As part of our two-month summer immersion in China, the Chinese Program visited a “marriage market” (相亲市场) in the heart of Shanghai. This market takes place at the People’s Park (人民公园) every weekend and is the hot spot for parents looking for prospective life partners for their children.
Marriage in China is not just an affair between two prospective ma tes but is a joining of two families. Parents can play a significant role in choosing whom their child marries. With or without the permission of their children, parents display paper advertisements with the most essential information: Male or female, date of birth, height, education, occupation, salary. Men get bonus points for having a house and a car. Unlike western dating websites, these ads have no pictures.
Middle-aged parents stroll among the advertisements, talk with owners of appealing ads, and, where appropriate, exchange contact information. They then give an assembled list of phone numbers to their children, who may chat with prospective suitors on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging platform, before arranging to meet in person.
Needless to say, we were fascinated by this antiquated ritual in the middle of China’s most modern city. To learn more, we advertised ourselves as single and prepared to mingle. Pretty soon, we had a circle of parents grilling us about our backgrounds and future prospects.
Many lost interest the moment they learned we were foreigners, since they wanted their children to marry Shanghai residents. Those who remained interested wanted to know if we would live in Shanghai after graduation. The most important criterion seemed to be compatability. Parents want their children to marry partners similar in age, education, and income, which they believe will most likely lead to a successful and lasting marriage. The parents at this market are mostly well-educated and white collar, and they worry that their childrens’ busy careers will keep them from finding appropriate spouses.
Parents of daughters have a particular challenge. In China, unmarried women over 25 years of age are called “leftover women” (剩女). These are usually well-educated women who are focused on their careers. Men are not considered “leftover men” until they are 40 years old. This gender bias has created a very beneficial social circumstance for men, who can build their careers and marry at a later age without social recrimination. Women, on the other hand, must choose between marriage at a young age or career without the possibility of marriage or family.
In modern China, economic and educational success has aggravated gender inequality for women, who no longer fit into traditional gender roles. The marriage mart is a manifestation of this inequality – parents of “leftover women” are willing to do anything to marry off their daughters, including finding strange men for them to date. Perhaps if and when women and men become more equal in China, the marriage mart will also become a part of China’s colorful history. But for now, it is alive and thriving.