Single in Shanghai

Single and ready to mingle? In Shanghai, China, they take this concept to a whole other level. Most of us seem to shutter at the thought of having our parents’ influence over our love life. In Western cultures, we try to find the right partner through websites, apps and dating. Many Shanghainese, however, do things a little differently.

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Every Sunday, Chinese parents gather at People’s Square, in the middle of Shanghai. They all take a spreadsheet with them, listing pictures and qualities of their children. Imagine a curriculum vitae, but for dating. These spreadsheets are laid out beside a path, where parents walk along and decide which one they like best for their child. It is especially important to pay attention to future wealth for the family. Let the negotiating begin!

Arranged marriages are still very common in Asia today. Especially in traditional societies, a person’s husband or wife is chosen by the parents or another individual. Here, love is often seen as something that develops over time, through shared experiences. It would therefore last very long. Furthermore, marriage also functions as a way to honour your ancestors, who made your current life possible. This is in sharp contrast to Western individualist societies, where you marry someone to complete your own life.

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In China, traditional marriages were built on a Confucian ideology, which idealized the idea of having multiple generations of one family under the same roof. In this way, the collective was more important than the individual, and marriage was a way to honour the community and one’s ancestors. The choice of partner was therefore under the complete control of the elders of a family and followed a strategy towards success for this family. During this traditional period, marriage was made up of an arrangement in which the man provided the financial means for the family, while the woman took care of the domestic duties.

Even though Confucianism mostly belongs to the Chinese past, traditional ideas about marriage created a lasting legacy that seems difficult to shake off. Still, individualism is becoming more important in modern society and the pursuit of personal happiness is gaining more respect. For a large part, this is due to feminist movements sparking up during the 20th century.

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These movements focused for a large part on family relations, pursuing the right for women to join the workforce and attend school. All of these movements tried to oppose the traditional role of women in the household. In 1950, the Marriage Law passed, legalizing the right to choose one’s own spouse and banning coerced marriages. In practice, however, many people still expect women to put their husbands and families first.

In current Chinese society, same-sex marriages are not recognized. Ironically, throughout China’s long history, same-sex relationships were not uncommon at all. It is the modern era in which cultural tolerance for gay people has begun to disappear. During the 20th century homosexuality has been illegal, but also classified as a mental illness. Luckily, this is no longer the case. Still, the concept is extremely stigmatized and many women and men are pressured into heterosexual marriage.

In short, China has seen a huge transformation in marriage policies during the previous decades. Where traditional Chinese society was mostly built on arranged marriage, the country has been rapidly developing into a modern society. In this new world, policies are softened and for the law, individuals are freer to choose their own spouse. In practical reality, however, there is still a lot of cultural and parental pressure to marry as well and as soon as possible. Partners should be chosen based on their social and financial status, aiming as high as possible.

R.C. WildeboerSchut

Photography: R.C. WildeboerSchut

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