An expensive arrangement

New efforts to curtail ‘bride prices’ in rural areas


Not enough of these to go around thanks to China’s gender imbalance

China has 34 million more men than women – partly the result of a cultural preference for male children, compounded by the One-Child Policy and gender-selective abortions.

When these men were born their families probably believed they were the lucky ones.

But being the parents of a man of marriageable age today doesn’t always seem so fortunate: there simply aren’t enough women for them to marry.

One consequence is the increase in the so-called “bride price” – the money that a man’s family gives to the family of his intended wife when the couple gets engaged.

In rural areas, where there are often more unmarried men, the bride price can be multiple times annual incomes – meaning families often have to dip into their savings to pay it.

Local authorities in some of the worst affected areas have tried to cap the amounts that are being demanded, and warned against cases of fraud and human trafficking.

“The bride price shall not exceed Rmb20,000 ($2,911). Those who demand too much will be investigated by the police,” proclaimed one formal notice from Henan’s Lankao County in June

The local authorities in Gansu, Hebei and Jiangxi provinces have also tried to cap the bridal fees at levels ranging from Rmb20,000 to Rmb100,000.

“It’s not a myth that arranging a marriage can reduce a family to poverty,” the Beijing News quoted one Henan official as warning.

Counter-intuitively, the bride price is often higher in poorer areas because women need to be persuaded to stay there (or move there, if they aren’t from the region). Unlike the men, who traditionally do the heavier farm work in rural areas, the women often have greater freedom to move to cities, preferring employment in factories or the service sector. As WiC has noted before, this has left some villages without any younger women at all.

And in some places locals have turned to traffickers to bring them in from other parts of China or neighbouring countries (see WiC294 and WiC217).

The shortage has also provided an opportunity for scammers posing as women who pretend to want to get married. In one recent case from Hubei, a Ms Zhu and her daughter successfully scammed eight families out of Rmb500,000 in caili or bride money. One transaction involved Zhu (who is 57) falsely agreeing to marry a recently widowed father, while her daughter (a 32 year-old) was promised to his son. The duo were apprehended when another family reported them to the police for not returning the bride price after the younger Zhu said she couldn’t go through with her marriage (to yet another man).

While the caili system dates back hundreds of years, it is not a legally recognised practice, so there is little in the way of formal guidance on how much of the fee should be returned if the union is unsuccessful.

As part of the recent attempts to control bride prices, a court in Jiangxi capped the maximum amount at eight times annual per capita incomes in the area. It also ordered that the full amount should be returned if the couple never live together after it has been paid.

The court went on to say that 50% should be returned if the woman requests a divorce in the first year. But nothing should be given back if the marriage lasts more than two years.

Attempts to codify caili payments have proven controversial.

While the parents of some men are relieved that efforts are being made to cap bride prices, others are concerned that new regulations will prevent them from paying enough to attract a worthy bride, especially if her family is from a different part of the country or reluctant to be bound by the same rules.

And of course the parents of the prospective women are even less happy about the sudden capping of payments, claiming the government is interfering in “the market”.

“I will ask whatever amount I want,” one father from Hebei province told the Washington Post. “It’s not fair otherwise.”

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