When June Ding goes on a date with a Chinese man, she hikes up the virgin factor. Instead of wearing a low-cut top and necklace, she stows away her cleavage and dons a demure sweater and scarf. During the course of the evening she is careful to let the man do most of the talking, to appear interested in everything he says and to react with sufficient wonder to ensure that he is comfortably marinating in his own ego at all times.
This proves somewhat challenging for the 27-year-old Beijinger, who is no shrinking violet. Animated, affable and razor sharp, she graduated at the top of her high-school class and then left China to study at Yale, where she earned a BA and a graduate qualification in law. She worked briefly at a New York City law firm before feeling the pull of home – like most Chinese her age she is an only child – and moved back to be closer to her parents. That has allowed them to focus on what they see as June’s next obligation to the family: marriage.
“Pay attention to your laugh!” warns her mother as June gets ready for a date one evening. Her mother constantly reminds her to tame any expression of amusement when in the company of a Chinese gentleman. June’s father, a university scholar who seems just as invested in his daughter’s future, suggests that she mute her laugh altogether and instead encourages her to “smile like the Mona Lisa”. Anything more exuberant might convince a prospective suitor that she is assertive, worldly, charismatic – not a good wife, in other words.
June’s love life offers a prime example of the obstacles Chinese women with advanced degrees can encounter when seeking a marriage partner. Most men she is set up with don’t seem interested in casual dating. They are looking for wives – blushing, tender, baby-making wives. June’s education, exposure to a foreign dating culture and emotional expectations all make her something of an anomaly in modern China where the propriety and practicality of traditional courtship often dominate. She is determined to avoid finding a husband of the shake-and-bake variety – the kind who, shortly after shaking his hand, you have married and begun baking children for. In this she is running against cultural expectations: though China’s economic and physical landscape have changed beyond recognition in recent decades, social mores lag far behind.
In imperial China the family was seen as the building block of a stable society. Every individual knew their place and fulfilled their role. Marriage was a pragmatic agreement reached between two sets of parents to ensure heirs for the groom’s family. In the Mao Zedong era after 1949, work-unit bosses often arranged pairings instead.
That youngsters may choose their own life partner is a relatively new notion, so China’s dating culture is still in its infancy. The generation born after 1979, when the one-child policy was introduced, are fishing for mates in a pool that has changed dramatically. On the one hand mass migration means people now rarely marry fellow villagers or workmates. The demographic consequences of population controls have had a dramatic effect too. In the late 1980s, China’s ancient cultural preference for males was bolstered by new and soon ubiquitous ultrasound technology which led to millions of baby girls being killed, abandoned or aborted: China now has one of the most imbalanced sex ratios in the world with around 114 boys for every 100 girls. The vast majority of these surplus men live in impoverished rural areas tending family farms (female villagers were free to migrate in search of better jobs and husbands). They have no hope of ever affording the mortgage-free apartment and car which a man is now expected to bring to a marriage. The result is that, by 2020, China will be home to an estimated 30m-40m men known as guang gun or “bare branches”, who will never marry or produce “offshoots” of their own. That is a big change in a culture where until recently marriage was near universal.
On the other side of the demographic equation is a smaller, equally new group that has received rather less attention: women like June, whose parents chose to allow a daughter into the world at a time when others wanted a son. These girls were lucky in many ways, and given opportunities that would once have been reserved for their brothers. They were pushed to study, succeed and achieve as only boys had done before them.
The demographic pressures of the one-child society have actually increased the obligations on both sexes, even though they were born into a freer, more prosperous world than that of their parents. Families pin all hopes of their future livelihood on single daughters just as they do on their sons. Since China has no adequate welfare system, parents rely on adult children to care for them in their old age. Daughters, like sons, are expected to perform the ultimate act of filial piety and produce an heir. When it comes to the marriage market, women are often expected to forget their own desires and honour those of their parents and prospective husbands, even with the financial and academic heft that they now wield. Those who do not comply are known as sheng nu or “leftover women”, a phrase that has connotations of leftover, unwanted food. In rural areas, women may be considered leftover at 25; in larger cities it kicks in closer to 30. June is fast approaching her expiration date.
Although marriages are no longer arranged, they are heavily monitored. Parents of adult children in many countries wish to see their offspring happily paired off and procreating but in China this ambition is something of a crusade. For older generations of Chinese, adulthood and marriage are essentially synonymous. Professional accomplishments are considered almost irrelevant if an individual remains unmarried and childless (the two usually go together since having a baby outside wedlock is illegal in most provinces).
