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China is in rapid marriage transition

CHEN WEI and ZHANG FENGFEI | 2022-03-24 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A couple celebrates their Buyi ethnic minority style wedding at Tonghe Village, Anshun City, Guizhou Province, on March 14, 2022. Photo: CFP

Marriage is not only an institution, but also a window into cultural and social changes. As modernization advances, Western European countries took the lead in the transformation of marriage and family life. Afterwards, many countries followed suit, transitioning from traditions of early marriage and universal marriage, to modern late marriage or non-marriage. In China, changes in marriage trends over the past few decades are unprecedented, which neither follows the trajectory of marriage changes in Western countries, nor does it align with neighboring Japan and South Korea. The transformation of marriage in China shows some general patterns, but also retains its own uniqueness. After the 1990s, the postponement of marriage has become a trend, especially following 2010, marriage in China is in a rapid transition.
Postponement of first marriage
An in-depth examination would reveal that marriage in China has changed on many fronts, but the most sensitive and significant is the change in the form of marriage, which is also a magnifying glass reflecting social problems. In traditional Chinese society, the system of consanguinity and patriarchal clans have lasted for thousands of years, and the concept of family ethics dominates, which is inseparable from, and primarily based on, marriage and childbirth. 
Though marriage is a personal matter, since ancient times the Chinese have been largely bound by institutions and customs. In the Spring and Autumn Period, Duke Huan of the State of Qi (r. 685–643 BCE) ordered that “a man should marry at 20, and a woman should marry at 15.” In the early Song Dynasty (960–1279), it was stipulated that “a man should marry at 15 and a woman at 13.” In Confucian culture, “family regulation” was regarded as the premise of “state governance and bringing peace to all under Heaven.” It can be seen that traditional early marriages and universal marriage are deeply rooted in China. 
 When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the Marriage Law stipulated the legal age for marriage, which was no less than 18 for women and no less than 20 for men. This led to a marked increase in the marriage age throughout the 1950s, with the national average over 19 years for women and over 21 years for men. 
In the 1970s, the family planning policy was fully implemented, and the state tried to achieve later childbearing by advocating for later marriage, encouraging urban men to marry at 28+ and women at 25+, and rural men at 25+ and women at 23+. Due to policy intervention, the national average age of marriage in China rose to nearly 25 years old for men and over 23 years old for women, with even higher ages in urban areas. 
In 1980, the new Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China permitted women and men to marry at 20 and 22, respectively, but this was much lower than the marriage age implemented by the family planning policy, making the average marriage age in China decline temporarily in the 1980s.
In the 1990s, market-oriented reform and economic development altered Chinese people’s values and outlook on marriage and childbearing, greatly lifting the average marriage age and sending the concept of marriage into rapid transformation. From 1990 to 2000, the national average marriage age increased from 23.57 to 25.11 years for men and from 22.02 to 23.17 years for women. 
In particular, since 2010, it has taken less and less time to increase the marriage age by one year. In the sixth national census in 2010, the average marriage age for men and women was 25.86 and 23.89 years old, respectively. In the seventh national census, 10 years later, the average marriage age for men and women rose to 28.43 and 26.30 years old. Behind the general postponement of marriage are gender and regional differences, with rural men seeing a sharper delay in marriage.
The marriage age is used to measure when people are inclined to tie the knot, while the unmarried ratio tells us how many people choose non-marriage. Generally speaking, if the proportion of unmarried women aged 45-49 is less than 5%, a culture can be regarded as a universal marriage society. At present, China still fits this portrait, but it is worth noting that the proportion of unmarried young people is on the rise. From 1990 to 2020, the proportion of unmarried men aged 25-29 has jumped from 16.71% to 52.93%, and women from 4.30% to 33.19%. In the past 30 years, the unmarried proportion of the marriageable population has been greatly advancing, basically increasing by one percentage point every year. 
Moreover, this phenomenon is extending from the younger age group to older age groups, which means that the current late marriage trend in China risks changing into a non-marriage trend. In East Asian countries where Confucian culture prevails, such as Japan, late marriage and universal marriage did not last long, and then Japan saw a switch to late marriage and non-marriage models. Though the change in South Korea happened later than that in Japan, the speed of change is much faster. It is difficult to predict whether China will further transition to late marriage and non-marriage models in the future, but the increasing proportion of unmarried people at marriageable ages will inevitably raise the possibility of lifelong non-marriage.
