Liz Carter and Rachel Wang

How Can a Chinese Woman Born in 1990 Already Be ‘Too Old’ for Marriage?

A Chinese bride wears her wedding ring for the first time. (Amaotou/Flickr)

This is a part of a Tea Leaf Nation series covering gender issues in today’s China. 

On February 22, a report released by Internet portal Sina made waves among China’s youth. A post on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, attracted heated discussion: “According to relevant regulations, the first marriage of males aged 25 or older and females aged 23 or older are considered ‘late marriages.’ A bit of simple math shows that 2013 is the first year that some post-80’s (those born in 1980 or later) are turning 33, and the first year that some post-90’s (those born in 1990 or later) are of ‘late marriage’ age.” Over 400,000 web users discussed the topic on Weibo, and with print media covering it as well, the subject of “late marriage” has generated discussion on a variety of issues related to marriage, age, and gender roles in China.

Surprised by the airing of a well-known but seldom-discussed tension, many Web users shared feelings of melancholy and loss. Wrote Weibo user @糖糖咖啡物语: “If the post-90’s are already late to marriage, how can we un-married post-80’s survive?” User @New-姜浩 wrote: “I always thought of the post-90’s as little kids, and now I suddenly realize that post-90’s girls are considered late to marry…I am old, old, old, old. Time is a butcher’s knife!”

Many users shared other concerns, hopes and the feelings about bearing the “post-90’s” label. Some remained optimistic. Use @Grace-贞 wrote: “[Being one of the post-90’s]…however old we are, we should never lose our ability to be patient in waiting for and loving someone. We are still young, we should do what we are supposed to – trust in love, find love and pursue love.” User @资海小鱼 commented: “Marriage? No way. I just graduated from college, how can I afford to get married? Marriage is too far away and unrealistic for me. ‘Post-90’s’ has never sounds like praise, the elderly always see us as extremely frivolous, and I don’t understand why.”

But current regulations’ classification of some “Post-90’s” are “late” to marry collided with stereotypes surrounding the generation, whose members are seen as poor planners who lead lives that older Chinese might derisively describe as “non-mainstream.” User @李芬尼 mocked both his own single status and the seemingly out-of-touch policy: “I have lived more than 20 years. Though I have not achieved anything big, I have made one single contribution – by practicing the national ‘family planning’ policy and ‘late marriage, late childbearing’ policy, I have sacrificed by precious youth for the sake of the national strategic plan.”

A young Chinese couple catches a private moment during their wedding. (Amaotou/Flickr)

In fact, several decades ago, late marriage was not considered a problem according to China’s so-called one-child policy. The concept of “late marriage” is addressed in the 1980 Marriage Law, in Chapter 2, Article 5: “Late marriage and late childbirth should be encouraged.” Though the age for late marriage was not set in the law, 23 years of age for women and 25 years for men has been the assumed standard at local levels, and has been used in such documents as the Population and Family Planning Policy of Beijing (Chapter 3, Article 16), published in 2003.

Although the original purpose of the Population and Family Planning Policy was to curb population growth by encouraging late marriage, policy-makers today have far different concerns. A recent letter signed by many prominent academics in China has also pointed out that China’s population will begin to shrink in ten years, even if its one-child policy were to be scrapped immediately. Faced with an aging population that may begin shrinking very soon, China has a vested interest in hurrying its post-90’s citizens into marriage.

In 2012, the National Population and Family Planning Commission and Jiayuan.com, an online dating website, conducted a survey on marriage with approximately 80,000 participants. Results showed that while 52% of the women respondents believed owning a house to be a prerequisite for marriage, 41% of all respondents believed that men should be financially responsible for the majority of household expenses–another 40% believe the burden should fall on whoever is financially better off. Whether this schism is due to traditional ideas about gender roles or China’s gender imbalance, the reality is that bachelors are under great pressure when it comes to buying a home. In fact, according to a CNN.com report based on a study by Columbia University Professor Shang-Jin Wei, 48% or (US$8 trillion worth) of the rise in property values across 35 major cities in China is linked to the country’s gender imbalance.

With pressure on men to buy property – and on women to help them – men are more than twice as likely to have legal sole or joint ownership of property as women, with two-thirds of men owning property compared to only one-third of women. Due to this imbalance in financial security, men have more leverage and more options in romance and relationships.

China’s gender imbalance means that more men than women between the ages of 25 and 29 are unmarried. But men in this group are not marrying women of their own age, instead searching for younger partners. Women aged 27 or older, according to the Chinese government and many media outlets, are “leftover,” less likely to find matches than their younger counterparts.

Becoming “leftover” has long been a source of anxiety among women from the post-80’s generation, but the blogosphere has shown strong pushback against claims that post-90’s are already late to the altar. Many saw through the buzzwords of ‘late marriage’ and ‘leftover’ to the heart of the matter.

Weibo user @MaDingMaLittleTiger wrote: “If the post-90’s are not in a hurry to get married, real estate won’t sell, and then developers won’t buy up property. The marriage industry will slow down, and lawyers will be afraid that with all these late marriages, people will be mature and less likely to divorce. All kinds of industries will cease to make money, and tax revenues will decrease. Without tax revenues, and unable to sell property, our leaders won’t have the excellent results they want or a high GDP. Therefore, post-90’s must be late for marriage, whether or not you’re in a rush to do it. It’s a serious social problem!”

