Written by Jun Zhang.

People’s Park is a central landmark in metropolitan Shanghai. But since June 2005, a corner of the park has also become a market-like place, serving as a venue for parental matchmaking on weekends and national holidays. Middle-aged parents gather in People’s Park to find mates for their college-educated children, particularly daughters. Parents write down their children’s basic information such as age, height, and monthly salary on pieces of paper and then clip them to pieces of string tied between the trees, place them on bushes, or lay them on the ground. They sit patiently, waiting for other parents to make inquiries about their children. They also walk around, jotting down the information of those they consider potential partners for their children. This is not unique to Shanghai, similar “matchmaking corners” (xiangqinjiao) can be seen in other Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen.

Intimate lives in China have recently recaptured scholarly attention. In Davis and Friedman’s volume, authors show that marriage and family are confronted with challenges in urban China. In “Transforming Patriarchy,” Santos and Harrell propose that analyses of contemporary practices of marriage and family should follow both the gender and the generation axes in order to present an in-depth understanding of the diversity in these transformations. Along these lines, we can unpack parental matchmaking not so much as a revival of “tradition”, but as a way to glimpse how racial and social transformations have affected intimate lives in urban areas.

For starters, there is a disproportionately large share of parental anxiety regarding their daughters’ – not sons’ – marriage status in these matchmaking corners. This is rather intriguing given the male-biased sex ratio in the population. It is widely accepted that by 2009, men outnumbered women in every cohort under the age of thirty. It is men, not women, who are more likely never to marry in every age group.

Then who are these women whose marriage status so concerns their parents? Usually aged between their mid-20s and late 30s, these young women hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Most are company employees, civil servants or professionals such as accountants, lawyers, and research fellows. By virtue of their occupational position and good education, they represent secure members of China’s new middle class. Without one or more brothers as competitors, they have benefited from China’s birth control policy: parents have channeled substantial energy and resources into providing unprecedented opportunities for them to pursue education. The expansion of higher education and the emergence of middle-class jobs resulting from market reforms have enabled these young women to develop careers and lifestyles that are compatible with their talents and economic status.

Compared to women in the same age group but with less education, these middle-class women tend to get married slightly later, but not that they do not get married at all. Nonetheless, they are often labeled as surplus women (shengnü) in mass media and popular discourses.

Shengnü” (剩女) means literally “surplus women” in Chinese. Although the term surplus men co-exists with surplus women, the latter appears much more frequently in everyday usage. The proliferation of the shengnü discourse attests to the influence of a gender paradigm that privileges career accomplishment for men and marriage and homemaking for women. This gender ideology finds expression in the recurring “women return home” debates since the launch of market reforms. Most recently, this line of argument resurfaced during national debates in 2001 focused on how economically independent urban women with good educations had intensified competition for the best professional and white-collar jobs, creating more pressure on men seeking those positions. Women’s commitment to work is also seen as a major cause of family conflict. Unmarried women often are criticised as “self-indulgent” and “picky,” their selectiveness about a marriage partner portrayed as a threat to the social order.

It is in this ideology of gender roles that we see parents’ explicit expression of concern for their daughter’s marriage status: These parents may be long-term local residents or newcomers who accompany their children or spouses to big cities. They are usually well established, and enjoy a relatively relaxing retirement life. Many of these parents had been sent down to the countryside for re-education in their teens during the Maoist years. They consciously chose not to marry in the countryside because they feared it would prevent them from returning to the city if marriage in a village assigned them a permanent rural household registration. As a result, many remained single in their early thirties and returned to their home cities as “over-aged youth”, whose own marriage problems were seen by some as a socially de-stabilising force.

The party-state has played an important role in providing occasions – such as dance parties or camping events – for the singles to meet before the Cultural Revolution and in the early reform era. To those who were born and raised after 1949, such state interventions seemed unsurprising in the “cradle-to-grave” institutional background of the planned economy that was naturalised by decades of political mobilisation. However, with the retreat of the state from the dating scene, many parents feel that they had no choice but to fill the gap and look for a mate for their daughters.

Parents in matchmaking corners typically have specific requirements for potential mates: height, profession, income, urban household registration, and preferably an apartment ready for the future new couple. These requirements seem instrumental and materialistic. Yet, from the parents’ perspective, it is impossible for them to know which person their daughter may fall in love with. Therefore, matchmaking naturally started with the match of tangible conditions in an environment full of strangers. Their goal is to find a reliable person who can take over their responsibility to provide a comfortable material environment and to look after their beloved daughters. Parents are not imposing their decisions on their children; instead, their role is just to screen the candidates and to seek choices that could be presented to their children, who would then decide to take the chance or not. They are driven by their emotional, affectionate ties to their daughter and a deep sense of responsibility for their daughters’ lives. Although the daughters may not like parental matchmaking or do not think it helps, they acknowledge the sincere care offered by their parents.

In short, parental matchmaking is a good example of the enduring significance of marriage, the powerful effects of a selective rendering of traditional gender ideology, and reconstitution of inter-generational bonds based on love and care shaped by the one-child policy and solidified by the economic insecurities of the reform era.

Jun Zhang is a research assistant professor at Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on the middle-class culture, charity, automobility, infrastructure and urbanisation. This article is adapted from her chapter (co-authored with Peidong Sun) “When Are You Going to Get Married?” Parental Matchmaking and Middle-class Women in Contemporary Urban China.” in Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Urban China (edited by Deborah Davis and Sara Friedman; Stanford University Press). Image Credit: CC by thaths/flickr