Why China needs to find a place in society for its growing number of unmarried men

Kitty Parkes considers the challenge of designing inclusive space that responds to society's changing face

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 9:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 9:27am

China is facing a severe gender imbalance, with the number of single men set to exceed the entire population of Australia in five years' time, a Fujian government statistician has calculated.

A distorted sex ratio of this magnitude - with at least an extra 9.5 million men aged 20 to 29 - is unknown in China and extraordinary anywhere in history. The American frontier, the Wild West, was a rare example of a society with huge numbers of excess men, and it was the gender imbalance that made the west so wild.

It will take China - with its population of over 1.3 billion, a fifth of humanity - into uncharted territory, leaving China's bachelors, who are called guanggun (bare branches or men who will not add to the family tree), potentially disconnected from society. And the ripple effects are many.

One consequence of so many unmarried men could be a rise in conflict and hostility.

What we build and how we communicate with each other speaks volumes about us as a society and culture

A Columbia University study associates large numbers of young single men with abnormal levels of crime and violence, finding that from 1988-2004, a one-point rise in the sex ratio in China raised rates of violent crime and theft by six to seven points. What impact will this have on our cities? Is there a role that architecture and technology can play in creating places to equalise the vast gender gap?

What we build and how we communicate with each other speaks volumes about us as a society and culture.

China is a nation grappling with gender and social inequity. With a higher proportion of men, a more masculine culture will be the biggest influence in China in the next 20 years and beyond, feeding into everything from inclusiveness in the workplace to sport, education and urban planning.

This is in stark contrast to the trend in the West towards gender neutrality; a San Francisco elementary school introduced its first gender-neutral bathrooms this year. It would seem that China is heading in the opposite direction. Instead, city planners and civic leaders will have to create cities that are less hostile for comparatively fewer women.

Defensive architecture was one response to the legacy of conflict and aggression in Europe after the second world war, as well as following the civil unrest in 1960s America. Buildings faced inwards, with cultural institutions, enclaves and public-facing front doors closed in favour of private, secure entrances. Communities saw an increase in concrete walls, barbed wire, soulless buildings and spiked benches; a built environment that marginalised some in favour of others. History has shown that walls create divisions, and "ghettoisation" results.

Hong Kong's architecture firms are helping to restore long-abandoned land and disused buildings into mixed-use cultural hubs. The bricked-up windows are being reopened, walkways are being reconnected, and green spaces and meeting places are being introduced. These are small steps in the right direction.

This begs another question: will we need to build spaces that can be more accommodating to different sexes and uses? Take the example of mainland China. It's interesting to look at how people there allocate their free time. According to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study of leisure time in the Asia-Pacific region, mainland Chinese spend well above half their time on personal care, primarily sleeping (75 per cent) but also active leisure (25 per cent).

Surprisingly, the same report also finds that people sleep the most in mainland China when compared to the rest of Asia, with nine hours of sleep on average. Men also get more sleep than women.

If more recreation time is spent asleep rather than shopping, socialising and participating in cultural activities, this could change the type of functions of the Chinese city, and how public spaces are appropriated and used.

As people's living standards improve, many of us are switching our focus to achieving a healthy lifestyle. Consumers are getting more empowered and individualistic in their attitudes.

Additionally, China has seen the migration of millions of young men and women from the countryside to cities and this phenomenon is also changing family life profoundly. The family is the focus of Confucian ethics, which holds that a basic moral principle, xiushen (self-improvement), can be pursued only within the confines of the family. This is being shaken and tested by the emerging demographics.

We are also witnessing the ageing of Chinese society, so all spaces will need to be made more accessible and friendly for a sometimes less mobile generation. There is a burgeoning demand for luxury village-type retirement developments, tailored to the needs of the ageing population.

Integration of these social groups, from the ageing population to single men, into China's social fabric is key for a healthy society, and there is a role that architecture and technology can play - from the provision of educational facilities, recreation and connectivity to improved medical services.

The phenomenon of so many single men is not an opportunity for gender stereotypes - or more sports stadiums, car showrooms and cigar bars; social inclusion is key. China needs to plan for, reconnect with and find a place for these "bare branches", while leaving the door open for the future.

Kitty Parkes is a PR consultant for architecture and design firm Lead 8, as well as a contributor to publications across Asia