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Op-Ed: “Chinese People Unwilling to Get Married” – What BBC Forgot To Mention

A recent BBC article misses one incredibly important aspect of marriage in China, Ryan Myers says.

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Fewer people are tying the knot in China, the New York Times recently reported. The news triggered the hashtag “Chinese People Unwilling to Get Married” on Chinese social media. BBC News covered and contextualized the discussion in a recent article. But the article misses one incredibly important aspect of marriage in China, What’s on Weibo’s Ryan Myers says.

BBC News recently published an article titled “Chinese web users discuss hitches to getting married“, discussing a trend on Chinese social media hashtagged “Chinese People Unwilling To Get Married” (#中国人不愿结婚#).

The article by Kerry Allen discusses how Chinese social media users have been expressing doubts about the institution of marriage. The trend was triggered by a New York Times article published on September 11, that was subsequently picked up by Chinese media.

 

“Although the article has valid points, there is one major issue missing from this discussion.”

 

The original New York Times article states that Chinese people are increasingly disinclined to get married. Because of higher education and better-paid jobs, the financial incentive to get married allegedly is less important now than it was in the past.

According to the BBC, many Chinese social media users have expressed why they no longer believe in marriage. “The institution is not as relevant as it once was”, “marriage is not a necessity”, or “the cost of marriage is too high”, are amongst the reasons mentioned.

BBC contextualizes the comments by highlighting that China’s ageing population and former one-child-policy have led to an age and gender gap that leaves many men unable to find a partner.1

The article also mentions changing attitudes among young women, as there are many who want to pursue higher education and a career rather than to be financially dependent on a partner.

Although the article has valid points, there is one major issue missing from this discussion. The BBC stresses that there is not as much incentive to get married anymore in China, with people no longer “believing” in marriage, but they do not mention the fact that it is nearly impossible to register a newborn baby without a marriage certificate – which is a major reason for people to get married anyway.

In other words: the BBC article suggests that lowered marriage numbers in China linked to a general “unwillingness” to get married, while in fact people still marry (i.a. for the sake of having babies) despite their “changing attitudes” about the institution of marriage.

 

“Birthing a child out of wedlock is next to unheard of in China.”

 

The People’s Republic of China requires couples to be legally married if they want to have a child. This is related to the Chinese hukou or ‘household registration’ system. A person’s hukou basically is their geographic citizenship within China. One’s hukou is directly linked to one’s parents, city, town, and province, and determines almost all aspects of social welfare, including how much one pays to buy housing in their city of residence and the cost of education.

People without a hukou are called ‘heihu’, which translates directly to ‘black resident’. A heihu cannot apply for a national ID, and thus cannot have a mobile phone account, a bank account, or a health insurance policy, and cannot buy train or plane tickets legally.

Clearly, it is impossible to lead a normal life in China without hukou, and since a marriage license is required for parents to register their children in the system, birthing a child out of wedlock is next to unheard of in China.

 

“Any media that does not look at the policies behind negative emotions expressed via social media will not have a complete understanding of the situation in China.”

 

While many men and women in China express negative or ambivalent attitudes towards marriage and the accompanying social pressure to tie the knot, if these people truly wish to remain single, or unmarried in any other context, they are automatically forgoing the right to have a child. While many people complain about marriage as an institution, very few in China actually follow through on their gripes.

Perhaps the reason that people indeed complain, saying they do not wish to marry or they have negative feelings about the institution, stems from a deeper, often subconscious trend to self-censor. In a country where directly criticising government policies can have serious repercussions, it is much easier and safer to express views and opinions as feelings. Instead of criticising government policies on carbon emissions, for example, netizens are likely to talk about how depressing the grey air is.2

Complaining about China’s marriage system, or saying ‘the government should not let us get married to have children’, is something less likely to be found trending on Chinese social media.

Because of this indirect style of expressing grievances, any media that does not look at the policies behind negative emotions expressed via Chinese social media will not have a complete understanding of the situation in China, and indeed might be even so nearsighted as not to grasp a larger, more pertinent trend.

 

“Where are all those women who supposedly do not want to get married?”

 

It is, however, true that marriage rates have been declining in China. As the Chinese population is getting increasingly old, with a surplus of men on the lower end of the social scale, and a large number of educated and ambitious (“leftover”) women on the higher end of the social scale, and people getting married at a later age, it is not surprising that marriage registrations in China have been falling for the last few years.

Looking on Weibo, I found that there also were many netizens with other points of view than those expressed in the BBC article. One TV presenter wrote: “Chinese people unwilling to get married – these Americans are talking nonsense. What we as Chinese value most in life is family. But because the costs to get married and start a family are now too high, many young people are forced to work hard first. But to “start a family and make a career” (成家立业) makes sense. The family is our driving force and natural harbor. Making a career is a goal and a hope.”

Others also said: “This news is nonsense. This is one big generalisation. Where are all those women who supposedly do not want to get married? It’s not that they do not want to get married, it’s that they cannot find the right person!”

