Parents cause undue stress by pushing children to marry
By Doug Young
THIS week I want to tackle the somewhat touchy subject of dating and marriage in China, following news that Shanghai is preparing to boost its assistance to anxious singles with the addition of a new event to help them find the perfect mate.
The new event will see the city's three-year-old Love and Marriage Fair expand to a twice-yearly affair. The third edition of the original event will take place on May 18-19 and began accepting registrations late last month, as the arrival of spring reawakens hopes of finding a partner among Shanghai's thousands of unmarried young people. The new edition will take place in the fall.
Before I go any further with my whimsical look at love and marriage in modern Shanghai, I'd like to start with my more serious observation that the current words for unmarried men and women, sheng nan (剩男) and sheng nu (剩女), should be abolished from the Chinese language.
The words, which literally mean "leftover man" and "leftover women," translate to roughly the English equivalents of spinster and bachelor, likening these people to unwanted food left over after a big banquet. Sheng nu, in particular, conjures up images of pity and sympathy for any woman labeled with the moniker. I personally find the term distasteful.
I mention my distaste for these words because they top a recent newspaper headline that announced the opening of registration for this year's Shanghai Love and Marriage Fair. The story points out that "leftover men" are swelling in numbers due to the Chinese preference for boys over girls, and there are now twice as many such men in China as "leftover women."
This year's matchmaking fair is free to any of Shanghai's singles under 45, and 10 designated "love buses" will be used to shuttle people back and forth between various subway stops and the venue. Attendance will be capped at 4,000 people, and the event's huge popularity has prompted organizers to expand it with the second edition later this year in October or November. While singles can attend for free, parents must pay 50 yuan each. If I were organizing the event, I would ban parents as they are often the biggest source of angst among their single children.
Many of these overbearing mothers and fathers already hold their own weekly event in Shanghai to help their single children find mates. Longtime residents know I'm talking about the mass gatherings every weekend at People's Park, where parents congregate to advertise their single children and trade tales of how their offspring can't find a mate.
I'm always looking for good tourist spots to show my friends visiting Shanghai, and this weekly gathering at People's Park has quickly made it to the top of my list of "must-see" places. I know similar informal events exist in other Chinese cities, but Shanghai's event has rapidly grown into a major gathering that sees not only parents but also professional matchmakers trolling the grounds with signs advertising everything from the single's name and gender, to educational background, job, hobbies and other personal information.
Heavy involvement of parents
Somewhat ironically, the singles rarely attend this gathering, and are mostly represented by their parents or matchmakers. That testifies to the fact that in most cases it's really the parents who are more anxious about finding the ideal mate for their children, and thus end up putting incredible pressure on their children to avoid ending up as leftover men and women.
China is hardly unique in holding singles events, though the heavy involvement of parents is certainly much less prevalent in the West. In many ways the heavy participation by parents at the Shanghai Love and Marriage Fair and the People's Park weekly gathering is an extension of the old "introduction" system popular for decades in China and still continues to this day.
That system would see marriage-age children often get "introduced" to prospective mates at awkward meetings arranged by their parents, teachers and parents' friends, with incredible expectation it would ultimately result in marriage. Thankfully that system is rapidly fading, especially in major cities like Shanghai, where children are now much freer to date more than one person and choose their own mate. But events like the Shanghai singles fair and People's Park gatherings show heavy pressure remains to find a mate, which is unlikely to fade as long as parents play such an active role in the process.