The Business of Love: Inside Shanghai’s “Marriage Market”

Female, born in October 1974. Shanghai. 1.66m in height, unmarried. PhD at the London School of Economics & Political Science, now works at a famous university in London, UK. Looking for a boyfriend who, both a Chinese or a foreigner, is best at London or within UK, Europe and North America.

Cozily ensconced between the sleek, glimmering skyscrapers that decorate Shanghai’s skyline lies People’s Square Park, a quiet refuge from the endless bustle of modern-day Shanghai. Each Saturday and Sunday afternoon, thousands of middle-aged parents flock to the park to browse countless rows of advertisements, anxiously hoping to find their child a suitable spouse. For a nominal fee, these parents can purchase the right to post a physical description of their child as well as a rundown of his or her education history, employment status, and astrological sign. The end goal in the Marriage Market is clear: these concerned parents, desperate for grandchildren, want their children to marry—oftentimes earlier than their children feel emotionally ready to do so.

Casual onlookers unaccustomed with the practice often view the Marriage Market as an amusing oddity—nothing more than a reminder of the rift in cultural norms and expectations between East and West. Yet many in recent years have looked at the Market with concern over the broader societal trends it reflects. Indeed, marriage has taken on newfound significance in 21st century China as the male-female ratio grows ever more unbalanced. There are nearly 30 million more men than women in China today, and a study at the University of Kent recently estimated that there will be 24 million unmarried men in China by the year 2020.

The gender gap in China has long been a concern of scholars and policymakers, and has only grown since the implementation of the controversial “One-Child” Policy in 1979. Given the restriction on birthing children, many parents yield to the culturally engrained mindset of zhongnan qingnu—roughly translated as placing importance on males and slighting females—and strive to raise solely male children. In the past, parents would go as far as to commit infanticide or abandon female newborns, but with the advent of sonogram technology, parents have tended to preemptively determine the sex of their child and abort females. Though the Chinese government has taken steps to counteract such practices, including prohibiting doctors from telling parents the sex of their children before birth, the human rights implications of such actions—and the international criticism that they would generate—have caused government officials to stay away from this course of action.

More than the emotional burden this gender gap creates for unmarried young adults and their families, the unbalance also has alarming implications for the future stability of Chinese society. Studies have shown that young men who are romantically unsuccessful become hypersensitive to their suboptimal life situations and more likely to undertake risks in order to improve their prospects. Included in this risk-seeking behavior is an uptick in violence, mostly in the form of reactions to perceived slights and insults. More fights and brawls have erupted in recent years, and many cities have seen increases in man-on-man assaults and homicides. Combined with the impact on quality of life that unsuccessful romance creates, this increase in lawlessness will continue to spell serious concerns for Chinese lawmakers.

Rarely does romance factor into political decision-making. Yet as Shanghai’s Marriage Market clearly illustrates, controversial laws, such as China’s “One Child” Policy, can have serious societal impacts when combined with long-standing cultural practices and expectations. The Market is a magnifying glass for the emotional strife of millions of families and unmarried adults in China, as well as for the tangible impacts of this strife on Chinese society. These cultural and sociological phenomena must be taken into greater account as China confronts the emerging societal issues that have stemmed from its historically controversial policy decisions.

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