Of China’s Countryside Bachelors, and One Chinese Man’s Divorce

Er Ge in Yaolin Cave in Zhejiang Province, less than a year after his wife abandoned him.
Er Ge in Yaolin Cave in Zhejiang Province, less than a year after his wife abandoned him.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Of China’s Countryside Bachelors, and One Chinese Man’s Divorce

  • October 19, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    I was just sitting here thinking how much I love this article and wondering what kind of meaningful comment I could add, and then I noticed my blog on your blog roll – thank you for that! As soon as we can access blogspot again here in China I will start posting on that blog again, promise.

    And there you go, that’s my meaningful comment. 🙂

    • January 12, 2010 at 4:01 pm

      Thought I’d add to this conversation by linking to the article I found today: China to be short 24 million wives, study says.

      This is the saddest part of it:

      The official Global Times newspaper quoted researcher Wang Guangzhou as saying men with lower incomes would have trouble finding spouses in rural areas, leading to crime problems. The newspaper also said abductions and trafficking of women were widespread in areas with excess numbers of men.

  • October 20, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    It’s hard to think of what can be said in this situation–it’s incredibly unfortunate and often unfair, but there’s also not a lot that can be done. You reap what you sow. Though what these women do is cruel, and I’m not condoning what they’ve done, I can almost see WHY they do it. In China, it’s mostly about looking out for number one. Life is tough; if there’s a financial opportunity, take it.

    It’s interesting to me to see the women holding the power of choice in marriage here. I wonder if the government will do anything about it? I wouldn’t put it past them to start sending women to the countryside for marriage. It wouldn’t be the first time in China’s history.

    Or maybe it’s time for women to take multiple husbands?

  • October 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

    So let’s legalize prostitution, and human trafficking from our neighbors. China is surrounded by so many even poorer “human resource rich” countries. Some of these nations are Islamic, others may have lighter or darker skin-colors. But there are still planty of Asian countries that are suitable sources of wives: Vietnam, North Korea, Mongolia, Burma, Laos, etc. Or, better yet, we can wage a bloody war against, say, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the Russian Far East, or anywhere that is egregiously underpopulated. Men would die conquering the new frontiers. But that would solve both the sexual imbalance problem and the overpopulation problem, killing two birds with one stone.

  • October 22, 2009 at 8:54 am

    You know, there might be a silver lining in this. The looming disparity between men to women under 30 force the Chinese to treat women better or they will leave to another man who will do so. As a result the next generation of Chinese won’t abandon girls when they are born and we won’t see the big difference the sex ratios.

  • October 27, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Why do you even give room to this troll?

  • November 27, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    I don’t think that the gender imbalance can be corrected, especially not with the rising middle class. It goes beyond just rural men, and even beyond the large class of loveless migrant workers in big cities. Marriage as an institution is under assault around the globe, so the “they” (whoever “they” are) that are in charge of policies that might address the disparity in China are facing a losing battle. China now has: millions and millions of young women with fast rising earning power, newly minted passports (that they can use in a fast rising variety of destinations), and far broader horizons than their mom’s had. Why should they get married young, and why should they get pregnant right after getting married? Not only are there “not enough” women, the women that are onboard now aren’t going to have kids so early like before. I can only think of a few Chinese women I know who willingly went to the altar before 30; all the rest were guilt-tripped, knocked-up, or met a dashing young man from Jiaotong (for example, haha) who happened to own a car AND an apartment and suddenly their heart melted.

    All the rest of the young women I know are not interested. Why would they be? They know they can pick and choose when the time comes.

    Immigration: Japan didn’t do it, Korea won’t do it either. China will have to allow large scale immigration to combat this problem; part of the difficulty is that everyone assumes that there will be more Chinese to fill the dwindling demographic in the future, but this cannot be. The only reason that the U.S. isn’t in the same boat as most of western Europe, Japan, or Korea is because of large scale immigration, both legal and illegal.

    Chinese need only look at their buddies across the sea and pennisula to see what happens to countries that stubbornly refuse to allow immigration. Everyone in japan is carbon-dated.

  • November 27, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    When millions of us Chinese are being forced to abort our own Chinese babies because of the one-child policy, you think it would be fair to let in large scale immigration?! So the less responsible, less self-disciplined races of the world have the right to reap the benefits of our sacrifice? You think they are entitled to export their population problems to us? This is crazy! There would be a revolution or a popular xenophobic movement, if that ever happens. There is simply not enough room in China for everyone, not even for our own children, or at least the government does not think so. And unlike white Europeans, we never colonized overseas, or enslaved other races. So we do not owe anything to anyone from other continents. They should stay where they are from, or at least away from China.

