'Naked marriages' on rise in China

As costs soar in the cities, more couples in China are opting for 'naked marriages' - those without the once-required trappings of a house, a car, and other goods.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A future bride and groom posed for photos at Beijing’s Chaoyang Park on a summer Sunday in Beijing. More young Chinese are delaying marriage and children – or marrying without a car or house to share.

Even to the most modern of young Beijing couples, some traditions are sacred: Real estate consultant Zhu Heng and his lawyer bride, Jia Zhiwei, are postponing their wedding banquet until Mr. Zhu's parents' feng shui adviser chooses an auspicious date for it.

But helpless in the face of astronomical housing prices in the capital, Zhu had to marry the woman he loves without being able to offer her a home of their own – a standard requirement of Chinese brides down the ages.

"I feel pretty guilty about it, but it's a question of reality," says Zhu, shrugging his shoulders. "A lot of my generation understands that it's just not possible."

In China's most prosperous cities, time-honored truths are losing their luster for young adults coping with a very different world from the one their forebears knew.

Wang Yu, a secretary, and her husband, Wang Lue, a sales engineer for an electronics company in Beijing, were both born after China introduced its one-child policy in 1979. Like couples almost everywhere in the country made up of only-children, they are eligible to have two kids. But they are not going to.

"Their thinking is not like their parents'," says Feng Xiaotian, head of the sociology department at Nanjing University, who studies young couples made up of only-children. "They have the choice but they are just like their whole generation. Sixty percent of them want only one child."

For a start, they say, having one child is normal to them, since they were brought up alone. But more important, says Ms. Wang, "more children mean more pressure." She adds, "It's very expensive to raise a child here."

The cost of feeding and clothing a child is nothing compared with the cost of educating him or her in a competitive city like Beijing. Parents know that the road to the best universities begins with the best primary schools, and getting your child into one of those takes connections or money.

"I want us to focus on Yoyo and give her the best we can," says Ms. Wang. "If we had another child we'd have to cut everything we give her in half, and that would not be best for her."

Once, Chinese children were their parents' safety net, home-grown pension plans. But Mr. Wang is confident they'll be able to look after themselves. "I plan to earn enough money before I retire to take care of things," he says.

Depending on children in old age "was the way our grandmothers thought," scoffs Zhang Hong, a computer programmer who is also entitled to two children, but who has decided with his wife, Cao Ling, a TV reporter, to stop with their 2-year-old girl."Today, bringing up a child means a lot of trouble," he adds.

His parents, who never had a choice, might have liked more grandchildren. But in fact "they are happy we've had a child at all," laughs Ms. Cao. "A lot of our friends don't want any children."

Different priorities in 21st century China

Young urban parents born after 1980 pay more attention to their own well-being than earlier generations did, suggests Professor Feng. "They think that a kid's life occupies a large part of family life, so if they have two their own quality of life will go down." Their generation is more than twice as likely as the average Chinese to want only one child, Feng has found.

Zhu and Ms. Jia say they are not yet ready to have children, though they had been engaged for six years before they finally tied the knot last month.

The trouble was that not long after proposing in 2005, Zhu fell ill. By the time he recovered six months later, the price of housing in Beijing had rocketed beyond his reach. "We just couldn't afford to buy an apartment," he recalls. An average Beijing apartment costs 32 times the annual salary of an average middle-class employee.

In Chinese tradition a groom would bring his bride to his family home, where she would eventually become matriarch. In modern cities, that tradition has morphed into an expectation that the man will buy his own home – often with his parents' help – to share with his wife.

After years of waiting fruitlessly for the housing market to cool, Zhu and Jia decided to get married this year, prodded by their friends and parents and conscious of passing time.

The couple dispensed not only with the house and car that would normally come with a wedding but with the traditional ceremony, too. They paid just 9 renminbi ($1.50) for a marriage license, got their papers together, and went to the registry office. "Every girl wants a romantic wedding, but happiness is more important than anything else," says Jia. "I just want the two of us to be together."

'It even has a name - naked marriage.' 

"More and more people are getting married without a car or a house," adds Zhu. "There are so many doing it; it even has a name – 'naked marriage.' "

Naked marriage is a rising phenomenon, especially in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai where property prices have risen nearly fivefold in the past decade.

"A house and a ceremony are very important," acknowledges Li Xin, a 20-something customer service agent who married her husband, Li Lian, without either earlier this year. "But when he first said he loved me he told me all about himself, including how much he earned. I could do the [math]. I knew he would not be able to afford an apartment."

It didn't matter, though. "We both believe it's more important to find the right person than to find the right house," says Ms. Li. "We don't ask for anything more."

Mr. Li, a software engineer, says that like Zhu he feels guilty at not being in a position to meet his traditional obligations.

His wife, though, is matter-of-fact. "My parents could not help us buy in Beijing, neither could his parents, and we do not earn enough," she says bluntly.

"We solved the problem with a naked marriage. We accepted reality. There's nothing wrong with that."


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