Old-style marriage values pertinent to today's couples
Editor's note: Four decades of reform and opening-up have not only turned China into the world's second largest economy but also changed the way of life in the country. A veteran journalist with China Daily looks at how Chinese attitudes toward marriage have changed.
Every weekend, hundreds of gray-haired people will gather in the parks in Beijing and Shanghai. They are not there for recreation, but for the serious business of matchmaking on their children's behalf. Patiently waiting for another parent to approach them, each has a piece of A4 paper in front of them clearly displaying their children's age, education background, job and hobbies. They are like peddlers standing behind their vegetables in an open-air market.
Fearing that such gatherings might be the source of a cluster of infections during the COVID-19 pandemic, the park administrators send wardens to the matchmaking areas and use loudspeakers to try to persuade people to leave. Their dispersal efforts are often in vain because the parents are desperate to seize any opportunity to find a suitable partner for their children.
Reading the brief introductions on the sheets of paper, one can see that most parents are seeking partners for women over the age of 30, who have a master's degree or overseas learning experience, have a good job and earn a good income. The requirements are usually simple－being better in all spheres, apart from owning a house, a car and a hukou (registered permanent residence) of Beijing or Shanghai.
Though the lawful marriage age in China is 20 for women and 22 for men, most people now get married at a later age because of their living and working pressures. The more developed an area is, the later people get married. In Beijing, Shanghai and the more developed coastal regions, the average marriage age is over 30, according to different sources.
While a heavy working load and high cost of housing play their parts in delaying marriages, the match seekers' excessive demands of the other side are also widely blamed for many people's failure to tie the knot at an early age. Browsing matchmaking websites, one will find that many single women are looking for prospective partners with a monthly income between 20,000 yuan ($2,991) and 50,000 yuan. That's a demand that excludes 90 percent of the candidates even in the "high-income" Beijing and Shanghai both of which have an average monthly income of around 6,000 yuan.
Becoming more and more materialistic, many young people today want to change their fortune through marriage. They want their partners to own a house－which is difficult in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai where even a small apartment can cost nearly $1 million. They expect their potential spouse to have a secure job such as being a teacher or civil servant. But such jobs usually are not very well-paying and may fail to meet their income requirements.
Marriage counselors here are warning young people to focus more on mutual affection, common interests and moral quality instead of paying too much attention on each other's material resources and financial situations. The former conditions are more important in enabling a marriage to be healthy while focusing too much on the latter could lead to a marriage having a miserable ending. Statistics show that four out of 10 married couples divorced in 2020.
People's attitude and requirement for a marriage now seem to have changed a lot compared with those of my generation four decades ago. At that time, it was unnecessary to ask how much one was earning because young people were paid about the same－about 30 yuan for a worker and 50 yuan for a university graduate. So a person's income could easily be judged from his or her age and job.
And one never asked if someone was a house owner. With few exceptions, families all lived in rented houses and it was not unusual for a family of five members to live in one room. Being married into a family meant one probably would have to squeeze into the already crowded apartment. New couples could, of course, apply to their State-owned institutions to rent a room of their own, but the waiting list was long.
Since it was impossible to demand a prospective partner be materially rich, young people, as well as their parents, paid more attention to a person's character; mutual affection and common interests were stressed. Other popular requirements were a stable job, honesty, eager to learn, loyal to partners and respect for parents.
Knots tied with these pre-conditions ensured stable marriages. Of the 30 of my high school classmates and 20 university classmates who later got married, none have got divorced, even though we had to join hands to fight against poor living conditions in the early stages of the marriage.
With the divorce rate rocketing and the road leading to marriage increasingly bumpy, today's young people should perhaps take a leaf from their parents' experience and re-examine their values on marriage.
The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.