“Who is going to marry my daughter?” Generational anxieties on display in China’s “matchmaking corners”

By Zhou Jie

NANJING, China — On the second day of celebrations for the National Day, a peculiar crowd congregated at the corner of Xuanwumen along Nanjing’s city wall.  Middle-aged residents weaved through mazes of hanging pieces of paper, some dangling on strings tied along fences and others fixed onto umbrellas.

“Male, age 30,” one sign read. “Nanjing resident, civil engineer. Owns an apartment and a car, makes 300 thousand yuan annually. Seeking a single, well-educated female resident of Jiangsu province between the ages of 25 and 28.”

The gathering of eager parents seeking marriage partners for  their children, is known as a xiang qin jiao, or “matchmaking corner.” Seen throughout the country, this social phenomenon functions not only as a venue for matching up young Chinese singles, but also as a public space for parents to cope with a collective generational anxiety and insecurity over fending for a better life for their children.

The root of this social anxiety can be found in the severe gender imbalance resulting from China’s 1978 one-child policy, which aimed to balance  population growth and economic development. Despite the policy being scrapped in 2016, serious social problems remain. By the end of 2016, there were nearly 105 men per 100 women in China. At the end of 2017, men accounted for 60 percent of all Chinese singles, a percentage that is only rising.

In addition to demographic “credentials” such as gender, age and overall health, men who own a house and car are the most popular in the marriage market, while those without such prized possessions are considered “last resorts.” A young person’s hukou, or resident registration document, is also strongly emphasized in China’s marriage-seeking markets, especially in metropolitan areas like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, which have favorable property values, job opportunities, social insurance and educational resources.

Since the 1950s, China’s official household registration policy has separated urban and rural areas, putting a damper on rapid urban migration. The emphasis on hukou status reflects considerations of regional inequalities — finding “a door to fit the door frame,” or matching couples with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, is particularly important in Chinese society.

The underlying cause of the heavy, even oppressive emphasis on material wealth and status in xiang qin jiao comes from the unique life experiences and hardships among the parental generation. These parents are often identified as the zhiqing yidai, or “educated youth generation,” which lived in extreme poverty throughout childhood during the Cultural Revolution. When they reached marriageable age, the state implemented the one-child policy. In the following decades, they became known as the “club-sandwich generation,” which had to look after both their children and their own parents. As a result, many adhered to a “safety-first” principle, fixating on material wealth to remedy such strife.

Another characteristic shared by the “educated youth generation” is that institutions organize their marriage networks. Under central government control after the Cultural Revolution, every aspect of a person’s private life, from their residence to their employment to how much they ate, was planned. For example, the All-China Women’s Federation, founded in 1949, actively offered to help young party members find partners. Today, parents tend to turn to these collective organizations to deal with their children’s marriage issues, perhaps due to those shared historical memories.

Many adult children, with more liberal marriage values, disagree with their parents’ intervention in their private lives and believe they even impose outdated wills upon them. Children may refuse to date candidates selected by parents in the xiang qin jiao to silently resist. By contrast, parents believe that their son or daughter is too young or innocent to make sound decisions by themselves. Contradictions between parents and children become acute as blind date corners become more and more prevalent in China.

The xiang qin jiao in China function as a public space for parents who belong to the “educated youth generation” to collectively cope with their generational feelings of pressure and insecurity about China’s economically competitive society. In fact, these matchmaking markets almost never lead to marriages, suggesting this phenomenon is more for the parents than for their eligible offspring.  Mutual understanding and compromise are needed to prevent parents and children from experiencing severe generational dissonance. The improvement of social insurance and welfare will help to relieve parents’ anxiety in the long term.