    If you study Chinese history, it is not difficult to notice that the main theme has always been a struggle against various sorts of “barbarians” or 蛮夷戎狄, 鞑子, 鬼佬, etc. The communists would like you to believe that class struggle is what always goes on, but that usually only happens every 400 years or so. The reality is that our forebearers constantly found themselves slaughtering “barbarians”, occupting their land, taking up their women, fending off their invasion/immigration with the Great Wall, or revolting agaisnt their minority rule, and so on. This has been going on since the war against Chi You some 5000 years ago. Ever since then, we’ve had 犬戎灭周、白登之围、五胡乱华、安史之乱、靖康之耻、崖山之难、扬州三屠、嘉定十日、鸦片战争、八国联军, and countless other incidents. The most recent major episodes of this sort were the revolution of 1919 against the Manchus, and the war against Japan. More importantly, most of such things, commited by the Chinese against the “barbarians”, never even made into history, for the Chinese used to be the only nation keeping records in east Asian, and one tend to forget his own wrongdoings, but not wrongs against himself. But remember this is not only ancient history. Just look at the resentment against Japan among the Chinese youth today, or the violent tension between Han Chinese and some not-so-sinicized minorities that are living inside China already, such as the Tibetans or the Uyghurs. It is not that easy for a nation to give up its xenophobic tradition of millenia.

    If you know biology or evolutionary anthropology, you should look at human genetic studies on different ethnic groups. Apart from rare cases like the Basques or the American indians, Han Chinese are usual found to have the least Y-chromosome diversity, even less than groups that are geographically more isolated, like Tibetans or Japanese. And only in China, can one find such close mapping between Y-chromosomal genotypes and surnames. So I guess the persistent exclusiveness, xenophobia and homogeneity of us Chinese are, to some extent, confirmed scientifically. (example http://www.pnas.org/content/98/18/10244/F1.expansion.html)

    So my best advice to any non-Chinese, non-east-Asian thinking about migrating to China is to perish the thought. You will probably not be welcomed, and you and your offsprings will never fit in. If you are an ethnic Chinese, there should be no problem. If you are not Chinese, but if you are from a neighboring country, that is not too Indian, too Islamic, or too white, basically if you are a yellow person, so to speak, you can probably find your ethicity listed as an official minority in the Chinese province across the border. So you’d probably have a relatively easy time fitting in, as long as you don’t resist the language and the culture. Otherwise, you really don’t have any chance. The Chinese do not like integration, and they have little interest in assimilating people who are geneologicaly too removed (i.e. look too different) from themselves.

    As to the one-child genocidal policy, the current consensus seems to be that it ought to be abolished, or significanly modified. And I believe the government will have to change it within the next decade. Hopefully I will get to have more than one child when I get married.

  • January 12, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    If I have to make a guess, I think what might happen in the coming decades is more of the inter-generational couples, older male-younger female but also vice versa, possibly but I’m biting my tongue on this one, possibly a little more acceptance of homosexual couples, and more non-Chinese brides for Chinese males.

    I’ve gotten to a point where realistically, prostitution and other issues are going to be around for some time. I don’t find it comfortable at all but that’s kind of how life is and we just have to keep on facing reality and deal with them. What a lot of people want, not just Chinese but almost every group, is that each male be in a stable relationship with at least “one” official partner if you all know what I mean.

    Just my guess.

  • June 8, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    women today think that they have everything or even wanting to be like men that want many husband. i really like to see that happen and see how people will react when they see that women have five kids and five husband i wonder how would that feel. i guess women like that kind of thinking nowaday

    ellis says:
    October 20, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    It’s hard to think of what can be said in this situation–it’s incredibly unfortunate and often unfair, but there’s also not a lot that can be done. You reap what you sow. Though what these women do is cruel, and I’m not condoning what they’ve done, I can almost see WHY they do it. In China, it’s mostly about looking out for number one. Life is tough; if there’s a financial opportunity, take it.

    It’s interesting to me to see the women holding the power of choice in marriage here. I wonder if the government will do anything about it? I wouldn’t put it past them to start sending women to the countryside for marriage. It wouldn’t be the first time in China’s history. Or maybe it’s time for women to take multiple husbands?


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