What can two million RMB, which is more than US$326,000, get you? In Gansu Province, it totals the average annual income of 116 people, while in Shanghai, it is about the price that tradition dictates a groom pay before marriage, which includes the purchase of a house and wedding expenditures. Small wonder that Shanghai has topped a new ranking making the rounds in China: the ten cities that Chinese most want to escape.
In this widely shared online ranking, Shanghai earned top honors because marriage is so expensive; it was followed by Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province in central China, because its “wages are too low.” Beijing comes in third for the “huge social gap between the rich and the poor.”
Shanghai is not the only city being criticized for its effect on an inhabitant’s love life. Shenzhen, ranked fourth, has been singled out for a high-speed life style that ruins romantic trust: “People treat love and marriage as a game, and consume it quickly.” Chongqing, an inland city in Southwest China, is controversially described as having “girls [that are] too realistic.”
Guangzhou follows for “lacking a sense of belonging”; Shenzhen is fifth because “love and dating in Shenzhen is just like fast-food, which is speedy but has no content.” Rounding out the list: Wuhan (“too many colleges, too much competition”); Tianjin (“high housing prices”); Hong Kong (“the intense lifestyle”); and Changsha (“the summer is too hot“).
Users of Sina Weibo have reacted to the rankings in different ways. User @肉食部落 joked: “Quit school when you are a freshman and start your own business; you could become Mark Zuckerberg in five years, Bill Gates in ten years, and finally, afford marrying a wife in Shanghai.大一就退学创业，五年干成扎克伯格，十年干成比尔盖茨，终于可以在上海娶个老婆了。” @有一搭没一搭麽_Jenny commented: “In second and third tier cities, relationship are [part of] daily consumption and men and women regard dating as part of everyday life. … In first tier cities, however, relationships are luxuries. Who can devote everything to it?在二三线城市，恋爱是日常消费品，男男女女们把谈恋爱当成生活的本身，唧唧歪歪没完没了；一线城市，恋爱是奢侈品，谁会一天到晚要死要活忙这个呢？”
Some have criticized the rankings for bias. User @草莓小水晶, who claims to be from Shanghai, wrote, “Such cases [spending 2 million yuan to get a wife] do exist, but they are not true reflections. I did not spend that much money on my wedding. Also, are cars and rings really necessities?不能说没有这样的情况，也不能反映全部吧，怎么算自己家的结婚费用都没那么多，哪怕加上房价的涨幅。还有，车和婚戒真的是必需品吗？” As @珍爱上海 angrily argued: “Did the editors do this for attention? How many Shanghai girls are paying the debts together with their men? Such sayings are harming innocent Shanghai mothers-in-law. Nowadays it is expensive to marry a wife in almost everywhere. It seems that a wedding would be more extravagant in rural areas..小编这样是否想要博取眼球，增加点击率？多少上海女生和男生一起还贷款的？这样一说我们上海的丈母娘又躺着中枪了，现在哪座城市娶媳妇很便宜？貌似村里面的排场还要大吧。这样很容易引起地域之争” Worth noting is that many mainland Chinese view Shanghai somewhat askance; the city has a reputation for snobbishness and exclusivity.
While it still remains questionable how reliable such rankings are, it is increasingly hard to deny that love and relationships in first-tier cities are becoming a “mission impossible” for the young. One of the obstacles is budgetary. According to a survey by Shi Ji Jia Yuan, a leading online dating site, in Shanghai the ideal monthly income for a boyfriend/husband is 7,268 RMB (about US$1,200) for young women born after 1990. The number for women born after 1980 is 8,562 RMB (about US$1,400) and 9,964 RMB (over US$1,600) for those born after 1970. But even in Shanghai, whose denizens have the highest average income in China, average monthly income is only 3,349 RMB (about US$550).
In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that professed ideals are not too high an ask; instead, incomes are just too low. As a netizen wrote on the website Guokr, “If you live in Beijing or Shanghai, 8,000 RMB absolutely can’t [support] an entire family, much less raising a kid and purchasing a home. I don’t think it’s too much to ask a guy to earn 8,000 RMB per month …in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.这么说吧，如果是北京or上海，月入8000绝对无法承担整个家庭的开支（而且还不算养孩子和买房）北上广的女生要求男生月入8000，我认为不算太过分，一方面这证明你有一个比较体面的工作，另一方面至少保证跟男生结婚后，女生自己的生活水平不会被拉低呵呵，也说句不好听的吧，姑娘要求你月入8000+，只是要求你挣得不比她少而已，过分么？”
The survey’s findings point to a larger anxiety that clearly manifested in the list of cities to escape: for some living in big cities, love and relationships are among the “luxuries” they might have to give up. Away from familiar social networks and beset with burdens like rising rents, many young Chinese are struggling to achieve what many metropolitan locals were perhaps born with. But returning to a more affordable home would be a loss of “face,” a defeat. As Gu Dian, a career development facilitator who frequently comments on youth struggles, wrote: “In my opinion, the ones who endure the hardest … never get a chance to take part in the dangers, the parties, the salons, the exhibits…never get to enjoy all the opportunities, possibilities, freshness, or diversity of [city life].在我看来，活得最坎坷的，是那些忍受着城市最让人痛苦的一面――做着拥挤的地铁在雾霾中穿行，然后进入一个不喜欢也无可能的工作，晚上再坐2小时的车才能回家的人，却从来不参与任何一个冒险、聚会、沙龙、展览的人。他们在承受城市最操蛋的一面，却完全享受不到城市的美好――机会、可能、新鲜、多元”
Perhaps the cruelest irony is that, as Sohu Weibo user @百子湾仔 wrote, “The cities that people most want to escape are also the ones that people most want to come to.最想逃的城市也是最想来的城市.不然房价怎么会那么高。” Even with high housing prices, polluted air, and increasingly crowded living spaces, China’s metropolises continue to tantalize, and more people are coming than going. But many who arrive in the metropolis find they can only survive, not thrive. To (truly) be or not to be in China’s big cities — that is the question.