The desire to marry off a child is a source of perpetual angst for parents. Relatives talk about it constantly; neighbours relentlessly enquire. Many young Chinese say their parents grill them about potential mates almost every day. Some, such as June’s mother, set them up on endless blind dates. A few threaten disinheritance or even rush their children into a precipitous marriage because they believe it better to divorce than not to marry at all. (Small wonder that there is a growing niche in renting boyfriends or girlfriends to take home for family celebrations.)
Chinese state media campaigns also contribute to the pressure many women feel to wed, says Leta Hong Fincher, author of a book on leftover women. Such efforts may lead single women to turn down promotions to focus on finding a mate. Married women may make excessive financial compromises when it comes to purchasing a marital home or even stay in an abusive marriage, rather than risk being leftover, argues Hong Fincher.
Unsurprisingly, the rising generation of self-reliant, poised, successful women does not always comply with its social obligations. Following a shift that has already occurred across most of the developed world, over the past 30 years women in China have been marrying later. A rapidly growing share never does so at all: in 1995 less than 2% of urban women between 30 and 34 were unmarried; by 2015 some 10% were. Unlike the impoverished “bare branches”, these women are concentrated in China’s most important cities, with Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen topping the charts. And society does not approve.
Given the gender imbalance, June should have her pick of mates. But things haven’t turned out that way, not just because the pool of men with equivalent education is relatively small. Culture, not just demographics, play a big part in the search for a mate – and many traditional sensibilities persist. “We like our wives to be yogurts,” says a 35-year old Chinese investment banker. “Plain yogurts, so that we can flavour them as we’d like.” On paper he seems like the kind of match that would suit June. Like her, he’s ambitious, well educated, has a good corporate job and speaks excellent English. At work he is surrounded by high-achieving, single women but, though he enjoys their company, he’s not interested in marrying an educational or professional equal. In fact, he’s already engaged. “My fiancée is a plain yogurt,” he says. “She’s low maintenance and doesn’t really have her own ideas. I like her because she’s easy to manage.”
Chinese women have been an integral part of the formal economy for far longer than many of their Western counterparts, yet many men have a tendency – some would say a cultural obligation – to reject women with equivalent education and salaries. Finding a man who was better educated than his potential wife was less challenging in the days when girls were barely schooled past early adolescence. In the past 20 years, investment in higher education has increased dramatically; nearly 90% of high-school graduates now attend university and women represent more than half of this cohort. The downside to this rapid advancement of female education is the emergence of a dangerous paradox. The higher their degree, the less likely women are to marry: some 18% of women between 30 and 34 with masters degrees were unmarried in 2010, compared with just 7% of those who had merely completed high school. Again, the vocabulary is telling: female PhDs are often referred to as di san xing, or “the third sex”, referring to the idea that few want to marry them.
June’s mother is well aware that the qualities that make her daughter appealing to prospective employers are intimidating to prospective mates, so she is trying to render her more wifely in the eyes of suitors. “Whatever you do, don’t get physical!” she says. Far from being a histrionic, modern-day Mrs Bennett, June’s mum is a practical dating coach. “After you reject a man physically, you need to lavish him with praise,” she instructs her daughter.
As a young girl June didn’t realise that her educational pursuits would affect her romantic prospects. She grew up with few examples of what dating should look like. After so many years of relationships being brokered, the mores and manners of modern courtship in China are still being established. As most people date with the purpose of finding a marriage partner, relationship culture is stifled because too many people have a stake in the outcome. Most of the blind dates June goes on are completely devoid of romance. “They’re like business meetings,” she says. “It’s not uncommon to talk about marriage on the first date, though physically, it’s imperative for things to move much slower. There’s lots of nodding and absolutely no touching.”
In most countries where more women get university degrees than men, the prevalence of hypergamy – women marrying “up” a social class – tends to diminish over time. A group of demographers from Barcelona, who gathered data for 56 countries spanning a period from 1968 to 2009, found that in the early period of their study it was more common for women to marry “up”. But by 2000 trends had changed drastically: in half of the countries for which they had data, a majority of women were married to men with less schooling than themselves.
