Chapter 48: The Pressures of an Unmarried Chinese man in the Countryside

Chinese man holding a little baby
I wondered why Er Ge, John's second oldest brother, was so painfully quiet. Learning his story was like a window into the pressures of young unmarried Chinese in the countryside.

John’s second oldest brother, Er Ge, was like the wallflower of Chinese New Year at the family home in China’s countryside. He usually lingered in the corners with a slight hunchback and frightened, delicate eyes, like a fragile little sparrow hoping to escape the marauding glance of humans. There was a quiet, impenetrable sadness that clouded his personality, and somehow, I couldn’t get past a Ni Hao to really know the man within.

Only 26 years old, he was the only brother who still lived at the family home. He didn’t care much for study, only finishing Junior High and then going on to become an itinerant worker in the countryside, doing odd jobs for relatives and friends. But none of this seemed to explain why Er Ge withdrew from the world.

So I asked John one evening, as we sat around the hot coals and watched Chinese television. “Er Ge is so quiet. Has he always been like that?”

John shifted on his stool, and sat up, turning his face towards me. “He was always quieter than me and Da Ge — but he’s even quieter now. You know, he has reached the marrying age in the countryside, but he still hasn’t found a girl yet. It’s hard for him because he doesn’t have very good social skills.”

“I guess the family must worry about him.”

“My mother and other relatives are very concerned about him, because they think he should be married.”

I imagined that pressure — to be 26 and still not married, according to the custom in the countryside; to be reminded of this by your mother and close relatives, even as you felt helpless to solve the problem yourself.

I took a photo of Er Ge holding his nephew, Kaiqi — the son of Da Ge. His eyes fell towards the infant child in his arms, with a stoic face. I wondered about the feelings, masked behind that reticence. Was he content to hold the newest member of the family? Or was the baby simply a stinging reminder of the marriage and family life he still didn’t have?

Have you ever been surprised by the story behind the reticence of a friend or family member in China (or elsewhere)?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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7 Replies to “Chapter 48: The Pressures of an Unmarried Chinese man in the Countryside”

    1. Thanks for the comment, Louie. I know he doesn’t mind my writing, or sharing pictures — but it is thoughtful that you asked.

      Thanks for sharing Juliet. Sounds like your in-laws made a lot of sacrifices, which I often hear a lot about in China (of couples being apart to work). And, like your in-laws, they bear much of it in silence, or don’t really speak much about it. But it’s important to know these stories. I’ve heard somewhere that sometimes one generation’s sacrifice helps the next generation succeed, which clearly is the case for your husband.

  1. I hope that Er Ge finds happiness soon. He must be very shy.

    I keep thinking how brave it was for my in-laws to come here (bringing my husband and his sister with them) from Taiwan to make a new life. This after my MIL had already left China for Taiwan as a child. They made many sacrifices, both of them working multiple jobs, sometimes living apart. Eventually, it cost them their marriage. They never speak of it, though. I learned all this from my husband. Because of their sacrifices, he is a successful attorney, and loving husband and father of soon to be three children, living happily. I know that he has never forgotten all that they have done for him.
    .-= Juliet´s last blog ..A nice place to visit, but we would never want to live there (again). =-.

  2. Poor guy, I guess my husbands brothers are pretty good with the ladies, all five of them are attached now, although one waited until late 30s to get married, pretty sure under pressure to do so.
    Now his wife has health problems (still in China while he is here working) and can’t have children, so he’s pretty bummed about that.
    .-= rhiannon´s last blog ..Meems, the chatter box =-.

    1. Oops, sorry Rhiannon — almost missed your comment! Thanks for sharing! Your husband’s brothers indeed have been pretty lucky. But how unfortunate his wife has health problems that bar her from having children. I can imagine he is very upset about that.

  3. Several points.

    I am always leery when vacationing foreigners go to someone’s home and snap away pictures and glean family stories from them as if they were conducting an anthropological study. Of course, in your case, it’s different because you were dating a family member. But still…

    Speaking of anthropologists (and sociologists), the issue of single men who can’t afford to marry in China is a hot topic and has SIGNIFICANT social (and by extension political) ramifications for the country in the next 15 to 20 years. Already, the shortage of women in the country is evidenced by numerous cases of girl and woman trafficking. Short of importing foreign women into the country as brides (as are the cases in South Korea and Singapore), the sex imbalance is a demographic ticking time bomb for China.

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