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Inside the Middle Kingdom

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Modern Chinese Courtship. Is it really that modern?

Now that I have lived in China for two years, I have had the opportunity to witness how the practice of dating and the relationship dynamic between the two sexes works. Still, I feel I need to make a preemptive disclaimer to this blog posting so that no one gets the wrong idea. My reflection on modern Chinese courtship is by no means meant to be a criticism of how things are done nor is it reflective of how it works in all relationships in this country of 1.3 billion people. I live in an affluent, modern city in China and the people I have the most contact with are students as well as well-to-do Chinese- many of whom have traveled outside the country and been exposed to ideas and lifestyles of different cultures. I am taking a critical look at how I understand courtship to work in China (albeit from a limited perspective) and am sharing my honest curiosity with how it is different from the expectations and experiences of my own cultural background in this very day and age. In learning about how dating practices and courtship roll here, I have found myself sometimes perplexed as well as offended (and I am not proud of this). But I am making an effort to understand and be sensitive to how and why the practice must work a certain way in China. As an outsider who is also not in a relationship with a Chinese person, I have the luxury to be curious about it and know that this will not affect me personally. Still, I think there are things I can learn about the traditional expectations in Chinese courtship.

Part of the plan

Starting from a young age, many Chinese boys and girls seem to have their lives mapped out for them so that intended milestones will be reached at the right times in their near as well as distant future. The focus of the first 18 years of a young person’s life is education, education and education! From a young age, Chinese boys and girls attend private tutoring and classes in the evenings and weekends to get ahead in math, Chinese and English. Activities common in many American teenagers’ lives such as socializing and dating, part-time work, participation in sports, volunteering in the local community, or just loafing around on the couch in the afternoon with a bag of Doritos while watching Scooby Doo are discouraged and most likely shelved unless they contribute to a child’s chance of getting into university (which they don’t if the child attends university in China since the college entrance exam is the only determinant for admission into Chinese universities). The push to learn all the time will hopefully ensure that son or daughter will perform well enough on the college entrance examination at the end of high school to gain a coveted spot at a university which will then ensure employment in better paid jobs post university and will therefore also provide mom and dad and son or daughter with future financial security.

Female students on one side of the room
and the male students on the other.

A secondary result of Chinese teenagers neither having time nor being allowed to date while in high school results in what I call the “late bloomer syndrome” among Chinese university students. Whenever I have new first year students in my classes, it’s not uncommon to see the female students sit on one side of the room and the male students sit together on another side of the room. When I encourage students to branch out and work with new students, some even being of the opposite sex, there is a lot of juvenile giggling and reluctance that reminds me of the attitude of 10 and 11 year olds in the US.  

And they lived happily ever after..(Picture courtesy ChinaSmack)
Many of my female students seem to have a naïve, happily ever after, Hollywood notion of romance and dating where boy meets girl, boy and girl like each other, boy and girl kiss and say they love each another, and then boy and girl live happily ever after. Ideally, boy is also gao fu shuai or tall, rich and handsome.

I’m still stumped with what the male students want and envision. Some seem to feign disinterest and have an air of “I’m too cool for you” (but that may just be how they are to me, their teacher). Others seem willing to meet a nice girl and fulfill her fairytale boy-meets girl fantasy.

Some of my first year students do end up pairing up with one another. I have known some of my female students to confide in me that they hide their secret of having a boyfriend from their parents. The result of mom and dad finding out is either that they will not be pleased and demand an immediate break-up or they may expect things to quickly get serious between daughter and her boyfriend. Considering it’s the first time dating for some of these young adults, why shouldn’t they be able to enjoy it and savor it or even wallow in pity if there is eventual heartbreak, without the meddling and interference of mom and dad or others?

There can be complications for young people trying to date in a rather traditional society. Like in many countries, if you are a college student, you will share a rather cramped dorm room with two or three other students and the dorm will only have room for two or three bunk beds, desks and clothes, not to mention that the dorm entrances are strictly guarded by matronly aunties who will not permit the opposite sex to enter even to work on an assignment. Young couples who want to get some alone time (if you get my drift) will have to get a little creative. This has led, for example, to the unfortunate event of a young couple at my university getting caught on film in an indecent and uncompromising situation (the video briefly went viral on Youku, the Chinese version of Youtube). It is also not uncommon for me to see students smooching in the dark corners of the courtyard in front of my apartment building when it is dark at night. Near the university campuses, it is also common to see little old ladies conspicuously holding up small signs advertising rooms that can be rented by the hour. 

