The woman on a mission to expose China’s ‘harsh and cruel’ marriage market

Secret video footage reveals how outdated thinking still prevails among many Chinese parents 

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 4:13pm

The day Chinese photographer Guo Yingguang went to the “marriage market” in downtown Shanghai last summer looking for dates she was constantly asked one question: “How old are you?”

Guo was 34 and many parents who regularly flock to the famous People’s Park venue during weekends looking for a partner for their grown-up children viewed her as way too old. 

One middle-aged man even compared her to property, claiming she was like a nice house in the countryside with an attractive look, but too aged.

Guo filmed some of the comments from parents with a hidden camera and the video was later watched more than 14 million times on Chinese social media.

One man was filmed telling Guo: “What’s the use of her getting a master's degree? A bachelor’s is more than enough. Just like the old saying goes, ‘a woman’s virtue lies in her lack of talent’.” Guo had written an advert mentioning she had a master’s degree after studying in London, prompting the scornful remark from the man.  

“I stood there and listened to them talking about me. I felt the world was too harsh and too cruel. In their world view, I’m worthless,” Guo said.

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Her experiences at the marriage market also led Guo to produce a series of photographs and art projects centred on topics including planned marriage and “leftover women”, a derogatory term in China used to describe single women in their late 20s and 30s.

She visited the marriage market more than 10 times over two years and produced a book of photographs titled The Bliss of Conformity.

The work shows images of the serene natural environment in the park, juxtaposed with pictures of frowning middle-aged men and women clutching adverts to show off their children to prospective dates. 

Guo’s work encapsulates the clash between two drastically different outlooks on marriage and women in China, with one rooted in the belief that women need to get married in order to achieve happiness while the other is built on the premise that women can create their own rewarding and fulfilling lives. 

Guo’s video struck an emotional chord among the country’s increasingly educated, well-travelled and financially independent women, who believe they do not have to be in the marriage market and that their worth is not defined by their age.

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One internet user commenting on Guo’s work on social media said: “Older people don’t get this concept even after living their whole life – everyone is an individual and a marriage resulting from conformity will never be happy.”

Guo worked for China Daily and Reuters as a photojournalist before she decided to study arts in London at the age of 30.

Her boyfriend had just broken up with her after a nine-year relationship and Guo felt miserable about herself.

“I lay on my bed for several days, staring at the ceiling and thinking my life was over,” Guo said.

She finally realised that the end of the relationship meant she was free to pursue other ambitions.

She improved her English and managed to get an offer to study in London for two years.

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Guo was inspired in the British capital by the bold and free-spirited women she met and gained the confidence to step up against conventional Chinese values.

“The women I was close to all chose not to get married, including my mentor and other female classmates,” Guo said. 

“For example, one of my classmates is a retired dentist who is over 60 years old. After graduating, she studied at another arts programme in Cuba. I admire her so much,” she said.

“I want to let more women know that you don’t have to care about what others think and you have the right to live out your own life. The only one who can judge us is ourselves.”