Pressure is on young mainlanders to marry

Career-minded young mainland singles are in less of a hurry to get married these days, but many are under pressure to do so

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 November, 2014, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 November, 2014, 6:43pm

Your 30th birthday isn't far off and you're still single? "Well, hurry up and get hitched, or you might be left on the shelf permanently." That's how most parents think on the mainland. Don't you just love their scare tactics?

Today, November 11, marks the unofficial Singles Day or "Bare Branches Day" in China. To most singletons on the mainland, the occasion is simply an excuse to indulge in the online shopping blitz being promoted by e-commerce giant Alibaba (and a reminder that they are still unmarried, of course).

Quite a few are caught in the same predicament as 28-year-old Yu Jian, who is feeling the heat from his parents. A recently qualified doctor, he soon found himself a job at a public hospital in Hebei province in July and seems to have a promising career. However, his parents think that marriage is a far more pressing issue.

"My parents keep urging me to find a partner since I'm not that young and they are getting old," he says.

And everyone around Yu - his relatives, colleagues and even his supervisors at work - have been setting him up on blind dates to help him find the right girl. Yu loathes the idea and, for now, would rather enjoy his freedom. "I decline all the dates that I can, and turn up only for those I can't refuse." Even so, he has had to attend two blind dates every month since he began work in July.

Being in his late 20s, Yu considers himself a "leftover man", although the label doesn't bother him: "It's a personal issue. It's an individual's choice to be a 'leftover' man or woman."

"Leftover" is the rather derogatory term popularised by state media to describe men and women who are still single after a certain age.

Census data shows the proportion of single men and women between the ages of 25 and 29 has risen considerably in China from 2000 to 2010. According to the 2010 census, about 21 per cent of women in that age group were single - more than double the 8.7 per cent in 2000. The increase among men in the age group was less significant, with about 36 per cent remaining single in 2010, compared with 24.7 per cent 10 years earlier.

China may be modernised, but parents' traditional views on marriage are hard to break. The singletons are better educated and yet feel the pressure.

A 2010 survey by the All China Women's Federation found that more than 90 per cent of male respondents believed women should marry before the age of 27, whereas more than half the women polled said the best time for men to tie the knot was between 28 and 30.

"The traditional view that men and women who have come of age should get married puts pressure on singles. It is a convention that everyone is expected to conform to," says Li Yinhe, a prominent sociologist based in Beijing. "It's very rare to remain unmarried in China. If they don't marry, they are considered massive failures," she says.

Li attributes the persistence of the traditional views to China's emphasis on family.

"The West emphasises individualism, but family is the most important thing in China, so one has to get married," she says. "The concept of the family is like a religion, especially since most Chinese people are not religious and don't believe in the afterlife. Children are their future, so family gives Chinese people meaning in life."

Zeng Wei, 27, understands that viewpoint, and unlike Yu, he's eager to settle down before he turns 30. He's been asking friends to set him up on dates.

"At this age, I have to do what is expected of me. If I fail during this optimum period I can still [marry later], but the cost would be too high [in terms of the effort spent]," says Zeng, an occupational trainer living in Guangzhou.

Zeng has grown so fretful over his singleton status that he has lost interest in doing anything other than meeting the right girl.

"The biggest problem for me is that I do feel lonely," he says.

"Materially, I don't have any problems. Just I haven't met the girl who makes my heart beat faster."

And if today's men feel pressure to marry by age 30, the women feel it even more. It certainly doesn't help that the All China Women's Federation, the official women's rights organisation, runs articles on its website denigrating "leftover women" and offering advice on how to shed their single status.

"Society has very negative descriptions for older single women," Li says. "They are called spinsters and are thought to be psychopaths."

Moreover, the conventional values that require men to "marry down" and women to "marry up" are preventing many people on the mainland from finding compatible spouses.

"Men can seek younger wives, but women can't have younger husbands because of marriage conventions. Women would be under a lot of pressure if their husbands were younger," Li says.

The phenomenon of what demographers call the "marriage squeeze" in China has led to a situation where there are more "leftover women" in big cities than in the countryside, and the reverse is true for men, says Professor Chen Weimin, director of population and development studies at Nankai University in Tianjin.

Another factor in the overall picture is the alarming gender imbalance. Over the past three decades, the government's one-child policy coupled with the traditional Chinese preference for boys has resulted in younger generations that are highly skewed towards males. The 2010 census showed that for every 100 girls aged four or under, there were 119 boys. A healthier gender ratio is between 103 and 107 boys for every 100 girls.

"The gender imbalance has already had some effect on marriage, and in the next 20 years will be more severely felt," Chen says.

This means more men, especially in rural areas, have been feeling the squeeze. There are no official figures on villages with a large proportion of male "bare branches", but state media has reported on "bachelor villages" in poorer regions.

Chinese men and women must break with old marriage conventions if they are to change this situation, Li argues.

Why should men be belittled for marrying a more capable woman while women aren't derided for having a husband who is more successful than she is, Li asks. "This convention is a kind of oppression against women," she says.

All the same, conventional mindsets die hard even among younger Chinese. "All men like beautiful, young girls, and it's really hard to find men for slightly older women," says Ye Xiaowei, a 28-year-old accountant in Beijing.

"My parents hope I can soon settle down as they are getting older. Plus I'm not that young. The older I grow, the more difficult it is to get married," she says.

There's always a twinge when she sees friends get married and build their own families.

And although she doesn't regard herself as a leftover ( "I just have more time to enjoy life of my own"), Ye admits she gets concerned at times over why she hasn't yet found a partner.

Other single women aren't concerned about being labelled. Yolanda Wang argues many mainland women are simply choosing to remain single.

"I'm single, but I don't feel any pressure, and I'm living a very good life," says Wang, who works for Lean In Beijing, a support group for professional women.

"Leftover women are often very talented. They have higher goals and pursuits. They don't live in a miserable state and don't complain, 'Why are we being discriminated against?'"

Wang has also organised events such as The Leftover Monologues, where singles, mostly women, can stand before an audience to tell their stories of singlehood. Most women expressed their pride and willingness to be leftover.

On this Singles Day, however, accountant Ye has resolved to remain single no more.

Meanwhile, self-confessed leftover Yu just hopes to take advantage of any discounts being offered on shopping sites Taobao and Tmall. "I will join the shopping carnival," he says.

His one Singles Day wish: that people will stop setting him up on dates.

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