The birds and the bees being a taboo and uncomfortable topic and there likely being no sex-ed in schools may also result in some unplanned pregnancies. This can have hugely damaging consequences for the female, leading to a tarnished reputation for not only her but also her family. To capitalize on this, there is no shortage of advertisements and signs for “women clinics” where typically either a smart, professional and confident looking male doctor poses in the photo for the clinic or a sweet, doe-eyed, rosy-cheeked nurse gently smiles and welcomes you to stop by the facilities to resolve your problem.


The dating game

The so called “dating game” in China does not seem to be a game at all. In fact courtship and the intended result- marriage, are all part of the mapped out plan which will affect not only the individuals who are dating but their families as well. China is very much a family-centric culture and various rites of passage such as dating need to be considered from the standpoint of the family.

The Chinese definition and notion of dating are very different from those of American culture. It’s my observation that the amount of time from when two go on a first date with one another and then become a defined couple is rather short. Therefore, if I were to “date” a Chinese person and use the Chinese logic for dating, I would seriously have to consider whether I want to possibly build a future with this person BEFORE I even went on my first date with him. Whereas my American frame of reference for and concept of dating means I see a person a few separate times, maybe even over the course of several months with the goal of determining whether I like the person enough to get more serious or whether I just want to have fun and even see other people; Chinese etiquette seems to dictate that one or two dates justifies a full on, serious committed relationship. True- I may have a slightly skewed perspective with no first-hand experience to speak of. I do find it sweet, well-meaning but also comical though when I mention to a Chinese friend that I have dated someone a couple of times and one of the immediate responses is something like “Great! When are you going to get married to each other?” whereas non-Chinese friends may only delicately ask after about six to eight months, “So, how are things going with what’s his name? Are you guys an item now? Are things getting serious?” Six to eight months seems like a lifetime as far as Chinese etiquette goes. I would think the modern Western way of dating may be viewed as immoral, loose and even to some extent pointless if you’re not considering marriage on the first date.

With many younger Chinese people, I notice a sense of urgency to find a mate and get married. I believe this is because of the mapped out plan that has been drafted for them at a young age in order to ensure security and wellbeing for her or him and more importantly her or his family. As I mentioned, certain milestones may be expected to be reached by a certain age. After the first milestone of university or employment is achieved, the next step in the equation is starting a family so that mom and dad can soon ease into retirement, be cared for by their son and daughter-in-law, and gaily spend their twilight years with a cherubic grandchild. I am in awe and admiration of Chinese sons’ and daughters’ strong sense of duty and honor to fulfilling this commitment to their parents. Filial piety and contributing a part in the family unit is a deeply entrenched part of the Chinese mindset and has been for thousands of years.

An activity I recently did with some of my students demonstrates how important marriage and starting a family is to some young Chinese adults themselves. Some students played brokers and sold guarantees for example for happiness, good health, longevity, adventure, career, family, as well as marriage to the clients who had a fictional sum of money to buy the guarantees. Students were allowed to bargain and negotiate the terms of the guarantees. Indeed, the guarantees that sold the most and without extra negotiation were the marriage and family guarantees. I was even surprised that the career guarantees didn’t sell very well. The happiness guarantee, for example, also didn’t sell as well because students assumed that if you had a guarantee for a good marriage and family, then happiness would be a given. A career was not deemed as necessary if a stable, happy marriage provided a sense of purpose and security instead. Guarantees for patience or adventure, for example, hardly sold at all. 

The battle of the sexes: Who wears the pants?


Guys- do you have your real estate in place?
Admittedly, I do cringe sometimes when I hear young Chinese friends lament that they’re getting too old at 25 or 26 and should now have been married. I believe the pressure is felt greatly among males (and this may include Western males if they have a Chinese girlfriend). Chinese males are expected to provide and offer security to any prospective girlfriends who will hopefully become future wives. The security comes in the form of real estate property for a future home. If you are a young Chinese, eligible bachelor you better hope that you have enough money saved up to buy that house because some eligible bachelorettes will not give you the time of day otherwise. Some young men’s parents will already have been saving for him so that the property can be built and ready when their son comes of age for courtship. I have known both Chinese men and Western men dating Chinese ladies who have been pressured about the house issue pretty early on in their relationships by both the girlfriend and her parents. Western male friends have told me of being unexpectedly grilled by the parents of girlfriends or even of girls with whom they have informally gone on a couple of dates on how much money they earn, whether they own any property outside of China, and on their future plans and ambitions. At times I think my Western brothers have it made in China but this is one issue for which I do not envy them. I am happy to escape such inquisitions.