Attainability, feasibility, desirability
The transformation of marriage occurs under multiple impacts: the times, society, family, and individual factors. In China, it took place as the reform and opening up deepened, when modernization promoted economic transformation, changed the social outlook, and fully affected the attainability, feasibility, and desirability of marriage.
The attainability of marriage mainly depends on the gender ratio of the marriageable population. When it is imbalanced, the marriage market will be disturbed by an “oversupply” or “deficit” of males relative to females. Since the 1980s, the gender ratio at birth in China has been imbalanced. Data from the seventh national census showed that in 2020, there were 24 million more men than women in the unmarried population between the age of 20 to 34, which will greatly lower the availability of spouses for men, especially for rural men who are at a disadvantage.
At the same time, the feasibility of marriage is an important reason for marriage’s transformation.  As the main body participating in marriage and childrearing, “post-80s” and “post-90s” are the first generation of only children. They grew up in a period of rapid economic growth and enjoyed the dividends brought by the reform. However, marriage and childrearing are occurring for them in the transition period, resulting in an inconsistency between consumption expectancies and their economic abilities, thus forming relative poverty. 
During this period, the housing system reform and expansion of higher education allowed young people to improve their educational levels and extended their educational years, but they also faced soaring housing prices and huge employment pressure. Amid fierce competition, this young generation faces more difficulty settling down and starting a family than their parents. It takes longer to achieve consumption expectations, and that drives a change in marriage.
Last but not least, modernization not only changes lifestyles, but also reshapes thought patterns. With the enrichment of material life, intellectual life is increasingly prosperous, and attraction outside marriage is mounting, as is the substitutability of marriage. Growing up in the information age, the “post-90s” and “post-00s” have more open and diversified ideas. Their identification with the traditional ideal that “men and women should marry when they grow up” has weakened, while individualism and self-development have taken root. Once traditional concepts of love and marriage have been shaken, marriage gradually becomes an option rather than a necessity. Therefore, cohabitation instead of marriage, non-marriage, and other new lifestyles have begun to gain traction.
Low birth rate
Among the many consequences of marriage transformation, childbearing bears the brunt. In some Western countries, it is common to give birth out of wedlock, so delays in marriage will not affect birth rates as much. However, in China, marriage and childrearing are usually sequential, the traditional norm of “marriage first, children later” still lingers, so marriage delays may lead to a fertility crisis.
Marriage is the beginning of a family life cycle, and changes in marital behavior alter the scale and structure of family systems. The average household size in China dropped from 3.1 in 2010 to 2.62 in 2020, according to the national censuses, further reducing the size of families. In this context, lifestyles have also diversified. Unmarried people can continue to live with their families, or they may choose to live alone or cohabit. Families are no longer simply a community of blood or in-laws. The traditional family functions such as childbearing, childrearing, and old-age care are thus affected, impacting the family’s healthy development.
To some extent, marriage transformation takes a toll on social culture. Globally, the marriage transformation began in Europe. For China, it started in Shanghai, Beijing, and other first-tier cities, and then continued to radiate and spread to the surrounding areas. Finally, from the east to the west, from the city to the countryside, it sweeps across the country, forming a horizontal band of transmission. In the process of individual socialization, parents’ ideas and behaviors will also play an exemplary role to their children. Once the idea of late marriage becomes popular, it will also produce longitudinal intergenerational transmission. When the late marriage culture is strengthened from generation to generation, marriage transformation will be more profound, forming a negative spiral effect.
The change of marriage in China, just like the demographic transformation, is an inevitable outcome of modernization and the most direct reflection of people’s values in today’s era, which can neither be stopped nor reversed. That said, we should not only study the characteristics and influencing factors of marriage changes in China, but also be prepared to deal with its social and economic consequences from an academic perspective. After all, effective governance is of great significance for promoting the long-term balanced development of population.
Chen Wei and Zhang Fengfei are from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China. 
Edited by YANG XUE