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China’s young adults still hold traditional values toward marriage

By Xue Yali | 2013-07-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Thousands of Chinese couples registered for marriage around Valentine’s Day. A couple is holding their marriage certificates.   



The increasing number of spouseless Chinese has prompted concern from some scholars and media sources, eliciting newspaper headlines such as “Proportion of unmarried Chinese young men growing”, “Unwed adults now a national crisis”, “More from post-80s generation fear marriage, especially men”, “High real-estate prices lead to late marriage”, etc. In fact, the rising number of unmarried adults is not a phenomenon exclusive to China, and the growth rate of this demographic is slower than that of Europe and the United States. Moreover, it does not mean China’s young adults are not seeking or are afraid of marriage.

Chinese still marrying younger than people in developed countries
It is true that fewer Chinese are tying the knot in their twenties. In 2009, among the 25-29 age demographic, unmarried males accounted for 35.2% of the total demographic while females accounted for 18.2%, an increase of 12.1% and 13% respectively, compared with 1982; among those aged 30 to 34, 11.5% of men and 3.4% of women were unmarried, an increases of 2.7% for both sexes compared with 1982. In 1990, the average age for first marriages was 23.78 for men and 22.06 for women, while in 2005 it had risen to 25.86 and 23.49, respectively. These statistics show that Chinese citizens are getting married later.
As noted above, postponing marriage is becoming a worldwide phenomenon. According to the UN Demographic Yearbook, the average age for the first marriage is around 30 among females: 28 in South Africa, Slovakia, Burma, Luxembourg, Iceland, and Chinese Macao; 29 in Switzerland, Spain, Japan, Mongolia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Albania, and Qatar; 30 in Australia, Finland, Belgium, Hungary, the Netherlands, Italy and Chinese Hong Kong; 31 in Denmark, Ireland, Nepal, Germany and Montenegro; 32 in Sweden, Nigeria, and France, and 33 in Jamaica and Polynesia. In 2010, the average age for the first marriage was 28 for males and 26 for females in the United States, while in Shanghai it was 25.3 and 23.2 respectively. In 2009, the proportion of unwed adults was 22.5% (male) and 16.4% (female) in the United States, while it was 5.6% and 1.0% in China. In comparison, China is still marrying relatively young.
Few Chinese people choose to never marry
As the saying goes, “A man should get married on coming of age, and so should a girl.” Even at present, Chinese by and large still believe marriage to be a necessary journey in life. In a survey conducted in 2007 by the Family Study Center at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences entitled “A comparison of the evolution of family values in urban and rural households”, 2,200 people between 20 and 64 in urban and rural areas in both Shanghai and Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, were interviewed about their views on marriage, among other topics; nearly three quarters of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “People should get married no matter what.” Nuances in opinion occurred between age group and locale but not gender: Among those under age 35, 69.7% agreed with the statement, while among those over fifty, 78.5% agreed. 81.2% of rural residents interviewed concurred—a remarkably higher percentage of than that of urban residents, 69.2%. Interviewees nearly unanimously confirmed their belief in the positive value of marriage, with 99% among those surveyed answering yes to the question, “Is a happy marriage essential to life?” According to theChinese General Social Survey Report 2006 conducted by the National Survey Research Center at Renmin University of China, only one fifth of those surveyed disagreed with the statements, “Generally speaking, married men are happier than those unmarried”, and “Married women are happier than those unmarried.”
Marriage was once considered the ultimate goal and fundamental requirement for a happy life; however, the women of some countries and regions have questioned this privileging of matrimony above other life-goals since the 1990s. An international comparative study conducted in 2002 showed that 86.6% of British female participants believed that “marriage is a personal choice, so it is all right whether married or not”, which was a sharp increase from 56.8% in 1992; only 1.6% were opposed or mildly opposed to the statement. In Sweden, the figure rose from 57.3% in 1992 to 62.3% in 2002; Germany, from 22.0% to 57.7%; and in Japan, from 34.0% to 63.1%. South Korea also witnessed an almost 20% increase, while the majority of Philippine women opposed the statement.
Compared with the above countries excluding the Philippines, among those surveyed in China, remarkably more regard marriage as an indispensible part of life. In a 2004 survey of Chengdu and Shanghai residents aged 20-30 conducted by Li Yu and Xu Anqi, two researchers at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, only 15% of participants agreed that “it is not important whether or not a marriage is registered”; as to the idea that “marriage is a personal choice, so it is all right if an individual chooses not to marry,” merely 13.6% “strongly agree[d]” and 32.7%“agree[d]”, with no noticeable divergence in viewpoint based on gender, locale, age or education background. This indicates that China’s young adults still hold relatively conservative views toward matrimony. In fact, among those aged 40-44 in China, the proportion of unmarried men to the total demographic is 3.4%, while for women it is only 0.5%; in the United States it is 18.4% and 13.1% respectively.
Late marriage is common worldwide
Late marriage is common in the world now, but the young adults in China are not choosing to remain single their whole lives, nor are they afraid of marriage. Several factors have contributed to the burgeoning of late marriage in China.
First of all, more young men and women from rural areas are migrating to cities to find work; influenced by urban social trends and struggling to make a living and become established in their new environments, it is often most practical for them to postpone marriage. Besides, with more people enrolling in higher education, particularly women, graduation and beginning a career are delayed; intense societal competition and the demands of work-life take up time that would have previously been reserved for courtship. Discrimination of married women and mothers in the workforce has also generally postponed the process of dating and marriage.
In addition, the rising costs of marriage has led to young men choosing to establish their careers before finding spouses; it is unfair, however, to attribute the reason for the increase in the unwed population to the significant burden of real-estate prices. While it is true that quite a few young men have chosen to marry late because they could not afford a house earlier, most Chinese young men have a stronger sense of independence than previous generations and do not want to live with their parents. Apart from those factors, as cohabitation is not recognized by the law in China and out-of-wedlock births are considered in violation of the family planning policy, marriage is required for couples to obtain the right to have children. Moreover, parents in most cases will urge their children to get married sooner, which also contributes to few Chinese could accepting a life without marriage. In conclusion, traditional matrimonial values have not been forsaken by Chinese young adults; rather, they find it more practical to marry late because of present day realities.  
Xue Yali is from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 392, Dec 14.
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Translated by Jiang Hong
Revised  by Charles Horne