Love and money reshape family in China

China has gone from arranged matches to the 8-minute date in the span of one generation.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Bright and earnest, Zhu Zi and Gao Yanping fill out a wedding application in neat Chinese characters at a marriage registry above a bakery.

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.

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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."

Love and money

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."

Yet the dreams of young women like Xin can be tempered by economic realities. She's part of the first generation who must find their own jobs and earn their own wages. This creates some anxiety. Apartments are no longer subsidized; jobs no longer guaranteed. Many parents have no advice for their offspring about a China evolving at a bewildering rate.

Wealth, it turns out, has caused many urban Chinese to think and behave in ways that don't always include families. Boarding schools have tripled in the past decade. Extramarital relations have skyrocketed. As the cost of living increases in urban China, many young women, often from outside the city, are subsidized by men.

Typical is Yu Weijing, 25, who stays in Beijing by being enrolled in graduate school. Her boyfriend is 40, divorced, has a son, and owns a pharmacy. They stay together five days a month. He pays her rent. She is now dating another businessman, and wonders if she should change income sources, since she hears the pharmacist is also dating. She wants a "short cut" to financial security and a good life, and repeats a saying here that "a good date is better than a good job." Officials are considering transparency laws requiring husbands to show family earnings to wives; many divorce cases exist now where wives are suddenly left only with the furniture.

A new concept: dating

China has 3,000-plus years of feudal order, guaranteed partly by a stable family. That family is now undeniably changing. Consider these structural shifts: Dating is a new concept, maybe four years old. Before, one never talked about a "boy- friend" or "girlfriend." A special friend was a "partner," and it implied an impending marriage. No longer. In the city, females will ask males out. Young Chinese want to get to know one another. The American "eight-minute date" has just hit Beijing.

In China's shift to a market economy, one key marriage player has been phased out: the work-unit boss. For 50 years, the boss was a de facto sergeant inside state-run enterprises. He or she policed behavior among the sexes, assisted with family problems, often helped set up single women approaching the unofficial "spinster" age of 30, and approved all matches.

"If you turned 28 and were still single, the danwei manager [or boss] would step in and help," says Yu Jiang, a single 27-year-old who recently quit a US-China joint venture. Now the work-unit boss no longer approves marriages; the position is disappearing along with state-run businesses.

Weddings in pre-1980 China were simple, short, and cheap. Today, 70 percent of the weddings done by Purple House, a Beijing agency, are Western-style - vows, white dresses, churches, receptions, says Shi Yu. Mr. Yu is Purple House's "master of ceremonies," a combination minister-DJ for the ceremony. Weddings used to cost $40. Now they easily run $4,000 and are a status symbol.

Once married, Chinese couples are no longer choosing to live with parents at at home, a huge change. Some 60 to 70 percent of couples no longer live with parents, and in the reporting for this series, virtually no young Chinese said they would live at home if they could afford not to. "No way," says Jun Yaolin, who was married two years ago. "We will fight." One counter-trend is to live a "bowl of soup" distance away - move to within a few blocks. This neatly supplements another new trend: full-time care of children by grandparents.

Divorce, once seen as antisocial, is now high by Chinese standards and increases yearly. In Shanghai in 2001, 1 in 3 marriages failed, according to Xinhua news agency.

The maturing of the one-child policy, combined with the ability of couples to buy their own apartments, is creating its own "empty nest" condition. This means that older people are starting to experience an often terrible new loneliness. China is still a country with respect for elders. Yet a public-service ad on Chinese TV shows an elderly lady cooking all day. As she sets the table for dinner, the phone calls come one by one: "I can't make it. Can I come tomorrow?" The ad ends with a solitary figure sitting at a table of food - and the words, "Don't forget your parents."

"The traditional family has changed, become diluted, atomized," says Dong Zhiying, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing. "It used to be assumed that kids would take care of parents. Now it no longer is. In the past, older people in the family were dominant. Young people had no choice but to respect them. Parents' authority was based on money and power; if you don't respect them, you lose favor.

"Today, the intellectual and market development in China has come quickly, and transformed the family. Young people aren't worshipping elders. They can rely on their own ability - go to university, be independent, make their own choices."

A sense of acceleration

On Nov. 27, a documentary by Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, shot in China in the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, was screened in Beijing for the first time. Its patient camera angles show bygone urban scenes: a lower skyline, donkeys and pigs on the street, and lots of smiling children with tattered clothes. The film is a window on rapidly China has moved into the modern world.

