As in other countries, young adults in China experience pressure from family and society to get married. However, there are a few things that set marriage culture in China apart from western countries and other countries in east Asia. Some of these differences may be surprising.
Minimum Legal Age for Marriage
The minimum legal age for marriage in China is currently 20 for women and 22 for men. These age minimums are higher than most other countries in the world, where 18 is the minimum legal age for marriage. But don’t confuse marriage with sex. The legal age of sexual consent in China for both males and females is only 14.
The issue of the minimum marriageable age is periodically debated by Chinese government officials. Proponents of lowering the age are concerned with births and abortions among couples below the legal permissible age for marriage. They are also concerned with young people cohabitating out of wedlock and citizens creating fake documents to get the all important marriage certificate. Those who want to maintain the current age limits believe that teenagers are not intellectually and emotionally mature enough to handle the responsibilities of marriage. They point out that teen marriages often end in divorce. They also point out that most teens are not secure financially and have not yet established a secure career.
Family and Societal Pressures
In China, there is a great deal of family and societal pressure to get married. Filial piety, the supremely important cultural ethic which undergirds Chinese society, dictates that a family’s lineage is continued through marriage and the birth of boy. To not get married and have children can be seen as a betrayal of one’s parents. Also, single people over 30 face a social stigma, particularly women. The term “leftover women” was created to describe women over thirty who have not married.
It’s not always easy for a man to find a woman to marry. There are a few reasons for this.
Large Gender Imbalance
China has an unnaturally high gender imbalance. Due to the deeply entrenched cultural favoritism for male babies, there are approximately 117 males for every 100 females in China. The biologically natural gender ratio is 105 males for every 100 females. China’s unnatural gender ratio was achieved through sex-selective abortions. The Chinese government addressed this issue by making it illegal for doctors to divulge the sex of a baby before birth. Also, sex-selective abortions have been banned. However, these measures have not been strictly enforced.
As far as normalizing the gender ratio goes, China’s future doesn’t look good. According to a study published by The British Medical Journal, in 2005 China’s gender ratio of children one to four years of age was estimated to be 126 males to 100 females. That is alarmingly high.
For an thorough and informative academic assessment of China’s gender skew, read this article:
Bride’s Substantial Requirements for the Groom
In China, when a man wants to marry a woman, he better have a few things in place first. The bride’s family usually expects the groom’s family to provide a house for the newlyweds. Given the way China is developing, the house is almost always an apartment. If a young suitor’s family hasn’t a home to offer, then the parents of the suitor’s girlfriend may pressure her to find a more suitable candidate for marriage. This aspect of Chinese marriage culture places a huge burden on the groom and his family.
Chinese parents want their daughters to marry men with university degrees. Those with a university degree usually earn more than those without one. A Chinese man without a university degree is unlikely to marry a female compatriot with a university degree. Chinese men without a university degree often marry women who also do not have one. However, this is not to imply that university-educated Chinese men necessarily require that their wives also be university educated. Chinese men are less concerned with academic requirements for their mates.
Chinese men are definitely expected to be the bread winners. China is, after all, a male dominated society. A man with a stable, high-paying job will find it easier to take a bride than a man who makes an average or below average salary. A typical Chinese mother and father want their daughter to marry a man who can comfortably provide for the family, now and in the future. One young woman told me that she had been in love with a young man who had a degree in Chinese literature. Her suitor’s income potential was quite low. Her parent’s badgered her to find another boyfriend. So as not to disobey her parents, she broke up with her boyfriend.
Marry for Love?
While more and more Chinese seem to be marrying out of love, many couples still marry for other reasons. Parental and societal pressures as well as financial concerns push young people to marry. Also, the window of opportunity for marriage and having kids is rather short. The pressure of time can drop love from the checklist of marriage requirements.
Once the baby arrives, the focus of the marriage is on the child. Both parents work and earn money for the benefit of the child. As in other countries, Chinese parents want their children to attend good schools and have a good life, a life without constant worry for money.
While the participation of women in the labor force is increasing, the employment market in China is still dominated by men. Most of the higher paying jobs are done by men. Marriage is sometimes the only way a woman can acquire a home and have enough money to raise a child. Also, the combined income of a husband and wife can make many things financially possible for both the man and the woman.
In the past sixty years, the marriage rate for women in China has dropped from 99% to 95%. Obviously, getting married and starting a family is still a foundational component of Chinese society. What has been changing more drastically is the number of Chinese choosing to get divorced.
Over the last couple of decades, the divorce rate in China has been climbing rapidly. The United Nations Stastical Division (UNSTAT) reported that in 2011, China’s national crude divorce rate was 2.o. What is the crude divorce rate? It’s the number of divorces per 1,000 citizens. In the 1980s, China’s crude divorce rate was approximately 0.4. Another measure of divorce is called the divorce to marriage ratio, a number expressed as a percentage and calculated by dividing the number of divorces in a given year by the number of marriages. The divorce to marriage ratio is often simply called the divorce rate. According to UNSTAT, China’s divorce rate in 2011 was 22%. Divorce rates in China are highest in large, first tier cities. For example, in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, divorce rates are somewhere between 30% and 40%.
While divorce is on the rise, most married couples in China, even the miserable ones, will not divorce, particularly if they have children still at home. A parent’s sense of responsibility to his or her children and feelings of guilt when merely thinking of divorce usually keeps the marriage together. Also, divorce in China still carries a social stigma, though it’s not as heavy as it used to be.
One of the reasons for the rising divorce rate is the increased participation of women in the labor force. When you have enough money to support yourself, you have a greater number of choices, including dumping the uncouth, cheating, ignorant meathead you are married to. Statistics show that women are the one’s who more often initiate divorce in China.
Changes in divorce laws are another reason for the rise in divorces. Legally, it’s much easier now to get a divorce in China than it was 20 years ago. Divorce laws in China used to be insane. For example, couples used to have to get letters from their employers and community members endorsing their divorce. Most would be too embarrassed to try to obtain the letters. Now, couples can get a divorce in matter of minutes.
Average Age of Marriage
Over the last decade, the average age of marriage has risen for both men and women. According the Chinese government’s 2010 national census, the average age of marriage was 26.7 for men and 24.9 for women. More and more Chinese are entering university every year, and entrance into post-graduate programs is also on the rise. More and more Chinese are choosing to first finish their education and establish themselves in a job before tying the knot.
It’s been reported that most marriages in China end because of infidelity. Sure, cheating happens all over the world. However, in China it seems almost expected that husbands will have an extra-martial lover. This is particularly true for women who marry a rich Chinese man.
Rich Chinese men are known for having mistresses, many of whom are lavishly supported. The mistresses of rich and powerful Chinese men are almost always young, attractive, and with no career. A rich Chinese man will often house his mistress in a luxury apartment located in a major city. The man will take occasional “business trips” and spend a few days or more with his mistress.
China is developing at a speed and scale that is unprecedented in human history. With rapid development comes significant and rapid changes in society. China’s rising divorce rate and increase in the average age of marriage are typical for rapidly modernizing countries. However, given China’s excess males, millions of men will go to the grave as bachelors.