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China’s Private Virtues are Public Vices

March 13, 2012

There’s a seemingly paradoxical situation in China whereby a whole bunch of Chinese women can’t find husband despite the fact that there are far more men than women in the country. Salon just published an article on this, All the Shengnu Ladies, and it nails the reason in the second paragraph:

In China, there’s a deep-seated tradition of marriage hypergamy which mandates that a woman must marry up. This generally works out, as it allows the Chinese man to feel superior, and the woman to jump a social class or two, but it gets messy for highly accomplished females. Their educations and salaries make them hard to compete with, and so their Chinese male counterparts shy away in favor of younger, more “manageable” beauties.

Now humans in general practice female hypergamy. And similar problems have arisen in the West, too, as women have become better educated and gained higher paying and more influential positions. The title of the Salon article is actually a riff on a recent Atlantic article, All the Single Ladies.

But let’s assume, as I think is probably reasonable, that the situation is worse in China than elsewhere. After all, besides the huge gender imbalance, there’s more pressure to marry. People don’t shack up much in China, and up until the 80s, 99% of people got married. (By contrast, Europe west of the Hajnal line has always had relatively low rates of marriage—more like 90%—and later marriage has also always been normal.) And yet things still aren’t working out in China. Why would that be? Why, in other words, might hypergamy be even more important in China than elsewhere?

There’s probably more than one reason. For one thing, China is (at least so far) just more conservative than Western countries. But I think another reason is that certain Chinese virtues are actually something of an obstacle in present circumstances. The Chinese (like East Asians in general) are relatively cautious and deliberate. Chinese men like to ensure that their financial situation is a good one before contemplating marriage, and Chinese women are more apt to expect as much. White men, by contrast, are more likely to assert themselves without so much regard for the the future. And they’re more likely to rely on softer indications of status—strength, charisma, humour, musical talent, fame, or whatever else. (I’ve talked before about how these patterns hurt Chinese men in the Western dating market.)

In the following passage you can actually see some examples of how this dynamic causes problems:

Lynette [her English name] laughs about these blind dates because she knows most of her single friends are being shuffled through the same motions, but admits that both instances were terribly awkward. In the first, her superior education and job made the man disinterested in her. And in the second, the meeting was so pragmatically marriage-minded, that a bit of chemistry—something she is looking for—seemed completely out of the question.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to either of these guys that anything other than relative income might matter.

As is often the case, there may be an element of projection at play as well—women think that because they’re interested in successful, well-educated men, men are equally interested in successful and well-educated women.

Critics say that shengnu are single because their standards are too high. While it is no secret that some women in China use marriage as a means to acquire wealth, shengnu are generally educated, well-to-do females who support themselves and have less of a need than their mothers and grandmothers did to enter a marriage for economic reasons. This allows them to be selective, and they are. Most of them disagree with the idea of marriage just for the sake of it, even if it means facing ultimatums from their parents and endless reminders that nobody will want them after 30.

Well, yes: financially speaking, successful women can afford to be as selective as they like. But they err if they think they can be more selective in the marriage market. In the marriage market, success is like height. Other things being equal, the taller the man, the more available women. But the taller the woman, the fewer available men. Even worse for the tall woman, the few taller men around are just as likely to prefer shorter women over her. Likewise,

a 35-year-old Chinese male CFO is much more likely to go for a 19-year-old head-turner than a fellow female executive.

Are the critics right about these women being too picky, though? I don’t know. If less successful men won’t marry them anyway, then it hardly matters.

Unfortunately, many women simply have to choose between success and marriage.

*     *     *

According to a female Shanghainese journalist and blogger, parents are the problem:

According to Shanghainese parents, their daughters shouldn’t be in a relationship before 24 and must be married by 25. That leaves us with one year to find a husband.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2012 2:03 pm

    So Chinese guys aren’t even doing well in China. It’s starting to just get sad.

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