Wed to poverty

‘Runaway bride’ web posting becomes the talk of China

Villagers gather outside a house in Yuangudui, Gansu Province

Meet the in-laws

Aesop’s fable of two mice that invite one another for dinner is a classic parable. Both are quick to retreat to their comfort zones. The Town Mouse isn’t impressed by rural cooking, while the Country Mouse rushes home from the city after being scared by barking dogs.

Over the Lunar New Year holidays, a Shanghai woman reimbodied the city mouse, after she agreed to visit her rural boyfriend’s family to celebrate the incoming Year of the Monkey – and then decided to leave at first sight of the meal the poor family had prepared. Posting a picture of the culinary spread on weibo, the Shanghainese lady announced that she was thinking of breaking up with her boyfriend and returning home because of her deep disappointment at the dishes – which contrasted poorly with the dining fare available in the city.

After receiving sufficient encouragement from netizens, the girl decided to head back to Shanghai the next day, letting her boyfriend know that this was a permanent goodbye.

Unfortunately, leaving the rural village was no simple feat due to its poor transport links. But the urbanite’s parents, who had opposed her trip to visit her boyfriend’s family, dispatched a cousin on a six-hour drive to collect her.

Although the city mouse evidently received some sympathy for her predicament, she drew plenty of derision too, with many netizens furious at her disrespect for her boyfriend’s parents.

He Caitou, a widely followed blogger, joined the fray, noting further that the girl had “stuck her chopsticks into her rice bowl in order to take a photo of the food”, demonstrating a lack of good upbringing. (Sticking your chopsticks upright is a crass act in Chinese culture because the scene resembles the incense sticks that are burned in offerings to the dead.)

Online discussion of the girl’s case was frenetic, under headings such as “Ugly Duckling Boys” (a reference to men from poor rural areas who have made some success of themselves in the city) and “Marriage of Equal Status” (the notion that the best partnerships are between people of similar social backgrounds).

Many netizens suggested that it wasn’t so much the food that repulsed the urbanite, but her sudden realisation of what her future might be like if she married into the poorer family.

The very idea of marrying ‘into a family’ might appear slightly outdated, but most of the comments surrounding the incident used the female form of the word “marriage”, the pictography of which demonstrates a woman joining a family (as opposed to the male form of the term, which implies a man acquiring a wife). One of the more considered assessments of the incident was made by another big name in the Chinese blogosphere, Wuyuesanren. Although he reproached the woman for her behaviour, he admitted that he understood some of her sentiment, especially the shock that cityfolk sometimes feel on encountering the realities of Chinese rural life for the first time.

What at first seemed like the simple story of an ungracious guest soon became a broader allegory for some of the conflicts in China’s fast-changing society: the poverty gap and the class divide; the pressure of expectations felt by the young urban middle class; and the erosion of traditional values.

But like most parables, the characters in this particular narrative then turned out to be fictional.

Last week there was news that the “Shanghai girl” who posted the story about her dilemma online isn’t from Shanghai at all and doesn’t even have a boyfriend. The revelation saw some netizens express anger at being so convincingly hoaxed. Others remarked that the truthfulness of the tale doesn’t really matter – rather that the debate that followed it had revealed plenty of issues for contemporary Chinese society that are very real indeed.

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