With the country’s marriage rate at an all-time low, the programme Insight explores the factors in play, from the changing attitudes of young Chinese to the cost of housing, and how authorities and parents are trying to reverse the trend.
Last year, as her career took off following her move to Shanghai, China’s financial capital, finance executive Zhao Miaomiao felt it was time to look for a significant other.
So she went on a series of blind dates. Using a dating app, she met “quite a lot” of guys in person — more than 100 — within three to four months.
After they all struck out with her, she “realised that finding a partner is a really difficult task”.
“The first thing (guys) look at is whether the woman is attractive. And then they proceed to understand her personality and family background,” said the 28-year-old.
“However, … (women) prioritise the sincerity of the man. For example, they hope that the man who pursues them demonstrates effort and sincerity.”
Over in Beijing, media executive Liu Shutong has a boyfriend, but “it doesn’t matter” to her whether she gets married or not in future.
“First of all, what I want is to live in the present,” she declared. And that is a general attitude she sees among her peers.
“Nowadays, young people prioritise their current happiness, embracing a hedonistic lifestyle,” said the 24-year-old, who herself takes pleasure in ballet, yoga and shopping with friends. “We feel that … whether you choose marriage or not, you’re still happy.”
Whether by choice or otherwise, more young Chinese clearly are not getting married. In the past decade, the number of marriages has halved. Last year, 6.83 million couples tied the knot — an all-time low since records began in 1986.
Compared with Singapore, where 6.5 marriages per 1,000 residents were registered in 2021, the corresponding figure in China was 5.4 marriages per 1,000 people.
Among the urban youth, 44 per cent of Chinese women do not plan to marry, compared with nearly a quarter of the men, according to a 2021 survey conducted by the Communist Youth League.
While a decline in marriage has become a global phenomenon — almost 90 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with falling marriage rates — and the reasons can be complex, there are also particular factors in play in China.
The programme Insight finds out what is getting in the way of young Chinese finding love, and the different ways the authorities — and parents — are trying to reverse the trend.
A GROWING MISMATCH
One person who can offer an insight into why young Chinese are not coupling up is professional matchmaker Qian Lei, 27.
“In general, if a man tries to find a partner in the matchmaking market, he may say he doesn’t need a rich or beautiful woman, but he’s actually picky,” she said.
“He’s looking for someone who gives him a good first impression, and this is when he becomes more selective.”
As to why girls may reject a guy, it may be “because he doesn’t meet their height requirements”, said Qian. “Girls tend to value height a lot, and they often prefer guys who are at least 1.7 metres tall.”
Such eligibility “criteria” may seem superficial but are one aspect of the changing views on love and marriage in China.
The country’s rapid development has also created a mismatch between what men and women want in marriage, with China’s social conservatism at odds with decades of female empowerment.
“China’s transition from traditional to modern values has been very short. Other countries and regions may have taken 50 or 100 years, but we’ve experienced this phenomenon in just 20 to 30 years,” said sociologist Zhu Hong at Nanjing University.
Prior to 1999, when the government decided to expand the higher education system, women made up as little as 20 per cent of university admissions.
Female enrolment has since overtaken male enrolment at universities, hovering at 52 per cent for some years now. Accordingly, women’s economic independence has increased, and Mao Zedong’s famous phrase, “women hold up half the sky”, has become a reality.
But gender roles have not kept up with women’s socio-economic status — “all the housework” and the responsibility for child-rearing will fall mainly to them after marriage, said Jean Yeung, a Provost-Chair Professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore.
“The opportunity cost of getting married is really, really high for a woman these days. And so, since marriage is no longer a necessity, a lot of women hesitate to go in (on it).”
The difference between what men and women want is especially clear in the cities, added Hang Seng Bank (China) chief economist Wang Dan. “Most women are looking for love, and most men are looking for a wife.
“The difference in their purpose also causes a very different attitude. And we’ve seen a lot of frustration when it comes to closing the deal, on both sides, on whether they want to get married.”
More time spent at school and the focus on careers also mean a delay in marriage, which is common as countries develop.
But in China, this has led to the term “sheng nu” (leftover women), used to describe single women in their late 20s and 30s. They are deemed undesirable owing to fertility concerns over their age.
THE ONE-CHILD POLICY
China’s falling marriage rate could also be partly due to the one-child policy, which was implemented nationwide in 1980 and ended on Jan 1, 2016.
A whole generation of only children “grew up on their own”, noted Wang. “Naturally, they’re more individualistic than the previous generations.”
And according to one study by the Ohio State University, only children are less likely to get married, compared to those with siblings. Each additional sibling is associated with a 3 per cent increase in the odds of getting married.
The argument is that siblings provide children with opportunities to negotiate conflict at home, which could help in navigating friendships and romantic relationships later in life.
Only children are also likely to be more independent and value their alone time.