Melissa Schneider, LMSW, is a licensed relationship counselor and the author of The Ugly Wife is a Treasure at Home: True Stores of Love and Marriage in Communist China (Potomac Books, 2014), a collection of stories including the two mentioned in this article. She holds a masters in Social Work from Columbia University and helps people all over the world learn how to build great relationships. Contact her through her website, www.luvwise.com, or take her free relationship test.
The Mid-Autumn Festival, China’s ancient harvest celebration, is coming up on Sept. 8, 2014. This day, famous for its iconic mooncakes, is traditionally a time to gather under an auspicious moon with family, give thanks for crops or harmonious marriages, and pray for things like babies, a wife, longevity and a good future. Both the spiritual roots of this celebration and the crowd of family it gathers make it a popular time for weddings, and couples have tied the knot during this festival for thousands of years.
This festival will always be a popular time for matrimony, but as I explain in my new book, The Ugly Wife is a Treasure at Home: True Stories of Love and Marriage in Communist China, the meaning of those marriages, and the people who can hope to be involved, is quickly changing. Thanks to decades of gender imbalance (read: infanticide and sex-selected abortion) under the notorious “one child policy,” the men of today’s marriageable generations outnumber the women by a startling 23 million—a deletion of girls equivalent to excising the entire population of Australia. With bitter irony, China’s dearly bought sons must now face the historically unprecedented “marriage squeeze” manufactured by their parents and government. Four years ago, China’s single men made up 75 percent of all unmarried people aged 30-44, according to UN statistics. Those who are poor, rural, and unsophisticated, have the least to offer, and such bachelors stand at the back of a line so long that many will never reach the front.
In my book, I tell the story of my encounter with one of these “leftover men” in the match-making section of Shenzhen’s Lianhuashan Park. The match-making takes place in a stand of thick Chinese palms that is dominated by seven enormous message boards, each burgeoning with homemade ads detailing the height, educational background, financial status, and demographic backdrop of Shenzhen’s overripe singles. This man introduced himself as “Jason,” his English name, and we met as he rifled through a suitcase of photos of previously-hung ads, presided over by a greying woman who charged $9 for annual access to her wares.
Jason was a cheerful, thinly-muscled man of thirty-seven with crooked teeth and darker-than-popular skin. With the blunt honesty I so often enjoyed in my storytellers, he called the marriage boards a “place of last resort.” But, since he really wanted to meet a wife, he came as often as he could.
“Many of the women I call agree to meet me right here, at the message boards,” he explained. “Some are very beautiful, very fashionable, but always they have too many requirements. If I don’t meet even one, they want to stop right away.” Jason was a college graduate who worked a decent job and owned an apartment in Shenzhen—major criteria demanded by most Chinese women, and which, ten or twenty years ago, should have been enough to make him a groom. “Come on, I own a house!” he complained. “I don’t have a car but that is not a problem in Shenzhen. But these women want more than that. They want love at first sight. They want a good-looking and handsome man. They want to have feelings the first time we talk.” He was confused and frustrated by the difficulty of procuring a girlfriend. Jason described himself as a “traditional” man, and clearly believed that what he was offering should have be enough for a decent woman. But marriage was growing more complex, evolving before his eyes, and shutting him out for reasons he could not overcome.
By 2030, one in four Chinese men in their late 30s will still be single, according to a recent analysis in Foreign Affairs. By that age, any man who can marry has already done so, so this projection is bleak. What will become of China, so traditionally obsessed with marriage and grandchildren, when one quarter of its sons are unable to marry?
My book shares the stories of twenty-seven people who have lived and tried to love since the rise of Communist China. Their stories open in a time of simplicity and arranged marriages, and somersault through the turbulence of the next sixty years. Today, the world’s most populous nation is in the midst of both a marriage crisis and a romantic revolution, and nobody quite knows where marriage will end up. So, if you are celebrating this year’s mid-autumn festival, remember to eat a mooncake for China’s leftover men. And while you’re at it, offer up one of those ancient prayers for a wife.