Paternalistic China is a flagrant exception to this trend. It is a sign of female empowerment that some women now remain single, either because they do not wish to wed or because they have not found someone they like enough. For the first time in China’s history a large number of women have the money and status to forgo marriage willingly. Yet accomplished women such as June who do wish to find a partner often face an apparently insurmountable wall of conservative values.
In an effort to make the men they are dating feel honoured and respected, educated women often find themselves playing down their smarts. June says she switches between two distinct modes, Chinese girl or overseas returnee with an Ivy League degree. Her friends tell her that is not enough: she needs to be versed in the ancient art of sajiao, or the strategically executed temper tantrum, an indispensable element in the dating arsenal of every Chinese woman.
“A woman who knows how to sajiao knows how to make a man happy,” declared an article in the Chinese edition of Psychologies magazine in 2012. Sajiao involves pouting, mewling and the stomping of feet. That doesn’t sound attractive. Yet in a rapidly changing social and economic environment, it has become a critical skill for maintaining a sense of continuity and order in gender relations by helping a Chinese man feel loved, honoured, chivalrous and, above all, manly. “For the competent career woman, sajiao is an indispensable tool for appearing neither too independent nor too self-sufficient for her boyfriend,” says another Chinese magazine article. “Sajiao allows her to appear soft and feminine rather than hard and powerful, traits that challenge traditional notions of womanhood. By playing up to the male ego, she accomplishes the near-impossible: making her man feel like a man.”
In the 1940s American women were given remarkably similar advice: “Warning!...Be careful not to seem smarter than your man,” instructed one self-help book. “It’s one thing to be almost as smart, but to be or seem smarter – that is taboo.” Yet post-war America had a huge shortage of men, whereas China has 33m more men than women. So why, given the reversed demographic equation, are Chinese women still “playing along”?
Professor Hu Deng, who teaches emotional psychology at the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing, considers himself an expert in romantic relationships. Compared with most professors, he is quite progressive in both subject matter and views. He speaks uninhibitedly in class about the transactional marriages of revolutionary China and warns students that mates chosen by parents or grandparents rarely lead to true love. When it comes to the art of the sajiao, however, the professor is more conservative. “If a Chinese woman today doesn’t know how to sajiao, it’s very unlikely that she’ll find a boyfriend,” he says.
In the current competitive environment, the pressures on Chinese men are great. The skewed sex ratio means they must show to prospective mates that they are excelling. Although wealth and opportunities have risen overall, for many people jobs and livelihoods are more unstable today than they were a generation ago. And in a lot of cities property prices have risen faster than wages. In Beijing and Shanghai buying a home may involve spending over 20 times the average annual wage.
At a time when many men have been left floundering and feeling inadequate, a woman who can step in and artfully make a man feel esteemed, needed and admired may help compensate for the lack of such feelings in the wider world of work or society, says Hu. So, he reckons, behaviour such as the strategically executed temper tantrum has become a “fix” for other flaws, perceived injustices and inequalities in the Chinese social system. The Chinese Communist Party has, if anything, promoted the revival of traditional values, compelling educated women to make men feel manly by behaving like children. It takes a conservative view that the family is a stabilising force in a time of rapid economic change.
So, in contrast to other countries where investment in higher education has often been accompanied by greater individual freedoms and a questioning of prevailing attitudes, in China a complex mix of politics, philosophy and economics has left accomplished women like June play-acting to find a spouse.
Despite her worldly outlook, June seems convinced of the need to perform. “I spent time over the weekend with some of my old friends from high school, and they all told me I don’t have a boyfriend because I don’t know how to sajiao,” she says. The problem is that, even after watching an online tutorial for how to sajiao your way to dinner at your favourite restaurant, she simply cannot master the art of feigning subservience.
Given the centrality of marriage in China, there are plenty of services to help women improve their dating skills. Sajiao isn’t going to get June anywhere, but a seduction master class with one of Beijing’s most beguiling sirens sounds more promising.
Ivy is her guide. Though only 27, Ivy gives the impression of a life already well lived. A Cartier watch encircles Ivy’s wrist, a Dior bag dangles from her forearm, Chanel earrings illuminate her ears, a cashmere Burberry coat is cinched around her waist and Louis Vuitton patent shoes with small golden bows adorn her feet. She is a veritable pageant of luxury branding, and yet somehow – shockingly – it’s all been put together rather tastefully.
