For China’s Youth, Money Often Trumps Love in Marriage

This is the third in a four-part series of articles providing a snapshot of modern life in China in observance of October 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was published October 4, 2009 in the Insight section of the Idaho State Journal.

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Can money buy love and marriage? Anya Wang's fiancee broke off their engagement to pursue a woman with more money than her.
Can money buy love and marriage? Anya Wang's fiancee broke off their engagement to pursue a woman with more money than her.

Anya Wang, a 36-year-old human resources professional, used to believe in a loving marriage until earlier this summer. Just when she and her fiancee were going to get married within a month or so, he left her — for a woman with more money. “I once wanted to marry for love,” she admitted. “But I’m changing my ideas. Maybe I will simply marry for personal benefit.”

Wang is not alone. Caroline Jin, a 33-year-old translator, voiced a similar change of heart during a recent conversation about dating and marriage. “Before, I didn’t care about whether my future husband had money and a home,” she explained. “But now, I think I would expect those things.” She giggled with her hand covering her mouth, as if embarrassed to admit the truth.

Jin and Wang are changing the way they look at marriage. For them, and many others in China, money has increasingly edged out love in marriage decisions.

In modern China, a lot about marriage has changed. Arranged marriages have been on the decline since the early twentieth century. Young people of college age and older now date freely without the fear of supervision. Strict rules surrounding marriage — including work unit approval, invasive family background questionnaires, and physical exams — were repealed in 2003, so now couples only need to show a valid ID and pay a nominal fee to say “I do.”

So, how did money become so important in China’s marriages?

At one level, China, where the economy is still growing close to 8 percent this year, has been revolving around money ever since former Chairman Deng Xiaoping, who spearheaded post-Mao economic reforms, uttered the iconic phrase “to get rich is glorious.” Jingji fazhan — or economic development — is such a priority in China that Chinese officials are often evaluated based on the GDP of their jurisdiction, and the country even boasts top MBA schools such as the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. China’s newest architectural superlatives, from the ultra-modern Shanghai Pudong skyline to Beijing’s Olympic-era marvels, are omnipresent reminders of the deep, ambitious pockets financing them. Anything seems possible in China — and it is, if you have money.

As China is redefining itself and its skylines, the middle class is getting a redefinition as well. One that often leaves out your “average Zhou.”

The United Nations considers housing cost-to-income ratios from 3:1 to 6:1 as reasonable (3:1 is the average for the United States). But in China‘s major cities, the average housing cost-to-income ratio jumps to anywhere from 10:1 to 15:1 — and higher. It’s no wonder, then, that many young people call themselves fangnu, or “slave to the home.”

Yet, for many, there is no choice. If you get married, you’re expected to own your home, because this has been the tradition in China for thousands of years. Add a car to that equation (increasingly considered a middle-class status symbol), plus school tuition for your future “little emperor” (in general, China’s schools are not free), and you’re lucky to have something left over to buy rice.

How can this be? One reason may lie in inadequate compensation. This is an era where college-educated people, even those with master’s and doctorate degrees, are becoming the new “cheap labor” of China. People like Michael Pan, a 32-year-old college professor, and Zhang Guobin, a 31-year-old radio editor, are struggling to make ends meet, when their jobs would have provided a basic middle class existence in the US. Pan even gives evening and weekend classes to make up for his low salary. Meanwhile, today’s wealthiest individuals in China — government officials, factory bosses, and entrepreneurs — may not even have a college or graduate degree. It’s no wonder, then, that the phrase “study is worthless” surfaces in conversations in China, and many women are advised with this saying: “it’s better to marry well than study well.”

Nevertheless, while women might choose to “marry up” for financial benefit, it’s generally not an option for average Chinese men without the means to “buy love.”

Zhang is one example. In early 2006, he eventually parted ways with his

Zhang Guobin, without an apartment or car, has trouble finding a mate in a China because marriage is often based on money. But he will never settle for less than true love, even parting with his girlfriend of three years because he didn't feel she loved him anymore.
Zhang Guobin, without an apartment or car, has trouble finding a mate in a China because marriage is often based on money. But he will never settle for less than true love, even parting with his girlfriend of three years because he didn't feel she loved him anymore.

girlfriend of three years when the family expressed disapproval of his financial situation — he had no home, car or high salary. Now, he still has no new girlfriend.

What about Peter Pi, a 34-year-old entry-level bureaucrat in Beijing’s Education Bureau? He grew up in poverty in the countryside of Henan Province, lost his father when he was 26, and lives in a rent-free government dormitory because he cannot afford Beijing’s home prices. Plus, as the oldest son, he feels the pull of responsibility to care for his mother and younger brother’s family. It was too much for his most recent girlfriend, who left him this year, just after Chinese New Year.

As long as real estate remains expensive, and cars continue to be a middle class “must-have”, young people — especially young men — may be priced out of their futures, or simply squeezed to their limits.