In addition to the property issue, Chinese men do seem to be protective and very doting of their girls and I do believe it’s frequently expected of them. Don’t be surprised to see the occasional Chinese guy carrying his girlfriend’s purse, tying her shoe or buying her expensive jewelry or a mobile phone to show his affection. I have mixed feelings about such acts. Personally, I prefer to carry my own purse or bag. That being said, I can see how some women may find it chivalrous, considerate and caring to have their boyfriend or husband carry their bag and buy them something pretty or useful.

That's right, I'm carrying her purse. And??
(Pic courtesy of Chinesepeoplehavenostyle)
While it may seem I have described a relationship dynamic where the Chinese woman very much wears the pants and that the man must demonstrate his potential and devotion through small acts such as purse carrying to grand gestures of buying a home, I believe that this is an important step in giving the man the upper hand. I think many Chinese men feel that their manhood is being preserved by playing the protective and breadwinning role. For some men it may also be shameful to “marry up” to a woman who is more educated and comes from a wealthier family. Some men may even have power and insecurity issues if the woman is taller (the height and income things contribute to my theory as to why it is so rare to see Chinese men together with foreign women).

Chinese women also experience pressure from the fact that age 25 and older is sometimes considered “over the hill”. It sadly seems that the closer a woman approaches to 30, the chances of her being suitable for dating and marriage begin to wane. Recently, I heard a nightmare story about a Chinese woman who was approaching her late 20’s. Her well-meaning parents were so distraught that their daughter would miss any opportunity to marry and made arrangements for her to marry a man who apparently came from lower standing. The daughter consented to marry this man she hardly knew. The marriage sadly fell to pieces shortly thereafter. The husband was so ashamed of his lower standing and apparently was downright cruel and nasty to his wife. They are now divorced and apparently the woman is now living back with her parents who owning up to their well-meaning mistake, take full responsibility for their daughter again. 

I understand that divorce is also very much stigmatized in some parts of the country and within some social circles. This is particularly an issue for Chinese women who sadly may be viewed as “damaged goods” if divorced (and I realize that this is not only a concern in China). But therein lies the logic of a dowry or the insistence of real estate for a woman when she marries. A hefty dowry is a like an insurance policy that financially holds the husband liable to his wife and her family as well as their honor and reputation. At the same time, if the marriage should fail, at least she may have a little nest egg to support her and her parents if she cannot easily marry again. The belief (and sadly sometimes the truth) is that a man can more easily marry while a woman cannot, especially given the stigma that may follow her as a divorcee.

Divorce rates in China have increased in recent years. A 2011 article in the China Daily cited that divorces in China increased by 17% in the first three months of 2011from a year earlier (as cited in Huffington Post). Before 2001, couples had to get approval from their employers for a divorce. But perhaps it is also a sign that it is becoming more acceptable, at least in larger, urban areas. Maybe there’s indeed hope for many of these broken hearted to have a second chance at love and happiness.

Whether by choice or not, more and more woman are also going the route of the career track first before the husband and mommy track. Such women are said to have “missed the boat” as they pursue fast-tracked careers in business or academia. These successful women, while no longer an anomaly, are thought to be married to their careers and are called sheng nu or left-behind women.

2011 sheng nu anthem lyrics: Hurry move aside and don’t block my way, I also have a car, 
I also have a house, as well as RMB in the bank. (Picture courtesy Chinasmack)

Making sense of it all

Sometimes I am taken aback with how 1950's it is in even modern, urban China.  I may scoff at the pressure Chinese men must endure regarding the property and equity issue but certainly can understand a woman's desire as well as that of her parents' for their daughter to be paired with someone who is financially sound and able to provide for her. As for the sheng nu, they certainly are demonstrating that they can make it on their own without the money and finances of a partner. Perhaps such women can focus then on finding a partner that will be a good companion for them on an emotional and intellectual level. At the end of the day, don't most of us long for a nice companion with whom we can fill our days? The fairytale, happily-ever-after romance so many of my female students long for seems to be the ideal no matter where you are in the world.


Further Browsing and reading:

For one perspective of a young Chinese man and his struggles with being an eligible bachelor:
Wife vs. House: Chinese Men Discuss What They Can Afford

For a heated discussion about sheng nu:
“No Car No House” Song, Chinese Leftover Women Version

What do some young Chinese people look for in a partner?
Leftover Men & Leftover Women Rating Surveys

For a look at the decline of marriage in Asia:
Asia's lonely hearts

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