Geopolitics

How China's Free Market Economy Opened The Door To Romance

Traditional ideas about marriage still hold some sway among the Chinese, but more and more, couples are finally giving love a chance.

Kiss on a Beijing bench
Chen Zhiwu

BEIJING — For most of China's long history, there have been marriages, but not much in the way of romantic love. Only in recent decades has that finally changed.

Contemplating this issue, I can't help thinking about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who married Priscilla Chan, a Chinese-American woman, in 2012. Why, many Chinese people asked themselves, would one of the world's wealthiest men, with a fortune of $59 billion, marry a woman of average appearance? What's more, he seems to sincerely love her. How strange! Those kinds of comments are actually quite common among the Chinese. But why?

The answers lie in the difficult economic realities of old Chinese society. Traditionally, the first mission of marriage was to help the entire family financially and, by bringing new children into the fold, provide a counterbalance to old age and illness among the clan's senior members. The ultimate goal, of course, was to have a son to provide security in old age, and for that, marriage played the decisive role.

The building up of the in-law relationship is another key element for boosting long-term security. Marriage is about two people committing until death do they part, but by extension, it's also about the merging of families. That's why, in Chinese society, behavioral rules and the relational structure of all members of the clan are carefully and highly developed.

And since marriage involves so many other people's interests, it traditionally needed to be controlled from the top-down — by a patriarch. As such, the decision-makers of arranged, blind-dates were the parents of both parties rather than the two young protagonists themselves.

Logically, parents measure each other only with hard indicators such as appearance, fortune, and family status. Personal factors like sentiment and love were not weighed since they were important for the young couple but not necessarily for the other family members.

In China, the family is, first and foremost, a production unit.

As a study conducted by World Bank economist Lixin Colin Lu showed, marriages resulting from free love are more harmonious, but the wife doesn't necessarily respect her parents-in-law, and overall family finances may suffer. In contrast, marriages that were arranged by parents don't guarantee a good relationship for the young couple, but the benefits are that the daughter-in-law is more obedient and respectful, there are more grandchildren, and the elderly enjoy more security.


There's a song from the Fairy Couple, a well-known traditional Chinese Huangmei Opera​, that reveals a lot about Chinese views on love and marriage. It's widely seen as one of the most romantic love songs, but a careful look at the lyrics shows that it's a love-based essentially on shared interests and responsibilities. "You'll plow the field and I will weave," the song goes. "You'll fetch the water and I will nourish the plants."


The fact of the matter is that the family constructed through marriage is, first and foremost, a production unit in which the combination of the couple's skills and abilities maximizes their total output to obtain the best possible living standards. And until the last few decades, these economic imperatives have always dominated the function of marriage.

Certain historians hold the view that Chinese people also cared about love (and love stories), as evidenced by the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, a folktale about forbidden love in which, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge allowing the two lovers — separated on opposite sides of the heavenly river, i.e. the Milky Way — to reunite for one day.

Romantic experiences were absent in Chinese society.

Yet the fact that the cowherd and the weaver girl meet up at all is precisely because old Chinese society allowed no such luxury. Only in fiction was that allowed. In ancient times, there surely existed love stories, but "love " itself was never mainstream.

It was a luxury, rather, that was reserved to a privileged few, as one Chinese scholar realized while struggling, in the 1920s, to translate French romantic poems. The translator struggled in particular with the word "rose," which westerners use to express romantic sentiment. But Chinese people have no feeling towards roses, he noted.

How then to translate the word so that Chinese readers understand its romantic connotations? This was mission impossible, he concluded, because romantic experiences, in general, were so absent in Chinese society.

Choices, choices

Some also argue that arranged marriages can lead to love. True, but rarely. Traditionally, the young couples met each other only after the parents and matchmakers sorted out all the details and conditions of the marriage. In certain cases, the couple-to-be didn't meet until the wedding day itself. What is the difference between such an arrangement and a business deal? How likely is love to foster in such a scenario?​

A dozen years ago, Professor Yan Yunxiang from the University of California conducted a survey in a rural area in northeast China, where he asked people in one village if they'd describe the period prior to their marriages as "falling in love." The oldest among them had a different way to describe it: They called it "seeking relatives through marriage." Villagers who married in the 60s and 70s used the expression "looking for marrying object." Only couples who married more recently conceived of things in terms of "falling in love."

File image of Chan and Zuckerberg in Prague — Photo: Lukasz Porwol

Obviously, the shift from "seeking relatives through marriage" to "looking for marrying object" was a revolution in itself. It shows that the spouses-to-be were already enjoying some agency in the decision, with more space for emotional considerations. But marriage still had a clear utilitarian purpose.

Since then, though, love really does seem to earn a place in the equation. Some say it's because the concept of the family has changed for people in China. They have become more modern. But there are other factors at play too, especially in terms of how the economy operates.

With urbanization and industrial development, people are no longer weavers and farmers. As such, the couple's function — as a production unit — has changed dramatically. And the future security of families can be managed through markets. It no longer depends on marriage alone.

What's the point of a husband?

But as the economic and risk-avoiding functions of marriage are gradually replaced by the market, and love is more valued in a marriage, this also increases the rate of divorce. Meanwhile, the proportion of single people also rises. These are all the costs of individual freedom and financial development.

Nevertheless, they are the result of Chinese people attaching more value to love and affection, and of having more choices. This is rather positive, although the fact that so many Chinese still can't comprehend Mark Zuckerberg's choice of partner means that our society still limits the space allowed for feelings of love and emotional attachment.

One woman put it to me quite simply: What's the point of a husband?, she asked.

After all, it used to be that women needed men to move the coal, to carry heavy things around. But now logistics companies can do the job. Anything can be delivered right to your doorstep. Men also used to be the only ones earning income. But now many women earn more than men, at least in highly urbanized areas. Women don't even need a husband anymore — at least not technically — for making a baby or sex.

Perhaps from that perspective, there is no point — unless, of course, there's love.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