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City more welcoming of Chinese ‘outsiders’
By Doug Young

A NEW survey on marriage patterns in Shanghai is casting an interesting spotlight on what it means to be an outsider in one of China’s most international cities, whose high-profile embrace of foreigners and foreign things often overshadows a much bigger influx of domestic immigrants.

The survey also draws attention to the bigger Chinese fondness for characterizing everything as either “insider” or “outsider,” a centuries-old tradition that Shanghai could and should take the lead in discarding.

The “insider” and “outsider” mentality goes way back in Chinese history, and is physically present across the Chinese landscape and deeply embedded in the language. Its most potent physical symbol is the storied Great Wall, which drew a clear line between the inside, or civilized China to the south, and the outside, populated by barbarian tribes to the north. 

Linguistically the concept is entrenched in Chinese by adding the nei (内) prefix for everything insider, and the wai (外) prefix for everything outside. Not surprisingly, the wai prefix often carries a slightly negative overtone, including its use in the word waiguo ren (外国人) for foreigners or outsiders.

All that said, let’s return to the present with a look at the latest survey that showed more and more Shanghainese were open to marrying Chinese from other provinces, or waidi ren (外国人). The survey of city residents also contained numerous other trends, including the ongoing tendencies for people to marry later and divorce more often.

According to the data, the average man and woman now get married at 34.02 and 31.61 years old, respectively, or 1.3 years later than in the previous survey. The number of divorces soared 37 percent for the year, though some attributed the sudden jump to changes in the law that prompted some couples to file for fake divorces to avoid new real estate taxes.

All those numbers were interesting, but what most caught my attention were data about the growing openness by Shanghainese toward marrying people from outside the city. Some media focused on the shrinking number of marriages and growing number of divorces between Shanghai residents and foreigners, as we foreigners rapidly lose our “famous brand” attraction for some Chinese.

But far more interesting was the big jump in marriages between Shanghai residents and domestic migrants to the city from other parts of China. The latest data showed that a full 38 percent of all marriages involving Shanghai residents last year consisted of couples where one member was a Shanghai native and the other was from another province. That ratio was the highest in China, and was up 10 percent from the previous year.

As someone who has lived in China for much of the past several decades, I find this interprovincial mixing both remarkable and quite encouraging for Shanghai. As recently as 15 years ago, such cross-regional marriages were nearly non-existent for a number of reasons.

The biggest of those was purely practical. It was often difficult for such inter-regional couples to live together in the past because it was nearly impossible for both spouses to find jobs anywhere besides the city of their official residence or hukou (户口). But the strong regionalism that existed throughout China was another reason, often leading people from big cities like Beijing and Shanghai to look down on people from other places.

Students from other areas

Such regionalism was present in many other elements of daily life, including the student bodies at many universities. I’m told that until recently, the big majority of students at any university often came from the local province and only a small percent were from outside areas.

But the situation is much different now at places like Fudan University, where I now teach, with around two-thirds of my students usually coming from places outside Shanghai.

I personally welcome this dismantling of regionalism in Shanghai, which is emerging as a clear trend-setter in China for its willingness to welcome outside people and ideas to the city.

Such a mindset not only reflects a growing tolerance for new ideas, but also fosters the kind of innovation and experimentation that will be crucial for the city’s future development.

More abstractly, this kind of thinking also will help to finally dismantle the traditional but divisive “insider” and “outsider” mindset that seems highly counterproductive, placing this outdated mentality firmly in the history books where it belongs.

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