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China’s High-Stakes Marriage Market

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Asia Life

China’s High-Stakes Marriage Market

In China, taking the plunge is serious business. And expensive.

One of my best friends got engaged during this year’s Dragon Boat Festival. It was a touching moment, especially for her parents who have scrimped and saved and worked hard from dawn to dusk in their small inn on Shanghai’s alluvial Chongming Island to raise their only daughter. Their pride and joy, she graduated from a top Chinese university and is now an independent white-collar professional working for a Fortune 500 company in the city.

Her fiancé, an emerging mid-level manager with an annual salary of 200,000 yuan, and his working class family from Shanghai, were "reasonably" expected to make the 300,000 yuan ($48,000) down payment on a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Shanghai. Not to mention at least 100,000 yuan ($16,000) worth of gold jewelry and gems as the pin li, or engagement presents. This was the discounted price that my friend’s family reluctantly compromised to after several rounds of intense negotiations.

The young couple's devotion to each other survived all the twists and turns seen in any Chinese soap opera, such as Naked Wedding or The New Marriage Age, revolving around the eternal conflict between bread and love. 

As Chinese people become wealthier, the conflict is intensifying rather than easing. It was much simpler for the parents of post-1950s or 1960s children when their offspring finally married. During the early 1980s, the best engagement presents were called “the old three pieces”: bicycles, sewing machines and watches. Apparently, the old mainstays are far less than enough for their children.  

“The value of the engagement presents is not only a matter of face, but is also viewed as a gauge for how deeply the boy loves my daughter,” said my friend’s father. “A miser certainly will never make her happy, but we also know the saying well that ‘everything goes wrong for a poor couple’.”

It was no small wonder, then, that a 21st century national engagement present map appeared on Sina Weibo, it immediately resonated with many Chinese bachelors. The map lists basic engagement presents in 34 provinces and municipalities based on a survey of more than 300 people around the country.  

A glimpse at the map reveals all kinds of presents with regional characteristics. In Shandong province, 1.5 kilos of hundred-yuan bills are required. In Inner-Mongolia, the presents are in the form of cattle or goats in multiple numbers of 9, which sounds like “forever” in Mandarin. China’s top luxury liquor, Maotai, is standard in Beijing. Surprisingly, some rural Chongqing bachelors manage to persuade their in-laws to let them off the hook scot free. Meanwhile, Shanghai, where the threshold is 100,000 yuan and a flat, ranks unchallenged as the country’s most expensive city for engagement.

The famous dating corner at Shanghai People’s Park is the best spot to see how the city's parents “price” their grown sons and daughters. Every weekend, hundreds of middle-class parents occupy half of the park with posts of their children’s photos and resumes. Age, height, weight, income, assets and other detailed requirements are presented in the hunt for an equal match. Most of them bluntly admit that they think of love as something to buy and sell for which the dating corner is the best trading market.

“My daughter always sets her sights too high in choosing a boyfriend,” Li Fei’s mother, who has been coming to the dating corner for four years for her 27-year-old daughter, told The Diplomat. “She never liked the boys we chose for her but only eyes feelings and fate.”

But Li Fei’s 50-year-old mother has her own bottom line: native-born; minimum monthly income of 8000 yuan ($1300); living independently of his parents and owning at least one property under his name in the city. 

But Li Fei, forced to come to the corner with her mother on Sunday, said she feels like she has been “kidnapped”. “They don’t take my feelings into consideration, but think I should accept the one they choose unconditionally as long as he has a good family background.”