Media and the government continue to emphasize issues like “leftover women” and “late marriage,” but critical discussion of the subjects by Internet users shows that Chinese are no longer taking these buzzwords at face value. “Sometimes,” wrote Weibo user @jiuyue2010, “Our anxieties are the product of outside forces.” As time goes on, the post-90’s late marriage crisis, both real and imagined, will continue to shed light on China’s larger issues.

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Liz Carter and Rachel Wang

Liz Carter is an editor and Senior Contributor at Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel Wang is a regular contributor to Tea Leaf Nation and a student at the University of Michigan.
  • CC

    OMG, how much presure to get married, how much presure to those young women, then they are concerned about the divorce statistic being so high, what a contradiction !!!!

  • http://simplydesigned.tumblr.com/ maybeabanana

    Because the youth blindly follow and believe in such nonsense that when they become that category of leftovers they have successfully screw themselves in their mind. Also adding oil to the fire, they make haste choices rendering a shitty marriage to appease everyone but themselves.

  • http://en.joychenyu.com/ Joy Chen

    How great that TLN is starting this series on gender! This concept of “leftover” women is at the crux of all the ancient and modern forces facing Chinese women today. On one hand is the traditional role of woman as wife and mother and nothing more. On the other hand is that Chinese women now are the best-educated people in the world: USA business school enrollment is rising due to women from China. My Chinese-language book “Do not marry before age 30″ now has sold 150,000 copies in China because women today have new dreams both inside and outside the home.

    One thing you might explore is how all this pressure to marry just for the sake of marrying is wreaking havoc in women’s lives. It results in loveless marriages, rampant divorce and extramarital affairs: in 2009 in China, 1.2 million people got married but 2.0 million got divorced. A new generation of children is growing up the children of divorce. As you point out in the excellent article above, it continues to focus on women’s worth solely from the POV of whether they’re married. And as you point out, women are smarter and wiser than that and starting to realize their own strength and happiness.

    • Archie

      That is a statistic I haven’t heard before. That is phenomenal, more divorce than marriage. And many Chinese people I know criticise the west for being so divorce-friendly. Looks like China caught up and overtook in record-breaking fashion: much like they’re economy will do soon too.

      • 013090

        That really is an absolutely fascinating statistic, and shows that something is seriously wrong fundamentally with how China handles marriage.
        I wonder how close China actually is to getting rid of the one-child policy? I wonder because this seems to be mostly focused on urbanites, where the policy is still enforced. Does it matter that much how early they get married if they are still only going to have one child? If they really want to increase birthrates, it makes far more sense to eliminate the one-child policy than to push for earlier marriages (which causes higher divorce rates and more single-parent households, which has statistically significant negative effects on children) with the policy still in place.

  • Joe

    Hi Joy, Do you have a source for this statistic? It’s hard to believe. I know places like Shanghai have a lot of divorce. but I’m not sure the country as a whole. You know I actually think for men this is all a good thing. Finally we can find women who are not greedy and are not just looking for money or someone to take care of them. In other words this is the rise of “like me for me” not what I can buy for you.

    • Joy Chen

      you can click through to the statistic from here: http://donotmarrybeforeage30.com/the-book/
      sorry it is only in Chinese. I don’t know if this has been reported yet in English. All this is very new so I am glad that TLN is taking up the charge!

  • brent

    the fundamentalist bullshit that you link to is so far towards the shallow end of the pool, it barely wets the toes.

  • brent

    Laoshi….god help us all if you are a real 老师….

  • Charles Liu

    Wait a sec, I thought the gender is so skewed in China, they’re running out of women. Wouldn’t that mean however homely you are, finding a husband is not a problem?
    Or all these exaggerated claims are media sensationalism? The truth has got to be between “running out of women” and “leftover women”.

    • Kingandrew

      Here in Shanghai we have a double bind. The city is a magnet for educated, successful women. But the men who migrate here are often construction workers. So there are lots of well-off women but not enough single men who are seen as acceptable matches. Parents demand that their successful daughters marry a man with a good job, a house, a car–but the supply of such men is limited. So on weekends the parents gather at People’s Park, with resumes and photos of their offspring, trying to find a proper mate before the young woman or man reaches age 30.
      By the way, a large percentage of the “bare branch” unmarried men live in rural areas. Many farming villages have dozens of bachelors and no single women. Obviously, wealthy women with graduate degrees are not clamoring to marry poor farmers in far-off villages, so the surplus of men is not translating into marriages just because these woman are available. The social factors make it much more complicated than just finding an unmarried person of the opposite gender.

  • MajorT

    It’s a delicate issue and media coverage can easily be more mis-leading than actually helpful in generating healthy discussions. This is extremely so if all similar articles quote one source and one source only.

  • BobTrent

    By the old system, thousands of years old, parents made the best deal they were able in obtaining spouses for their children. Married couples were supported by both families. The spouses were encouraged to love one another. Romance between spouses was nice if it did not interfere with their loyalty to one another, to their families, and to (the institution of) marriage.
    The modern idea of marriage for love has as its fruit strife and divorce. When a woman has passed her initial rush of romantic passion and the daily grind of life sets in, she decides she has “fallen out of love” and begins looking for a new source of infatuation. She strikes up a secret relationship with a poacher male who provides her with the “fix” of oxytocin, the “feelgood” hormone, and she is “in love” again.
    Like any human relations, parental guidance of marriage doesn’t always go right. Some parents think only of themselves, pushing their children into unwise marriages. But on the broad scale, parent-controlled marriage has worked well for millennia.