Youche youfang, fumu shuangwang. (Looking for a male who owns an apartment and a car, but whose parents are deceased.)
Famous rhyming marriage market ad, anonymous
I am forty-two, have never been married. I am looking for a suitable partner who must be a committed Christian. This is the only non-negotiable standard. I don’t think it shameful to marry late or not to marry.
Marriage market ad by a Christian female, anonymous
Marriage Norms and Social Change
For Chinese born in the 1950s, their primary considerations for finding a marriage partner included “political appearance” (zhengzhi mianmao) and the family’s “class category” (jieji chengfen). Family members and relatives functioned as match-makers. Danwei (work unit) cadres were often involved in formally introducing the couple and chairing unadorned marriage ceremonies, with the couple vowing to a picture of Mao. For the generation born after 1979, level of education, income and career paths became priorities when seeking a mate. With the disintegration of the danwei system, marriage ceremonies became more personalized to the point of being lavish. For young people born after the 1990s, sights are set on potential mates who own real estate and automobiles. A young man is considered unmarriageable if he does not own an apartment and lacks a good career. Among women, popular slogans like, “I would rather cry inside a BMW than laugh on a bicycle,” are embraced undisguisedly. These secular trends and highly materialistic mindsets are also exerting influence on Christians, especially young members of growing urban churches.
With Christianity spreading in China, marriages are taking on new ethical norms among the expanding groups of young Christians, although not without challenges. The two marriage ads quoted above present a sharp contrast between the popular consumerist values and the unusual but emerging Christian values. Different aspects of marriage and family life are restructured among young Christians, including matchmaking, wedding planning, premarital sex, childbearing and rearing, and bioethics such as abortion. Now, intergenerational differences have never been more noticeable.
Parental Pressure in Finding a Match
Remaining single is not encouraged in Chinese culture; it is actually considered a dishonor to one’s parents. When it comes to putting high pressure on young people’s marriage choices, traditional Chinese parents are in a class by themselves. Most of them grew up during the communist era when marriages had to be approved, if not arranged, by parents and work place authorities. Thus, they are prone to become manipulative when it comes to their children’s marriages, including the spouse, details about the ceremony, and even when to start a family.
Each Spring Festival, many urban-dwelling professionals in big cities return to their small towns or rural hometowns for the annual family reunion. A Chinese poem expresses the sentiments aptly as “feeling twice homesick on festival days.” For single females in the church, it is often the most difficult time when they again face the demanding pressure of parents who either rebuke them for their singleness or force them to go on arranged dates with male strangers. Someone even rewrote the poem as “being twice as forced to marry on festival days.” It is important to note that Spring Festival days already tend to witness more friction between young Christians and their families because it is a time when ancestor worship and other superstitious rites are widely practiced. By not participating, Christians are considered unfilial or disrespectful of their elderly parents. Such discord easily stirs up arguments about delayed marriage choices. The unique demographics of the urban church, such as its reversed gender ratio (more women than men), also exacerbate these challenges.
In today’s China, weddings have become times to show off achievements and to “earn face.” At some weddings, traditional elements are blended in, such as dressing up in traditional Chinese gowns and kowtowing to heaven and earth (bai tiandi) and deceased ancestors. Many families use the wedding occasion to collect gift money by inviting as many guests as possible. For most young Christians, extravagance and superstitions are things they want to avoid at their weddings.
With an increasing number of young Christian couples getting married in a religious context, more and more specialized services have emerged, such as wedding planners and photographic studios. Since Christians generally avoid extravagant shows of status and wealth, these services offer basic and plain ceremonial elements. Such simple style sometimes attracts an unbelieving crowd, which comments on the Christian ceremony’s “meaningfulness.” Sermons related to Christian marriage envelop the audience with an unusual understanding of one of life’s most puzzling dilemmas, and these often serve as contact points for later church outreach activities.
When 28-year-old Yuan presented his parents with his church wedding plan, they objected very strongly. To Yuan’s father, his son’s conversion was outrageous, and a church wedding smacked of open defiance, not to mention a humiliation of his public reputation. Yuan’s parents considered it shameful to invite friends and relatives to a Christian wedding. Arguments went on, and the wedding was delayed. Finally, Yuan decided to have a wedding without his parents present. “We are convinced that God has brought us together,” Yuan says, “and I just want to give my bride a wedding.” So the wedding happened as planned. Two days before their wedding date, a close relative persuaded Yuan’s parents to be in attendance. It was the first time for Yuan’s parents to step inside a Christian church.
