the policy shows it affected quite a few; 17.9 million children were born last year, an increase of 1.31 million from 2015, and nearly half of the children born were to couples who already had a child.