Er Ge, my second-oldest brother-in-law, wanted to marry for life.
His bride in 2005 was a lovely, lithe girl of 18 from Guizhou who worked in a local sewing factory, often evenings. I never forgot her almost ubiquitous smile in my presence. It was inscrutable, a smile that remained far too long to be just about happiness.
Mysterious smile or not, she must have made Er Ge happy, or at least relieved.
For years, his mother had fretted over finding him a wife — not easy, given the distorted sex ratio, especially in the countryside. Er Ge’s own personality added challenges. He was always the wallflower of the family, parsimonious with his own words, as if they were a precious currency. It took years before I even held a bona-fide conversation with him. But Er Ge’s mother didn’t want him to take years before he understood romance. So, following in a long tradition of mothers who arranged marital affairs for their sons, she made inquiries in town, and eventually found him a bride. He would be the last of the three brothers to be matched.
Er Ge is a peasant, and still resides in his family home, so they held the celebration at home too. He donned a black polyester suit and tie; she dressed in a white Western-style tulle wedding gown with roses in her flowing black hair.
She may have looked like a fairytale bride, but there is no fairytale ending here. In summer of 2006, she fled away to Guizhou without warning, and lifted cash from the family reserves to finance her escape. No one knows why she left. Or, for that matter, why she returned weeks later, begging for the family to take her back (they didn’t). Divorce — if you can call it that — came soon after in autumn. And just like that, their marriage surrendered to the gravity of the situation, just as the fall osmanthus blooms wither and drop to the ground.
In 2007, when John and I sat in his room, we could feel the desolation.
His room had been renovated, in advance of his wedding, with faux parquet flooring, a new television set and hutch, a yellow and red L-shaped flannel sofa, a glass coffee table, and endless reminders of the happy marriage that had once been. Red, heart-shaped pillows with the words “I love you” stitched in white cursive script. A clock on the wall that had stopped at 3:41 (was it the moment she left him?). A posed studio photo of Er Ge dressed in a tuxedo, kneeling down so his face rested on a hand, and his arm on his knee.
Er Ge smiled shyly in that photo — it was a different smile than his former wife’s, approachable and uncomplicated. Maybe that’s because Er Ge didn’t ask for much out of life. He never went to senior high school. He was content to live at home, just as Chinese peasant sons had done generation after generation. His work, which had always consisted of odd jobs for relatives, now involved manual labor on construction sites for Da Ge, his older brother who owned an engineering business that dug foundations for buildings and roads.
Despite his uncomplicated life, he was left with a complicated marriage — and an even more complicated room. Even John and I felt unsettled spending our vacation there. There were newlyweds in that room — John and I — but not the newlyweds it had been built for.
Er Ge made me wonder about other men striking out on love in China’s countryside.
One thing is clear — bachelor men in China’s countryside are on the rise. As Chinese families selectively abort or give away baby girls for adoption, there are fewer wives to go around, especially in the countryside where traditional preferences for boys reign. And no wife means no next generation, a dismal thought when families need children to carry on the tradition of filial piety. One 2004 story from the BBC says it all in the headline: China fears bachelor future. As this excerpt shows, Er Ge is not the only one:
As the first generation of children born under the one-child policy is only just reaching marriage age, the problem of surplus men is not yet a major one nationally.
But in some places it is starting to emerge.
And Pingling is, in this sad way, ahead of its time. Many men in the village cannot find wives. It is not because of the gender imbalance but because a huge flood washed away the villages’ fertile soil, so it is poorer than its neighbours.
But in a country where marriage is the norm, Pingling’s status as a bachelor village is a source of great shame.
“I don’t have a girlfriend, I can’t find one,” said 25-year-old Xiao Ming, blushing furiously, as he concentrates on chopping bamboo. “It’s because I can’t speak properly and I don’t understand romance.”
One old man in the village, Qiao Liangguo, has four sons – three of them cannot find wives. As he recounts his misfortune, his eyes water and he rubs a weary hand over his wrinkled forehead.
“Now in our village, we have no water, no rice and no money. Wives aren’t easy to find. My fate is bad. No one wants to marry my sons.”
If you’re a single man in the countryside, it’s getting harder find your first wife. But the question is, how much harder is it when you’ve been abandoned…or even divorced? I can’t say with scientific certainty, and there’s little out there written on the subject, though I suspect a divorce or abandonment isn’t a plus.
At the same time, Er Ge must be an unusual case. My unscientific guess is, with the paucity of wives in China’s countryside, Chinese men won’t go out of their way to divorce or separate, even when the relationship is strained. They prefer a marriage, any marriage, to no marriage at all (and its accompanying humiliation).
Fortunately, humiliation is not accompanying Er Ge’s future. His cousin introduced him to a divorced young woman, with a child from her previous marriage, and in January 2009, they wed.
Will they marry for life? Well, Er Ge is proof that marriages, even in the countryside, don’t always last forever. Still, marriage has minted a new man out of Er Ge. He smiles more, and holds his head up higher. He carries his bronzed, chiseled physique — built through years of hard labor in the field — with the confidence of a warrior. And he isn’t shy to talk or voice his opinion, even if he still does it in a voice that sounds softer than what you’d expect for a muscular man of 5’6″.
On the other hand, it depends on how you define “marry for life.” If you mean it as the existence of a marriage that sweetens life itself, then Er Ge is doing just fine.
What do you think about men in China’s countryside who can’t find a wife? Or who have been divorced (or abandoned)? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.