Marriage in modern China may revolve around money, but not for everyone. Here, Michael Pan married his wife Helen because they were in love.
Marriage in modern China may revolve around money, but not for everyone. Here, Michael Pan married his wife Helen because they were in love.

Nevertheless, love hasn’t been completely divorced from marriage — especially for young men without money or status such as Pan and Pi. But when you do marry for love, it takes a certain understanding in a couple to make things work financially.

Pan can manage because his wife stays in the workforce, like many Chinese women, to help pay the mortgage. Pi recently mended ties with his girlfriend, who is now his fiancee. The fact that her parents offered to help them purchase a Beijing apartment didn’t hurt their prospects.

As for Zhang, while it’s hard to say if or when he can afford an apartment, or even a car, he still wants the one thing money truly can’t buy — real love. Over coffee at Starbucks, the romantic Zhang shyly confesses his honest desire: “I won’t date a girl unless I have feelings for her.”

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16 thoughts on “For China’s Youth, Money Often Trumps Love in Marriage

  • October 5, 2009 at 12:19 am
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    It is a unfortunate fact that there are too many gold diggers in China. Back in the old day, We Chinese practiced male polygamy. Every gold digger could marry rich. So everyone was happy. But now rich man are forced to be unfaith to their wives, and gold diggers cannot find husbands. A combination of excessive number of gold diggers and forced monogamy by law can only entail disfunctional families and undesirable social dynamics. This is the reason why you see so many illegal mistresses (二奶), and so many Chinese women married to western men.

    On the other hand, gold diggers are not necessarily bad. There are two types of them: shopaholics and misers. The first type is terrible. But the second type is the woman behind every married, financially successful man.

    Reply
  • October 7, 2009 at 7:20 am
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    No. The reason Chinese women are marrying western husbands is that Chinese men is lousy! They cheat, drink, are to proud, lazy, smokes and ar cheaop! Western guys is generos, caring, loving GOOD lovers, well educated and so on. Chinese men (most of them) are little emperors, ther momy spoiled them.

    Reply
  • October 7, 2009 at 7:56 am
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    http://shanghaiist.com/2009/03/26/foreign_dudes_out_of_luck_with_chin.php

    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/KD18Ad01.html

    I’ve got the reports and surveys that confirm my claim. Where is yours?

    The truth may be hard to swallow, but it’s the truth. There are too many greedy Chinese women who marry for the money. And you should think it this way: The gold-diggers used to eye rich foreign men, but are now turning their attention to Chinese men. The Chinamen are becoming their prey. So it’s terrible news for Chinese man. But white men with yellow fever will more likely find true love, rather than gold diggers. So this is great news for you to accept. (I take it that you are not Chinese.)

    Reply
    • October 7, 2009 at 12:35 pm
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      @Roadblock,

      I’m not sure I agree with your choice of the word “gold digger,” which suggests that these women — or men — are only out for money. It’s easy to just slap on a label like “gold digger,” but labels like this obscure the reason why money is so important in marriage. Even the Asian Times article you quote makes it pretty clear:

      Will future generations be as materialistic as their forbears in matters of the heart? Of course, they will – until, that is, people no longer have to worry about squirreling away most of their income to pay for education, health care and retirement. This propensity to save rather than spend has become a headache for economic planners now that increased domestic consumption is needed to compensate for shrinking Chinese exports in the global economic downturn.

      Despite government prodding to act more like their profligate consumer counterparts in the West, the Chinese are unlikely to relinquish their status as the world’s biggest savers until they feel more secure about the future. And Chinese women show no signs of dropping their view of well-heeled men as the best possible insurance policy for that future. Love is a luxury they can ill afford.

      Certainly, there are also many in the West (both men and women) who size up their prospective partner’s wallet before they consult their hearts. In the 19th century most Western women were even more pecuniary in their marital outlook than Chinese women are today. Read just about any European novel of the time to confirm this view, with the work of English writers Jane Austen and George Eliot (the pen name for Mary Ann Evans), among others, standing out.

      Edit: I think what’s important to emphasize is that money is a means to financial security, and that’s why people care about it in marriage. It’s not simply because they are all “gold diggers” who just want to blow their money on worthless consumer goods.

      Reply
  • October 7, 2009 at 6:04 pm
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    Oh I hate racial stereotypes…. “Chinese men are…” No that´s not rue! Some might be, of course, but not all Chinese men. My Chinese brother in law is a kind, well educated, handsome etc a dream for most every Chinese and western women. Still he has been left by 2 girlfriends that fell for some Caucasian guys. Money was n´t the issue since he is pretty well of.

    There are some bad Chinese men, but there are just as many bad western men. Many of my Russian female friends says that all Russian men drink and cheat, is this true? No, that is only their personal experience.

    I wish we all could move beyond race and only see the personality. Did I fall in love with my wife because she is Chinese? No! I did so because she is a wonderful person!

    The only race is the human race.

