SHANGHAI--An unfamiliar caller talked in a high-pitched voice and startled me with an unexpected proposal.
“Please meet my daughter as she is returning home from Beijing,” the woman said.
After a pause, the caller sensed my bewilderment and said, “We met at the 10,000-people matchmaking event, remember?”
It was the third time I have been offered to meet a prospective bride since covering that event in November.
Young Chinese are aggressively seeking potential spouses, particularly those with high incomes, new homes and other symbols of wealth. In a society where economic inequality is widening, love can often take a backseat to material goods and status.
Parents are also playing a leading role in getting their children hitched—to the right people—even if their meddling strains relations in the family.
About 12,000 young people dressed in their best outfits inundated the matchmaking venue in November in a Shanghai suburb featuring rows of Western-style homes. It was the first one organized by the Shanghai municipal government to provide opportunities for young people in the city to meet prospective marriage partners.
About 5,000 parents also attended to size up the potential mates for their children.
The action was fast and furious. Parents bombarded the young adults with queries about their jobs and personal questions. Introductions were made and business cards exchanged hands.
Although I told people there that I was covering the event as a reporter and that I am married, some obviously did not care.
When I met the caller with the high voice at a café in central Shanghai, she introduced herself as Wu Qi, 60. She then introduced me to her 31-year-old daughter, a slender woman with fair complexion and long hair, who seemed content on letting her mother do all the talking.
“You have male friends, right?” Wu asked. “Why don’t you introduce one of them to my daughter?”
Wu explained that her family moved to South Africa in the 1990s to earn money in the retail clothing business and to give the daughter an education in English.
When the family returned to China three years ago, they found themselves engulfed in the heated competition to find a marriage partner for the daughter, who now works at a foreign financial institution.
Profession, income, size of the new home and type of car are high on the check list in deciding the suitability of a marriage partner.
Wu says she fears losing face if her daughter winds up marrying someone below standard.
“A marriage candidate should have certain levels of income and social status,” Wu said. “What the Chinese dread most is that others will see them as poor. (He) definitely should be wealthy.”
Feng Jingwen, 59, also attended the matchmaking event, scoping out candidate husbands for her 23-year-old daughter. The mother spoke to male passers-by outside the venue, saying, “My daughter is light-skinned and very pretty.”
When she asked one man about his height, and heard that he was 175 centimeters tall, Feng bluntly said: “Only 1 cm taller than my daughter. No good at all.”
According to Chinese government statistics, single men and women in their 30s or older accounted for 18.7 percent of all unmarried people in 2005. The ratio shot up to 30.8 percent in 2010.
Wu Di, a counselor on relationships in Shanghai, said people’s expectations for marriage partners are growing as a result of the remarkable economic development in coastal China.
“The bar people are setting for marriage is getting higher and higher,” Wu said.
But some young Chinese feel suffocated under the pressure from their parents to marry well.
Gao Shuang, a 27-year-old woman on the career track at a real estate company in Qingdao, Shandong province, said she came to Qingdao to escape from her parents in Shanghai last year.
Gao, who is 172 cm tall and has long hair, said she was about to marry a public servant from Shanghai whom she met over the Internet two years ago.
She thought he was the ideal partner. He had monthly salary of 7,000 yuan (about 90,000 yen or about $1,125), earned “slightly more” than she did, and was “slightly taller” than Gao. And his parents were preparing to provide their son a new home, in line with Chinese traditions.
But Gao ended up dumping the public servant after receiving an e-mail from him in January last year that was addressed to another woman.
Her mother then began to press her to attend matchmaking events.
“You should hurry,” her mother said. “Otherwise, there will be no good catches left.”
Every day, Gao was forced to listen to her mother talk about marriage. It became too much for her, so she left Shanghai for the first time.
Gao said she thought about dating one of her male colleagues at work.
But her mother, who still calls her at 8:30 p.m. every night, rejected the idea.
“It is absolutely unacceptable,” the mother said.
The problem with the colleague, according to the “standards” of Gao’s mother, was that he probably could not afford to buy a new home in more expensive Shanghai, and that Gao would be unable to take care of her parents if the couple settled in Qingdao.
Gao, who thought her mother had a point, began to avoid the colleague.
Many young Chinese say they want to find marriage partners on their own. But after more than three decades of China’s one-child policy, these only-children feel obliged to please their parents out of respect for the years of being pampered by them.
The Asahi Shimbun interviewed 61 unmarried men and women in their 20s and 30s in Shanghai in late April, and found that 75 percent of them wanted a new home when they get married.
Fifty-four percent said they feel pressure to marry people of their parents’ choosing.
Shen Yifei, an associate professor of sociology at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the emphasis on the material aspects in marriage has much to do with a dwindling sense of security in Chinese society, which has been rapidly aging since the introduction of the one-child policy.
With few social security programs available, a vast majority of parents assume their children will take care of them after retirement.
“So they believe they are entitled to meddle in their children’s search for marriage partners,” Shen said.
In addition, the children do not want to deviate from the norm because they have been dependent on their parents for psychological and material support, according to Shen.
One reason Chinese regard a new home as essential to marriage is the precarious situation surrounding tenants in the nation.
Although the rights of tenants are guaranteed in Japan, it is a different story in China.
Many tenants in China have been forced to comply with their landlords’ demands to leave immediately, even before the rental contract expires.
The current situation is in sharp contrast with the era of the socialist planned economy, under which China’s older generations had lived.
The older generations were provided with housing units by their employers, such as state enterprises, through the rationing system and had to pay only a fraction of what it costs to rent a home today.
That system evaporated after China switched to a policy of reform and openness in the late 1970s and the market economy took root.
In large Chinese cities, a home costs 30 to 40 times the average annual income of young workers. Most often, their parents cover the costs by forking out a large chunk of their savings accumulated over many years.
A 22-year-old student from Zhejiang province who replied to The Asahi Shimbun interview said a prospective marriage partner’s credentials are a crucial.
“I want to give my child imported powder formula,” she said. “It costs money to buy safe food in this country, so I cannot help but think a lot about the marriage conditions.”
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