Wedded bliss

Star’s marriage renews debate as to why fewer Chinese are saying ‘I do’


Zhou Xun: finally tied the knot at age 39

To say Zhou Xun raced to the altar is not much of an understatement. The starlet only revealed that she was dating Gao Shengyuan as recently as May. Just two months later, she announced that she’d married him. (Gao is a Hollywood actor who has appeared in television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and who goes by the name Archie Kao in the US).

“We are really happy tonight to be in such a love-filled atmosphere. My husband and I would like to share our love with everyone,” Zhou gushed to the audience at a charity gala shortly after announcing that the two had wed. “I’ve starred in films where I played the bride, but tonight, it is Zhou Xun’s own story of romance.”

News of her nuptials made headlines in China in part because of Zhou’s age. At 39, her betrothal was much-discussed by the millions of ‘leftover’ men and women in the country. As WiC has mentioned before, the term refers to singletons over the age of 29 in a society where it is still assumed that most people should marry young.

“All of a sudden, Zhou Xun has given hope to all the leftover men and women in the country,” China Entertainment Net declared. It was perhaps similarly heartened by news in June that another famous ‘leftover woman’ – Vivian Hsu, also 39 – had married Singaporean businessman Sean Lee.

Other ‘leftover women’ reject the social pressure to get married. Take actress Xu Jinglei, who is still single at the age of 40. “Just because I’m not married doesn’t mean I’m single. Even if I’m not married I can still have a family. At the moment, I don’t see the need to,” she said in an interview. “Why do we have to get married? Are you trying to prove something? Or are you searching for a sense of security that only comes from being married? Neither reason resonates with me. I feel very secure.”

Actress Li Bingbing – the 41 year-old star of Michael Bay’s latest Transformers movie – also spoke out. “I’m not celibate. It’s just that I haven’t met my Mr Right. But getting married is not the final aim of my life and I don’t want to be kidnapped by traditional values,” she told Beijing News. “As long as I feel peaceful and unrestrained while getting along with myself, it’s OK.”

It’s not just China’s celebrities that are getting married later in life. The latest census information suggests that many more Chinese are waiting longer to tie the knot. In the decade between 2000 and 2010 the number of people between 20 and 29 who were married dropped markedly. The majority of those in that age group were married in 2000 (almost 60% of them). But by 2010, the majority were yet to make the commitment (only 44.9% had married).

Different reasons have been given for these social changes. Some analysts say urbanisation is a factor. Tencent Finance, a portal, reckons that when most Chinese lived in smaller towns and villages, the community was much smaller and everyone knew each other. With urbanisation, more rural folk have migrated to cities where they join communities of strangers. Without relatives to arrange meetings with suitors, it becomes much more difficult for migrants to find spouses.

“The old family and social networks that people used to rely on for finding a husband or wife have fallen apart,” James Farrer, an American sociologist who studies dating and marriage in contemporary China, told the New York Times. “There’s a huge sense of dislocation in China, and young people don’t know where to turn.”

For women the problem can become particularly pressing. Despite the gender imbalance – 118 boys are born for every 100 girls – well-educated women face intense pressure to marry ‘upwards’. If they don’t find someone appropriate they risk ‘leftover’ status (a demographic that increasingly features successful career women).

Why might their search for a mate be thwarted? Hong Kong-based sociologist Sandy To Sin-chi argues that China is still largely a patriarchal society. A conservative mentality leads many men to “under-marry” in terms of education and accomplishment, while a tendency to opt for someone younger also leaves many of the most successful women on the shelf, says the South China Morning Post.

Others have gone further, arguing that Chinese men are not worthy of the country’s women. Well-known blogger Zhao Lingmin recently published an article highlighting the point. While urban women are increasingly sophisticated and well- dressed – even by international standards – too many Chinese men are “wretched, rude and obese”, Zhao claimed.

“Men don’t workout or care about their fitness. Even at a very young age, they have a beer belly and bad posture. When they don designer clothes they don’t look expensive. Many are also bald and have pimply faces,” he complained.

The article quickly became the highest trending topic on Sina Weibo. Japanese columnist Kato Yoshikazu, who lives in China echoed Zhao’s views: “We foreign expats are often confused: ‘How come Chinese girls are so beautiful, slim and delicate but they are always standing next to men that look so bad?’”

Defenders of Chinese men said Zhao had missed a key point: that men have traditionally been valued by women more for their wealth and their intellect than their looks. “Chinese men pay little attention to their physique. And they don’t workout at the gym to impress the opposite sex because they have no intention to appeal to women based on their physical attributes,” chastised Sohu Women, a portal. The same outlet claimed that Chinese women care much more about a man’s financial resources than his physical ones.

According to a Guangzhou Daily survey conducted after Zhao’s article was published, nearly 72% of female respondents cited “trustworthiness” as the most important trait in men, followed by “hygiene” and “willingness to spend money”.

Physical appearance was the least important, viewed as ‘an important attribute’ by only 9.3% of participants.

“As long as they are rich and powerful, even if they are fat and have a big belly, a large number of beautiful women will still flock to their side,” Sohu Women concluded.

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