Rearing Children Biblically
After a young couple marries, Chinese families generally see having children as another milestone, and this desire has been exacerbated by the one-child policy. For young Christian couples who are first-generation believers in their families, when trying to bear and rear children in a Christian way they face tremendous pressure from both families. In our fieldwork, we heard similar personal accounts of inter-generational conflicts in this area.
A year after their wedding, 27-year-old Yue became pregnant, but the blessings from both sides soon reversed when her first ultrasound at five months showed a major birth defect. Doctors informed them that if they decided to continue the pregnancy, the baby would need to undergo major surgery right after birth and then a few surgeries within the first year. Both sets of parents encouraged the couple to abort the baby. The doctor also told them that since they were both still young, they had a good chance of having a healthy baby in the future.
For over three decades, the one-child policy has significantly reshaped people’s biological ethics, especially with regard to abortion. Because a married woman is expected to give birth successfully just once, many families optimize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bear and raise the best child. Prenatal screens are widely used to detect birth defects, and couples can discontinue pregnancies if they are not satisfied with the health (or gender) of the fetus. Since cohabitation is so common among dating young couples, many hospitals advertise abortions near college campuses and factories that hire young, migrant workers. Some billboards glamorize their content using romantic imagery and words such as, “Painless abortion, giving love the safest guarantee.” Our acquaintances in China shared two examples that help illustrate how abortions happen routinely with little ethical struggle involved. First, a newly married woman aborted her first pregnancy because she had taken cold medicines when she was unaware of her own pregnancy. Second, a female migrant worker aborted her twins during the second trimester because she thought having twins would bring too much of an economic burden to the family.
When Yue told her parents-in-law that as Christians they would not abort the baby, they roared their anger at her. Every day the couple was bombarded with rebukes from their parents and relatives. Despite Yue’s objections, Chao’s parents and relatives took her to the hospital for an abortion. The pastor and members of her church rushed to the hospital just in time to stop them. In the end, Chao’s parents asked the pastor to sign a written agreement that since the church insisted on keeping the baby, then it would take full responsibility including paying the medical bills. The pastor complied, and Yue was brought back home safely. The next few months of Yue’s pregnancy were not without storms, however. Despite their agreement with the pastor, Chao’s parents still asked Yue to consider abortion from time to time. But when the fetus grew to seven months, the doctor told them that an abortion at that point would harm Yue so much that she would not be able to have children again. After hearing this, Chao’s parents stopped mentioning abortion. They had hoped that after birthing this baby, Yue and Chao could still get pregnant with another healthy baby. Since Chao is the only child in the family, they considered having no grandchildren too high a cost. After their change of mind, the stress of abortion was removed.
Differing generational expectations with regard to child care are illustrated in the story of Xin (28) and Yao (26) who married relatively early among their Christian friends. They were blessed with a baby girl after two years of marriage. Hoping to breastfeed longer and care for the baby full-time, Yao decided to quit her job at a busy accounting firm. Xin’s retired parents, who lived in the same city, objected forcefully because they had expected to provide child care while the couple went out to work. This has become a common pattern among Chinese families with new babies—the grandparents care for the baby allowing the new parents to attain financial security through working full-time. Nowadays, very few career women give up their jobs to care for their newborns. Employers give short maternity leaves, and most mothers either wean their babies from breastfeeding at this time or have used formula milk from the beginning. In spite of the cultural trends, Xin and Yao believed that since God had entrusted them with the new baby, they, as parents, should take up the primary responsibility of caring for her. Xin’s parents started to blame Yao for laying the financial burden on their only son. Two years later, Yao was pregnant again but Xin’s parents urged her to abort the baby for fear of financial burdens. They also thought that having a second child went against the one-child policy and would result in a huge fine. Their domineering attitudes throughout the years eventually forced the couple to move to the suburbs in order to shelter their small family from these perpetual arguments.
In a country caught in frenzied transition like China, when it comes to marriage choices economically-driven and practical needs win priority over true love; parental involvement tends to muddy the waters even more. Within this cultural context, first-generation urban Christians often face even more complications related to marriage such as finding a mate, planning a church wedding, or starting a family biblically. Living out their faith as they make marriage-related choices often brings tension between them and their parents who have fully absorbed secular values and social norms. They must fight against social norms and kinship expectations. Married Christian couples also need to swim against many secular tides in bearing and raising children.
Image credit: Shanghai park marriage market by thaths via Flickr.
Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin University, Dr. Ma and her husband LI Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: …View Full Bio