The shortage of women caused by China’s one-child policy, combined with the country’s economic boom over the last two decades have made marriage a grim prospect for poor men in rural regions. These two factors have bumped up the “bride price” to hundreds of thousands of yuan, sometimes even millions, obscene amounts that most men can’t hope of raising without taking a bank loan.
The bride price is a a centuries-old Chinese tradition that survived and even thrived in the Communist era. It’s similar to the Western tradition of dowry, only it requires a prospective groom to pay the family of the bride for permission to marry her. In the 60’s and 70’s, the bride price was paid in modest gifts ranging from a simple thermos to bedding. During the 80’s television sets and refrigerators were popular gifts offered as bride prices, but since the economy started to grow in the 1990’s, the payment switched to hard cash and the sums demanded by the family of the bride have been rising ever since.
But perhaps the best explanation for the ever-increasing bride price is the gender inequality in China. During the days of the one-child policy, the preference for males strong enough to work and later look after their elderly parents led to a huge increase in sex-selective abortion and even infanticide of female babies. As a result, Harvard researchers claim that today there are 118 men for every 100 women in China, and the proportion is actually worse in poor rural regions.
“They’re called ‘bare branches, guys who are very poor, aren’t educated, they don’t have a wife or children, so they’re like a tree without leaves. There are villages across China which are full of men like this,” Manya Koetse, and editor of What’s on Weibo, told the BBC. “They have double trouble actually. Women leave these villages to move to bigger cities to find a man who can offer them more than the guys in the village. And the few women who remain might have 20 men each who want to marry them, so they can ask for a high bride price.”
Zhang Hu, a young man from an impoverished mountain village, recently had to borrow 150,000 yuan ($22,000) just so he could pay the 130,000 yuan ($19,000) bride price demanded by his fiancee’s family. “The village is so poor that no woman wants to marry men here,” Zhang said. “And the poorer you are, the higher the bride price.” In some of the poorest villages in China, men are left with no option but to buy brides from Vietnam, because there are no local women left, or the competition for the few girls still living there is so high that they could never pay the bride price demanded by their families.
The bride price is very serious business in China, and not being able to foot the bill often times has dire consequences. Last year, a shocking story made the rounds on Chinese social media. A man wanted to marry his pregnant girlfriend, but when he wasn’t able to pay the $30,000 bride price demanded by her family, the father put an end to any talk of a prospective wedding and asked the woman to get an abortion. The general reaction to the story was even more shocking, though, with many people defending the father’s actions and criticizing the young couple for getting involved with each other without thinking of the implications.
To make matters worse, the economic development of the countryside has prompted families of prospective brides to ask for apartments in nearby urban communities and a car. Chen Weimin, director of population and development studies at Nankai University in Tianjin, told SCMP that it is now a “must” for brides and grooms to own a flat in a town. “Villagers used to host wedding banquets at home, but now they also hold them in hotels and use a motorcade involving expensive cars on the wedding day,” he added.
Things aren’t much better in urban China. A map of the level of bride prices given in China, published four years ago, showed that in cities like Shanghai, the average price for a bride was around 1 million yuan ($145,000). That has likely doubled in the last few years, as bachelors seem eager to pay much more than that these days. Last year, news of a bride from Putian, a city in eastern Fujian province, who got married after her family received a 3.8 million yuan ($550,000) caused controversy online. And keep in mind that this is just a sum paid to the family of the bride, the wedding itself involves separate expenditures.
Zhang Mingsuo, a sociology professor at Zhengzhou University, says that the bride price tradition originated in rural areas of China, where parents of girls asked for something in return for their hand in marriage, to help them support themselves in old age after spending considerable resources bringing up their daughters. However, the amounts of money charged in China these days are not justified by the tradition’s original purpose. Today, it is only driven by materialism.