By Ryan Myers

1 Since it is mostly those at the lower end of the social ladder who stay behind, they end up in a negative spiral: they are already at a disadvantage for statistically not being able to find a wife, but because of their economic situation, they also cannot afford to buy a home for his potential partner – making them even less popular on the marriage market.

2 This type of expression may, at least with regards to social harmony, have a positive affect. After all, China has experienced much less social unrest in recent years than most western countries.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Ryan Myers is a teacher and Chinese language & culture specialist who has been based in Beijing for over a decade. Myers conducts professional workshops throughout China for Chinese audiences, ranging from professors in university to young students, and is specialized in cross-cultural teaching.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Robin Dahling

    September 24, 2016 at 9:04 am

    Ryan,

    I find your second footnote rather interesting in light of the context of your article and your explanation of the differences between Chinese and Western cultures. More specifically, I find it interesting to say that China has experienced much less social unrest in recent years than most Western countries; are you so sure of that?

    I recall many different instances of social unrest, ranging from Wukan village to the Occupy movement in Hong Kong to petitions and protests against paraxalyne plants in various cities, to attempts to raise awareness of women’s issues on public transit (which led to the arrest of the Feminist Five) and criticism of the 2015 Chunwan and its obvious sexism/chauvinism, which quickly became censored by social media watchdogs. These are a just a few examples where people were vocal about the issues, and almost all of these in the past few years – this does not include food scandals, “Watch Brother”, issues in Xinjiang or Tibet, forced evictions, or many other similar issues that would result in what we could call (whether local or national) “unrest.”

    My point is that a lot of the social unrest/disharmony is quietly swept under the carpet or ignored by media based on the government’s desire to maintain the appearance of social harmony (call it mianzi writ large) or to keep people from actively thinking about it or speaking about it in large forums. Within the Chinese context though, there is plenty of unrest, equal to many Western countries – just not as publicized.

  2. Avatar

    Choudoufu

    October 14, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    ‘the government should not let us get married to have children’
    I think you mean ‘make’ instead of ‘let.’ Were you translating from Chinese (让)?

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China History

Mourning Jiang Zemin, Weibo Turns Black and White

Since the rise of Chinese social media, Jiang Zemin became a recurring part of Chinese memes.

Manya Koetse

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Following the announcement that Jiang Zemin (江泽民), the former president of the PRC, has passed away, various Chinese online platforms have turned into ‘grey’ mode as a sign of mourning. Jiang Zemin died due to leukemia and organ failure. He was 96 years old.

Besides Weibo, the home page of major Chinese websites such as Baidu, Sogou, Taobao, Alipay, Xinhua, People’s Daily, The Paper, and many others all turned into black-and-white mourning mode on Wednesday.

Bilibili turns into grey mode on November 30.

Search engine Sogou also in black and white mode.

On Weibo, one post about Jiang Zemin’s passing received a staggering one million reposts and over two million ‘likes.’ The hashtag “Comrade Jiang Zemin Passed Away at the Age of 96 in Shanghai” (#江泽民同志在上海逝世享年96岁#) had received over 2,5 billion clicks by Wednesday night.

Jiang Zemin was appointed as President of the People’s Republic of China in 1993. In the years before, the former Shanghai Party chief already held official positions as the chairman of the Central Military Affairs Commission and general secretary of the Party. In 2003, Jiang Zemin retired and was replaced by Hu Jintao (Sullivan 2012).

Since the rise of Chinese social media, Jiang became a recurring part of Chinese memes. Jiang had created a wide group of online fans, who are commonly referred to as ‘toad worshippers’ as the online phenomenon of ‘worshipping’ Jiang Zemin is called mo ha (膜蛤), ‘toad worship’ (Fang 2020, 38). The entire phenomenon has become its own subculture that is called ‘mo ha culture’ (móhá wénhuà, 膜蛤文化).

What started as a joke – nicknaming Jiang a ‘toad’ due to his big glasses, signature pants, and wide smile, – became an actual online movement of people who were appreciative of Jiang Zemin.

They loved him, not only because the former leader spoke many languages and other talents, and because of his unique appearance, but mainly because he was not scared to show his emotions, was very expressive, and good at telling stories.

One famous example of this, is when Jiang Zemin got upset with a Hong Kong journalist in 2000 and told them off using three languages (link to video, also here). The much-repeated quote “too young, too simple, sometimes naive” comes from this noteworthy moment as Jiang told journalists that they still had a lot to learn, whereas he had gone through “hundred of battles,” saying “I’ve seen it all.” This also led to Jiang later being called ‘the Elder’ (长者) by netizens.

Another popular Jiang Zemin video is when he met with American journalist Mike Wallace in August of 2000 in Beidaihe. During the interview, the two discussed sensitive topics including the Falun Gong and Tiananmen protests. The interview reportedly was one of the longest ever between an American journalist and a Chinese head of state (watch here).

A study by Kecheng Fang (2020) about ‘China’s toad worship culture’ suggests that for many online fans of Jiang, the cult around him is apolitical, playful, and part of a shared digital cultural tradition.

