Love and money reshape family in China
China has gone from arranged matches to the 8-minute date in the span of one generation.
Bright and earnest, Zhu Zi and Gao Yanping fill out a wedding application in neat Chinese characters at a marriage registry above a bakery.Skip to next paragraph
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Zhu waited years to find a husband like Gao. It was Zhu, a little saucy, who first phoned Gao, a little quiet. They hit it off: Both are under 30, engineers, smart, living in Beijing, and, most crucial, they are from the same province, Shaanxi, which means annual visits home together. They lived together unmarried for 14 months, something illegal until last year, before Zhu, tired of waiting, proposed. Gao right away said OK.
Getting married in today's China is far easier than even four years ago: The couple took a number, waited in line, and said "I do" in just over an hour. The certificate costs about $1.15. Marriage forms no longer ask frightening questions about parents' history or Communist Party affiliations. Nor must couples seek permission from their "work unit" boss, a major shift from last year. Marriage and public security bureaus are reportedly no longer connected.
Today, urban Chinese are free as never before to pursue what have become the twin engines of family dynamics here: love and money. In the 200 cities with more than a million people, love and money are dictating historic changes in the traditional family that had already been shrinking due to the one-child policy. Dating and romance are in, living with parents is out, wives and daughters enjoy enhanced roles. A new galaxy of attitudes and values is transforming the basic building block of Chinese society.
Yet if it is easier to tie the knot in urban China, little else about marriage and family is so simple in a country constantly rebuilding, protean, where the pursuit of wealth and the sense of time are accelerating.
"It is easier to meet people now, but it is harder to find the right one," says a young female junior exec as she sips from her water bottle. "We never had cellphones or text messages before, and we can meet many new people every day. But our expectations for a partner are so high that few can match them."
Now, for the first time on a wide scale, Chinese may pursue a spouse of their own choosing. Only 2 in 10 young Chinese used to choose their life partner; today, 9 in 10 say they have or will, according to a China Daily report. Along with this, a discourse of "feeling" and "emotion" that used to exist mainly in elite circles is now heard at all levels, from tycoons to taxi drivers. Shops advertise "passion styles" for cars and kitchens. Romance novels are a rage.
In the past, couples often did not demonstrate affection inside a strict, loyalty-based family hierarchy. It was better not to, as Harvard sociologist Martin Whyte points out, since it might suggest a son's loyalty was not entirely clear. Couples always lived with the husband's parents, and in times of argument, sons were expected to side with family elders, not wives. Sons were dependent on parents. Divorce was discouraged and nearly non-existent. Marriages were arranged among families or inside "work units;" a main criterion was the communist or "revolutionary" credentials of the spouse's family.
"My parents were teachers. They found themselves put together by their work unit," says Qi Mei, a consultant for a paint company in Beijing. "Spouses didn't use to have an identity, so much as a role. But now marriage is based on feeling. That will make us a more open society."
"I want to fall in love," says Ms. Xin, a 19-year-old student at a shopping mall. "I don't want to moan forever about money and jobs. Love is first. Other things are important but not first."