Written by Xiaoling Shu and Jingjing Chen.

A recent policy recommendation by economist Xie Zuoshi advocating “wife sharing” as a solution to a 30-million surplus of single men in China has stimulated heated debates on a wide range of issues, from the immorality of “multiple men sharing one woman” to the real causes of gender imbalance.

However, the scope of these debates remains limited. Gender imbalance is generally seen as resulting from an economic disequilibrium between supply and demand of men and women in the marriage market—a point of view that has failed to recognize that the gender imbalance is deeply rooted in the cultural tradition, economic reality, and social institutions in contemporary China.

First, the “huge-surplus-men problem” is exceptionally prominent in China because marriage is regarded as a universal institution in this society. Almost all young people at marriage age are expected to be married by their parents, relatives, friends, coworkers, community, workplace, and the society at large. This cultural expectation is so powerful that despite of rising rates of premarital sex, cohabitation and divorce, marriage rate remains high and remarriage rate has increased.

In 2010, more than 70% of the population aged 15 and older were married, and by age 40, more than 90% were married (China Census 2010). Thirty million “bare branches” wifeless men are perceived as a grave situation, as these men are seen as unfortunate people who will not have a chance at entering the valued institution of marriage, let alone fulfilling the traditional expectation of producing heirs to extend family lines as delineated by the Confucian doctrine.

Second, the prevailing practice of hypergamy in union formation will likely result in a number far higher than 30 million wifeless men who are poor with little education and job skills. Hypergamy is the practice that women choose marriage partners with better education, more income, higher occupational skills, and, usually, much older in age.

Although arranged marriages are no longer popular, and love and companionship are increasingly emphasized by young people in China, marriage is still considered a viable path to achieve upward mobility, particularly for women. In recent years, hypergamy in China is manifested more often in the form of large age gaps between husbands and wives, as the accumulation of wealth and status takes time (Xie  2013).

The average age gap between husbands and wives grew by almost 10% during 2000-2010 (Liu & Liang 2014), and the percentage of marriages with husbands more than 4 years older than wives increased from 20% among the 1990 marriage cohort to more than 30% among the 2005 marriage cohort (Mu & Xie 2014)).

In fact, such practice was believed to be enforced more by men rather than by women, as men displayed more “pride” in insisting to be the one with higher status in marriage while women were reported to be more “flexible” in their requirements for education and income of their partners (Ji 2015). Thus the prevalence of hypergamy has led to two groups of people deemed as the least desirable on the Chinese marriage market: professionally successful women with high income aged 30 and older and poorly educated men with little job prospects.

Throwing media light on the surplus men as only resulting from the “one child” policy is misleading. Even with numerically matched gender ratios, there will still be both “surplus” men and “leftover” women. The reason why “surplus men” has become a policy concern is that the Chinese society sees marriage as universal, is less open to alternative forms of union and emphasizes offspring reproduction within legal marriage.

China has one of the most elaborated patriarchal family systems. Marriage and family in China remain rather traditional and patriarchal (Ji 2015, England 2010). The recent large-scale social change is said to have worsened women’s status in the marriage institution (Ji 2015). Economic development, urbanization and incorporation into the global market have led to loosened state control on marriage and a rise of neo-liberalism ideology, yet the prevalence of patriarchic beliefs and practices persists (Ji 2015, Pimentel 2006, Shu et al 2012).

Marriage in China remains a traditional institution where gender relations are regulated by patriarchal norms. With the rise of neo-liberal ideology of “leaving the responsibility to individuals”, the roles used to be played by the state in sanctioning gender equality within marriage have now been left unfulfilled while laws have not stepped in to protect women’s rights within marriage.

In such a family system, women shoulder the bulk of housework and only share decision-making power in repetitive, mundane and child-related decisions, whereas men make the major economic decisions. Even wives who have higher income and education still conform to this type of household division of labor and power (Shu et al 2012).

The New Marriage law of 2015 helps to perpetuate this lopsided male privilege in marriage by mandating that any purchased housing will belong to the marriage partner whose name is on the deed in the event of a divorce, even if the married couple has jointly paid for the mortgage.

This new law has failed to recognize the prevailing practice that in order to make themselves more attractive on the marriage market, the husbands-to-be and his parents usually pay for the housing down payment and put the husbands’ names on the deed before marriage, then the couple jointly pay for the mortgage during marriage. The New Marriage Law protects husbands’ property rights at the expenses of wives’ financial contributions toward the mortgage during the marriage.

Women in China are also disproportionally victims of domestic violence. In a sample of adults aged 20-64 from 1999 to 2000, 33% of women reported being hit by their current partners, and 19% of respondents also reported male-on-female violence. A larger proportion of women were reported to be more likely to suffer from injuries of domestic violence such as cuts and bruises (Parish et al 2004).

Domestic violence is often seen as family affairs in the Chinese society, and outsiders (friends, neighbors, coworkers, or bystanders) as well as the victims themselves almost never report violent domestic crimes to the authorities. Although the revised marriage law in 2000 recognized “family violence” and “abuse”, and established grounds for financial compensations at divorce (Davis 2014), it has been seldom enforced.

It is thus not surprising to find that Chinese women have less marital satisfaction compared with men (Ji 2015). While husbands benefit from marriage by gaining free domestic help, childcare, property rights, and time and energy for his career, wives contribute housework after paid employment by working on a “second shift” at home while usually bringing close to half of the family total income (Shu et al 2012).

Even when relationships deteriorate to the point of marital dissolution, women often choose to stay within unhappy marriages. Although men enjoy more benefits from marriage, they are more likely to seek divorce, since divorced men enjoy more options than women as evidenced by men’s higher divorce rate and remarriage rate (Chen et al working paper).

Despite a sex ratio imbalance favoring Chinese women, women continue to receive the shorter end of the deal on the marriage market: their worth deteriorates once they are close to 30 years old; within marriage, they do more housework, have less marital power, enjoy less property rights; they are also more vulnerable to domestic violence, and less likely to seek divorce; once divorced, they are less likely to remarry.

Xiaoling Shu is Professor of Sociology at University of California, Davis. Her latest work is: “Uneven Transitions: Cohort‐ and Period‐based Changes in Gender Attitudes in China: 1995‐2007.” Social Science Research 41(5):1100‐1115. Jingjing Chen is a sociology PhD student at University of California, Davis. Image credit: CC by Allain/Flickr.

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