“In the eyes of many Chinese men, a beautiful girl can only be beautiful so long as she’s useless and completely lost and destroyed without a man supporting her,” she says, sitting down to Hong Kong-style sweets at a small café near her apartment, surrounded by purple-velvet furniture, endless mirrors and swirling chandeliers. “And a smart girl can only be smart so long as she isn’t too beautiful to be taken seriously,” she adds. As for a smart, beautiful woman? That, Ivy proudly proclaims, is a mistress.
Ivy is certainly beautiful, though probably not considered “wifely” or “doting” by Chinese standards. She smokes with vigour: right after exhaling she re-inhales with force the very air she has just expelled. When a waiter comes over and politely asks her to put out her cigarette, she dismisses him coldly by saying that it’s late, she knows the owner, there’s nobody else in the café and she isn’t bothering a soul. Seconds after she tells him to go away, she summons him back to bring her an ashtray. (She had previously been stubbing out her cigarettes in a bowl of fragrant rice.)
She turns sweetly to June to resume the conversation. June had recently been on a few dates with a man her mother had chatted up on a dating site by posing as her. He is a lieutenant in the military, in his mid-30s, doing well in his career but a bit square and prone to sharp mood swings. But she hesitated to break things off with him, worried not about his feelings but her mother’s. “I can’t say he’s unattractive, she’ll just say that won’t matter in ten years,” she says. “I also can’t say there’s no chemistry or she’ll just say I’m being shallow. In her eyes, all problems fade away with time.” It had taken four more dates for June to come up with a reason her family might accept: that she found him both aggressive and needy. Her mother still won’t let her off the hook. “He’s trying to make a good impression,” she says. “It’s normal that he’s struggling to hide his true feelings!”
Listening to this, Ivy’s diagnosis of June’s main problem returns to familiar territory: she is not a hua ping or “flower vase”, as many men in China like their women to be. She is beautiful but also self-assured in a way that Chinese men don’t always appreciate.
In a sign that the class is ending, Ivy shares the bawdy details of her latest tryst with a wealthy real-estate mogul. She pauses for a few moments before explaining that although she has been generously compensated for her services, her line of work is also exhausting. “I will retire soon,” she says. By “retire”, she actually meant that she planned to get married: “I’ll start looking for a husband in the spring.” Ivy explains that, like many mistresses, she has made wise investments for her future in the knowledge that her market value as the “other woman” will tank the older she gets. But she doesn’t want to be dependent on mistressing for her livelihood: this was just her first step to a better life. Like June, she is approaching the age at which she either gets hitched or is left on the shelf.
For Chinese women like Ivy, who has none of June’s educational and family background, marriage can be an express elevator to a better life. From a modest family in the second-tier city of Chongqing, Ivy relied on her striking looks and talent for the arts to get into one of Beijing’s best drama schools. Yet realising that she had a greater aptitude for business than for the big screen, she began working in distribution for film and TV shows after graduating. Attending star-studded film premieres and brokering deals for industry fat cats, she began moving in social circles quite distinct from the one she was born into. Profitable work started to roll in – supplemented by her escapades with moneyed and often married men – and, in an industry where appearances are everything, she was finally able to dress the part, accessorising with designer handbags and a glittering white Porsche Carrera. Now that she has achieved a significantly better life for herself and her parents, it is time to think about the bigger picture. But as with June, socially imposed timelines often eclipse individual desire.
“Do you worry about fidelity with your future husband?” asks June, the ever-inquisitive student. “He will cheat,” says Ivy. “Men of status always do. The trick is finding one who will be savvy enough to keep it a secret from you. In my experience, a bad man fools you once; a good man fools you for ever.” Infidelity is so much a part of her idea of marriage that after years of being an adulteress she is fully prepared to turn a blind eye to her future husband’s philandering. Perhaps this is a self-imposed penance for years of transgressions.
June is not keen to follow Ivy’s footsteps in this regard. “I just don’t think I could ever accept that,” she says. As someone who has worked hard to pursue her passions, overcome challenges and build a career and lifestyle she is proud of, marrying a man unworthy of her trust is not an option for her. “When it comes to marriage, we all have conditions, standards, requirements and responsibilities,” replies Ivy. “You just need to know very clearly which ones you value most, and prioritise accordingly.”
“But what happens if you become interested in a person who doesn’t meet any of those conditions or requirements?” asks June. “Well then that’s love,” says Ivy, with a complicit twinkle in her eye, to her eager student. Some lessons even Yale does not teach.