That acceleration is reflected in the way relationships are being formed and conducted. Cellphones and the Internet provide the kind of intimacy and instant connection never before possible in China. The nation now has 400 million cellphone users, double the number in the late 1990s, according to Bo Landin, a former executive with Ericsson. Even many migrant workers now carry cellphones.

In a way not found in the West, young Chinese take their new cellphone liberation and Internet relationships seriously. There is even a sense of generational separateness between 24-year-olds, who got their first cellphones in college, and 19-year-olds, who have been talking to each other since junior high. Text messages allow young men or women, who are often painfully shy, to conduct a rapid-fire dialogue that has its own interpersonal language. Twentysomethings in China will hold hands on the street; teenagers feel no remorse about kissing in public.

The generation gap and pace of relationships is clear to Liu Jin, a mom who works at a joint venture. At first, Liu got excited when her son brought home his girlfriend. She sized up the young lady as a potential daughter-in-law. Then the young man brought home another, and another, and they still keep coming. Liu gave up trying to figure out her son's wishes. It isn't how we used to do things, she says.

The new craving for "feeling" has brought new experimentation - not always with happy results. The most popular film in China last year, "Shouji (Cellphone)", centered on a man who cleverly used his cellphone to shield his lovers from his wife. The film introduced the phrase "aesthetic fatigue," which describes a culture of too many overripe relationships. The pace is often so intense that the passion burns out quickly; too many relationships are based on sex alone, Chinese complain.

"Singles aren't talking about marriage, lovers aren't talking about the future," as one put it. A saying among high school and college students describes a weariness with a growing pattern of "one-week" relationships: "On Monday, you send out vibes. Tuesday, you express true desire. Wednesday, you hold hands. Thursday, you sleep together. Friday, a feeling of distance sets in. Saturday, you want out. On Sunday, you start searching again."

At the same time, sex is becoming common at an ever-younger age. One college freshman who started an "innocent youth" campaign on the Internet asked visitors to the site to sign a vow of purity. But few would sign. One wrote, "If it comes to being a virgin or breaking up with my boyfriend, I won't sign it."

High-tech has made introductions easy. White collar companies now woo recruits by bragging about their weekly singles mixers. Introduction services have cropped up, advertising that clients will "find that right spouse." One service in Beijing offers four levels of matchmaking possibility, ranging from a $25 Web inspection of members to an $800 "Gold" membership featuring a party for you with booze, balloons, and an "A" list of prospective females. Yet our reporting shows that couples rarely find each other at these places. Rather, it remains friends, alumni, work, and family where marriages develop.

"Women now speak very differently about men," says Li Yinhe of CASS. "They rate them as A, B, C, or D. They find it hard to locate an A man, and much of the talk I hear is about settling for a C-group man."

China debates
'family values'

Most Chinese agree the family is undergoing tremendous change. But views on what that means run the gamut. Some feel society is headed for serious disorder due to a loss of values like sacrifice, family loyalty, and fidelity. Others see a better China emerging after a period of shakeout, with greater choice and maturity.

At one level, the fight is between traditionalists and progressives. Many of the former feel that an avaricious new money culture will corrupt China and send it into uncharted waters. They see women becoming sex objects and couples devaluing each other. They see the years from 1950 to 1980 as a stable period of happiness, when moral values were predominant and families found meaning in serving the state.

"The opening up of the 1980s is only now showing itself in the way wives and husbands are chosen," says Xia Xueluan, a professor at Beijing University. "Now, when a girl meets a boy the first question is, 'Do you have a house? Do you have a car?' This causes great strains in marriages, and on husbands, to produce income. I'm worried."

Progressives feel that few Chinese want to lose recent gains like choice. Both sexes are more liberated, they feel. In the past, marriage was limited by family background. Divorce was not allowed, often not even in abusive, dead-end situations.

"In the past, there was no money and people were forced to rely on others. The choice for a better life was simple: struggle for food and shelter," says Dong Zhiying with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "We all lived together and ate at the same table; we had 'salty or sweet' depending on what was available. Now you can order your own dishes."

Many in China do feel problems with the money culture are underestimated, but don't want a return to state dictates in their private lives. They feel that an obsession with grades, colleges, and jobs has led parents to ignore a traditional emphasis on good behavior, modesty, and politeness. They are troubled by studies showing rising levels of early teen sex and recent cases of teens involved in homicides. They want a form of new moral education that teaches a humane social contract.

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