For Whom Does the Wedding Bell Toll? Parents and Marriage in Metropolitan China

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Rui Zhong
Certificate Candidate at SAIS Nanjing

Marriage shares a complex relationship with the Chinese state. Economically, it pays for a woman to work in China. Women have been encouraged to work since the contemporary Chinese state was founded. They filled schoolhouses and universities and eventually companies throughout the 20th century. Though wage disparities and workplace inequality persist, women with the privilege and resources to pursue education and work have few barriers to finding and flourishing in many different professions.

Outside of the workplace, many patriarchal attitudes that run deep in traditional Chinese culture prevail. Marriage in Chinese society exemplifies prevailing attitudes and norms, not only between potential partners in marriages, but also by the parents, grandparents, and extended family members.

Li Xuemeng, a certificate student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, majored in Sociology at Nanjing University and has researched contemporary attitudes on relationships and matrimony in urban China. Li discussed trends and conventional notions that parents have about relationships and dating: “In Chinese culture,” says Li, “parents consider their job as complete when their children are married off.”

Unlike in America, where adulthood begins when a child moves out of her home, begins college or starts a full-time job, China also considers marriage as an additional milestone on the path to adulthood. These cultural norms explain increasing aggressive trends by parents to try to find dates or spouses for children. Outside train stations and in public plazas, it is not uncommon to find older men and women milling about, pinning biographies of their sons and daughters up and “advertising” their children’s salaries, ages, cities of residence, alma maters, and other information. They swap contact information amongst themselves, and eventually arrange blind dates, sometimes without the direct consent of children involved. Li suggests that parents consider such actions to be within the boundaries of parental duties.

Yet this patriarchal parenting contributes to the notion of 剩女 (shen nu, “leftover women”): women who are considered to be past their “prime” marriageable age. However, Li notes that the concept of “leftover woman” is not only significant in the drawing of boundaries across the sexes, but also across class. She clarifies that only daughters of well-to-do families, whose resources and privilege have afforded them the opportunity to access better education and jobs are described within these boundaries; i.e. the businesswomen, lawyers, and doctors of China conventionally. A daughter of any family that goes on to become a waitress, hotel clerk, or cleaning staff is seldom considered “left over” if unmarried into her late twenties and thirties. This notion raises questions of whether “worth” in marriage is only attributed to a woman’s perceived financial value, rather than to her physical or biological attributes.

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