A Single Man: One Chinese Bachelor's Search for Love

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A Single Man: One Chinese Bachelor's Search for Love A Single Man: One Chinese Bachelor's Search for Love

A Single Man: One Chinese Bachelor's Search for Love

by Sushma Subramanian, Deborah Jian Lee

December 12, 2011

Chen Hongchang stepped into the thumping private room at the karaoke club. Through the haze of cigarette smoke, he saw them. The women.

But not every man has the opportunity to skip town. Tradition obliged Chen, the eldest in his family, to care for his aging parents and the land. As a result, the numbers say Chen’s road to love will likely be a dead end. “In China, if males don’t get married by age 30 and they aren’t educated, the chance of getting married is almost gone,” Cai says.

The third bachelor at lunch, Wu Zubing, had a few casual relationships while working in Haikou years ago, but opportunities dried up once he had to move back home. As the designated caretaker of his parents and property, he’s had less freedom to pursue the ladies than his brothers, all of whom met their wives after moving to the city. Wu owns a dirt-floored convenience store in the village. He knows he can’t be picky. But he still feels slighted when friends and relatives set him up with women with mental problems and physical disabilities.
“For me, I never give up. I want to find a good wife and have a family,” he says.

Worried that she would flee, her new husband brought Du to his schoolhouse and forced her to sit outside on a bench while he taught. At night, they ate meals she considered lavish. In Vietnam, she rarely consumed meat. Now she was eating pork daily. She was touched by the way he took care of her. Within months, she adjusted to speaking the Hainanese dialect, which shares similar vocabulary with her native Vietnamese.

She was clueless about sex. Months into their marriage, when her husband told her to spread her legs and taught her how to have intercourse, she didn’t know it would lead to a baby. Her daughter was born in 1993, a year after their marriage. Her arrival cemented their relationship. “It completely transformed our marriage,” she said. “I began feeling attached to him.” She returned to Vietnam twice to visit her family and siblings, bringing back 2,000 RMB each time. Her family tried to convince her to stay back with them, but her life in China was far more comfortable than her poor Vietnamese village.

While poor women bear much of the burden of the gender imbalance, women at the top rungs of Chinese society are affected by a marriage squeeze of their own. The expectation to “marry up” creates a tough environment for highly educated women looking for acceptable partners. “In the old days, for females, it was almost always expected that they will marry someone,” says Cai. “But now, if you look around and read the newspapers, the one important issue that people are talking about are these so-called ‘sheng nu.’” Literal translation: leftover women. Thriving in their careers, these ladies struggle to find men who can top their success. “They’ve been left out in this process,” says Cai. “But it’s by choice, not by design.”

In 2010, Sandra Bao, a Shanghai-based magazine editor, reclaimed the derogatory term by co-founding a sheng nu club, which boasts more than 1,000 members. Bao, who says she’s “around 30,” wants women to know that there is happiness to be found in single living.
“Sheng nu are not those left behind by others, it’s those who leave others behind,” she says, flicking her sleek-straight hair over a shoulder. “We are leaving old values behind.”

* * *

For the past 20 years, eternal bachelorhood has become an increasingly likely fate for Chinese men, particularly for those in remote areas without access to jobs. As this group of desperate, sexually frustrated men grows, the situation could become even more grim. Years of scientific research shows that the hormones that help men compete tend to drop when guys take on nurturing roles as husbands and fathers. And high levels of testosterone have long been associated with aggression and an elevated likelihood of committing violent crimes. In 2007, Edlund published a study that showed that a 1 percent increase in sex ratio could lead to a 5 percent increase in crime rate. Dudley Poston, a Texas A&M demographer, says that countries with an excess of men have historically been more violent. “Dangerous is probably an exaggerated word,” Cai says. “But in those villages, when better-off people move to urban areas, what’s left behind is a bunch of bachelors. I just can’t imagine what life would be like.”

The shortage of girls could lead to a warped reversal of the imbalance. Shang-Jin Wei, a Columbia University economist, says that China’s ballooning savings rate, unparalleled in the world, could be a result of families’ pressure to accumulate cash to attract wives for their sons. “If you’re a dirt-poor peasant somewhere,” Edlund says, “maybe your optimal choice would be a daughter, who can get married.” This trend could create a new marriage economy, she says, encouraging lower-class parents to sex-select for daughters while the wealthy continue to have sons. Relegated to the underclass, women’s growing financial value could prime them for exploitation by their impoverished parents who could sell them to wealthier families for ever-increasing bride prices. South Korea has been credited with eliminating its widespread gender imbal- ance in the 1990s, but it is actually an example of this exact scenario—the rich choosing sons and the poor choosing daughters, Edlund says. “They have not been able to eliminate sex selection.”

Gender-imbalance experts and Chinese policy planners are bracing for what might happen as prenatal testing improves. So far, China’s effort to stamp out sex-selective abortions hasn’t worked. It is illegal for ultrasound providers to tell parents the sex of their child, but there has been little enforcement, Cai says. The government even lowered the resolution of these machines to crack down on the practice, but most doc- tors are experienced enough that they can still read the blurry images. In some regions, the state has financially rewarded couples with daughters. State-sponsored billboards try to reverse old prejudices with sayings like, “A girl is worth as much as a boy.” “What’s needed is a very vigorous public debate about the values underlying this,” Edlund says. “What kind of cultural values are we condoning?”

* * *

Chen is back on the hunt. Ever since his friends from the karaoke bar urged him to join their new group “The Happiness Station” on the social networking site QQ—he created a profile under the name “Stop by for Love”—Chen’s cell has been buzzing every few seconds. QQ has become his obsession, prompting him to spend hours chatting with multiple women online. His go-to move is fortune telling; it’s an easy way to get women to open up. One recently offered her phone number, but Chen is hesitant to call right away. It’s too soon, he says. He doesn’t want to come off as a creep.

He doesn’t want to overreach, either. All he asks is for someone gentle and nurturing, with a good personality. “Based on my age and my poor living conditions in the village, when it comes to finding a wife, I’m not in a position to ask for too much,” he says.

Chen finds a woman whose profile notes that she likes beer. He doesn’t drink much, and he asks her if she has any tips.

“Open your mouth wider,” she responds. He laughs, but it’s unclear if he’s aware of the sexual innuendo.

“I don’t know how to drink,” he replies. “If I chase you, maybe you’ll make me drunk.”

She sends him an emoticon of a cup of coffee, an affectionate gesture. He smirks and types a response.

“Have you eaten?” he asks. She’s just about to.

“Eat more,” he says.

“If I eat more I’ll get fat.”

“No problem,” he types. Chen has rejected a woman for her size before. Not this time. “I like girls to be fat.”

Photos courtesy of the authors. Reporting for this article was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Rechard Li contributed reporting.

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