Love and longing ─ China and her changing appetite for marriage

Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, so they say. Or maybe yin and yang might be more appropriate. In reality, though, it's not that simple.

The weekend matchmaking market at People's Park is almost becoming a tourist attraction.

Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, so they say. Or maybe yin and yang might be more appropriate. In reality, though, it’s not that simple. That’s why today we’re going to take a quick trip back in China’s history to try and understand why marriage is still so revered for many here.

It only takes a short walk around People’s Park’s weekend matchmaking market to realize just how important marriage is for many in China, and just how scared some people are of being left behind.

Hundreds of homemade advertisements adorn the space, not hawking off perfume or insurance or holidays, but love and companionship. Those who have been — for whatever reason — unable to find their other half have their stats and job titles and assets listed for all to see.

It feels a bit desperate and sad but, like walking by a car wreck, you can’t help but slow down and look. If you haven’t been, it’s worth the visit.

China has a long history, by some accounts dating back 5,000 years. In terms of marriage, though, perhaps the biggest impact came with Confucius who, more than 2,000 years ago, set the tone for Chinese society today.

His teachings became known as Confucianism, and they still have a huge bearing on many Chinese people, especially in regards to how relationships are conducted at all levels.

Of course, one of the important human relationships, according to Confucianism, is between a man and his wife or, more accurately, between two families brought together by marriage. The married couple, traditionally, was one of the basic building blocks of a harmonious society.

Weddings were mostly arranged matters designed to benefit and advance the family or families concerned, with no real impetus placed on what today we would call “love.” While monogamy was expected, having a concubine was sometimes a sign of wealth and influence.

Things began to change last century when two new marriage laws were written, with the goal of reforming what marriage was and should be. The aptly titled New Marriage Law was introduced in 1950 and then replaced in 1980.

Chairman Mao Zedong, who once famously said that women hold up half the sky, was keen on furthering women’s rights, so he ensured this fancy new law allowed, among other things, for women to no longer be forced into arranged marriages and afforded them the right to seek divorce if they so desired. The practice of taking concubines was also outlawed.

These new legal protections worked to turn marriage from a societal, moral matter into something a little more private, although no less sanctimonious.

Gong Junqi

Shanghai Love and Marriage Fair

Fast-forward to now. One of the city’s most quirky events, the Shanghai Love and Marriage Fair, attracted 10,000 singles and parents desperate to find a match last weekend.

Okay, it was mostly parents.

Younger people, especially in Chinese cities, will tell you that marriage isn’t as important or revered for them as it is for their parents, and especially their grandparents. There is still pressure, of course, but marriage for younger Chinese today is more of a private affair, and certainly not something whole families or societies will be given a say in.

A Chinese film I saw recently, “Love Education,” is an ideal look at how views toward marriage have changed so rapidly in China, as portrayed by the conflicts and differences between three generations of women who feature in the film. It’s well worth the watch if you haven’t seen it.

As for me, I’ve never viewed marriage as something important to me or something I should aim for, and I haven’t been pressured by my family to “get married and settle down,” either. That might be because my family has eight siblings and my mum already has to babysit dozens of grandchildren, though!

Walking through the marriage markets of Shanghai was interesting and eye-opening before — least of all as a way to look at myself and my own life — but after learning a bit more about marriage in China across history up until today, I understand its place a bit more clearly.

Special Reports