    That said, I agree with roadblock about his thoughts about gold diggers. I have seen many beautiful Chinese girls with old, fat Chinese men. True love? Might be! Just like it might be true love when you see CHinese girls with old, fat western guys…. But I do tend to think about gold diggers… just like I would if I saw that in my country…

    Fontsky: why write in russian? Who do you think would understand you?

    Reply
  • October 7, 2009 at 7:44 pm
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    We are not talking about race or international marriage, are we? Or at least we shouldn’t do it here. Maybe Mao mao and Michael should move their dialogue (or his monologue, if they are the same person) to that other popular post on this topic. And I think the reports I cited would shed light on that other discussion as well.

    Now let’s not get off track here. Back on the topic of gold-diggers, I understand that there is some negative connotation, or even stigma, attached to that term. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with calling people what they are. A moron is a moron. Calling him by multisyllabic euphemisms such as “mentally challanged” does not change that fact. Calling a lady the term for female dog, on the other hand, is offensive at a completely different level, and indeed severely insulting, because a human is not in fact a dog. And, by the way, I’m just a dude on the internet. Do I really have to be as PC as a bible salesman or a career politician?

    Furthermore, the criterion for gold-digger is based on motive. Whether that motive is justified by the circumstance is a different issue. And gold-diggers are typically thought of as astute and calculative. The fact that they marry with careful planning and foresight only reinforces my judgement.

    Reply
    • October 7, 2009 at 8:52 pm
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      @Roadblock and @Michael,

      I agree that there are a lot of gold diggers among Chinese women looking for a partner. But are the majority?

      Here’s a definition of “gold digger” that I found on the web:

      a woman who associates with or marries a rich man in order to get valuables from him through gifts or a divorce settlement

      I imagine this kind of woman to be a real “material girl” who sees her husband as a walking ATM machine, doesn’t save, and probably isn’t practical with money. I’m not sure the same is true for average Chinese women. My sense is, at least in mainland China, women are under huge economic pressures and they are simply looking for a man who can provide them with some semblance of financial security. I doubt most are looking to get a lot of diamonds and Louis Vuitton purses. But they do want to make sure they’ll have money to send their future child to school, savings for health care costs (they may even need to think about mom and dad, who may not necessarily have good care), and money to retire.

      But I could be totally wrong on this, and my whole interpretation of what is a “gold digger” — so by all means, you’re welcome to rebut. 😉

      Reply
  • October 7, 2009 at 7:53 pm
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    Dear roadblock: I am Michael no one else…. You could ask the webmaster to check the i.p if you don´t believe me….
    I defended Chinese men against Mao maos attach, thats all I did. O.k? I agreed with your report. So I don´t understand your reaction. Relax “dude” as you would put it…..

    Reply
  • October 22, 2009 at 1:18 pm
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    Wow Micael, those are very sick comments they said about her and him in that link. Those two people may have been acting immature but do things like “they took our babes, we should take their too” is necessary? I know you didn’t write those commons Michael but those commons on that link are so upsetting.

    Racism will end when people stop trying to preserve their race.

    Reply
  • October 22, 2009 at 2:56 pm
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    Very sound reasoning, Kevin.

    Regionalism will end when people stop trying to preserve their region.
    Nepotism will end when people stop trying to preserve their family.
    Cronyism will end when people stop trying to preserve their friendship.
    Male chauvinism will end when people stop trying to preserve their masculinity.
    Heterosexism will end when people stop trying to preserve their heterosexuality.
    Egoism will end when people stop trying to preserve themselves.

    So let’s all try to be self-destructive. If people stop trying to preserve their race, and if one race wipes out all other races, there could not possibly be any racism. So you see, the Nazis were not trying to promote racism, they were only trying to end racism by ending all other races.

    Reply
  • October 24, 2009 at 5:43 am
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    i think generally speaking chinese culture has a long way to go in terms of people knowing how to treat each other with compassion and respect. if you have never seen a relationship close up within your own family that exhibited compassion and respect, you probably won’t know how to act that way, and you won’t value those qualities either. and what is the root of love if not compassion and respect? if you don’t value those qualities, then what is there to value about marriage?: security and status, ergo: money becomes of primary importance.

    Reply
  • July 24, 2010 at 1:21 pm
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    To v: Chinese culture have a long way to go in terms of treating each other with compassion and respect??!! Do you even know anything about Chinese culture?? Chinese culture is nothing but about compassion and respect!! It is Western culture that show no respect, they are arrogant and think they know what best for others. American government is always commenting about how other countries government should behave when their own country people are going around shooting at each other and your stupid government still think it is ok for everyday folk to own a gun. Show some respect to other culture and do some research before you make a comment!!

    Reply
  • June 7, 2011 at 11:02 am
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    that’s right dan, chinese have soooooo much compassion dont you lol, what with your public executions, and cheating asses ‘everywhere’ lol.

    Reply
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