For some, however, it does hold some political meaning to ‘worship’ Jiang, who only became a popular online meme around 2014, after Xi Jinping took power as a conservative strongman who is not as emotionally expressive. Fang describes how one meme creator said: “We couldn’t express our criticism through normal channels, so we turned to other indrect ways, including lauding Jiang’s personality and characteristics in various ways” (2020, 45).

Although Jiang became popular among younger Chinese on online platforms over the past decade, he was not necessarily that popular at the time of his leadership, and opinions vary on the legacy he leaves behind. Jiang continuously pushed for reform and opening-up after Deng Xiaoping’s rule.

As summarized by Foreign Policy, Jiang oversaw two crucial transitions that shaped and improved the lives of the people of China: “First, he peacefully guided his country out of the shadow of China’s founding revolutionaries, who had spent decades purging one another and at times caused great pain and sorrow for everyone else. Second, although hesitant at first, Jiang came to embrace the market economy.”

As various places across China have seen unrest and protests over the past few days, the announcement of Jiang’s death comes at a sensitive time.

Many on Chinese social media are burning virtual candles in memory of Jiang Zemin today. “I will fondly recall your style and manners,” some say.

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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References:

Fang, Kecheng. 2020. “Turning a communist party leader into an internet meme: the political and apolitical aspects of China’s toad worship culture.” Information, Communication & Society, 23 (1): 38-58.

Sullivan, Lawrence R. 2012. Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Communist Party. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press. See page: 3-43, 208.

 

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China and Covid19

The ‘Blank White Paper Protest’ in Beijing and Online Discussions on “Outside Forces”

As people in Beijing, Shanghai, and other places take to the streets holding up white papers, some have dubbed this the “A4 Revolution.”

Manya Koetse

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A majority of social media commenters support those who have recently taken to the streets, using blank sheets as a sign of protest against censorship and stringent Covid measures. But there are also online voices warning Chinese young people not to be influenced by ‘external forces.’

Over the past few days, there have been scenes of unrest and protest movements in various places across China.

While there were protests in Shanghai for the second night in a row, Beijing also saw crowds gathering around the Liangmahe area in the city’s Chaoyang District on Sunday night.

Some videos showed crowds softly singing the song “Farewell” (送别) in commemoration of those who lost their lives during the deadly inferno in Urumqi.

Later, people protested against stringent Covid measures.

“The crowds at Liangmahe are amazing,” some people on Weibo commented.

Photos and videos coming from the area showed how people were holding up blank sheets of white paper.

Earlier this weekend, students in Nanjing and Xi’an also held up blank paper sheets in protest of censorship and as the only ‘safe’ way to say what could otherwise not be said. This form of protest also popped up during the Hong Kong protests, as also described in the recent book by Louisa Lim (Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong).

The recurring use of blank paper sheets led to some dubbing the protests an “A4 Revolution.”

“When can we have freedom of speech? Maybe it can start at Beijng’s Liangmahe,” one person on Weibo wrote on Sunday night.

Another Beijing-based netizen wrote: “Before going to sleep I saw what was happening in Liangmahe on my WeChat Moments and then I looked at Weibo and saw that the Xicheng area had added 279 new Covid cases. I started thinking about my own everyday life and the things I am doing. I can’t help but feel a sense of isolation, because I can’t fight and do not dare to raise my voice.”

“I didn’t dare to believe this is happening in 2022. I didn’t dare to believe this is happening in Beijing. I do not dare to believe that again it will all have been useless tomorrow morning,” one Weibo user commented.

During the night, various people at the scene shouted out things such as “we want to go out and work,” and other hopes they have. One person yelled: “I want to go out and see a movie!”

“I want to go and see a movie.”

The phrase “I wanna go watch a movie” (“我要看电影”) was also picked up on social media, with some people commenting : “I am not interested in political regimes, I just want to be able to freely see a movie.” “I want to see a movie! I want to sit in a cinema and watch a movie! I want to watch a movie that is uncensored!”

Despite social media users showing a lot of support for students and locals standing up and making their voices heard, not everyone was supportive of this gathering in Beijing. Some suggested that since Liangmahe is near Beijing’s foreign embassy district, there must be some evil “foreign forces” meddling and creating unrest.

Others expressed that people were starting to demand too many different things instead of solely focusing on China’s zero Covid policies, losing the momentum of the original intention of the protest.

Political commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) also posted about the recent unrest on his Weibo account on Sunday night:

The people have the right to express their opinions, and you may have good and honest aspirations and have the intention to express legitimate demands. But I want to remind you that many things have their own rules, and when everyone participates in the movement, its direction might become very difficult for ordinary participants to continue to control, and it can easily to be used or even hijacked by separate forces, which may eventually turn into a flood that destroys all of our lives.”

Hu also called on people to keep striving to solve existing problems, but to stay clear-headed, suggesting that it is important for the people and the government to maintain unity in this challenging time.

The term “outside forces” or “external forces” (外部势力) increasingly popped up in social media discussions on late Sunday night.

“I worry a lot of meddling by external forces. Let’s be vigilant of a color revolution. I just hope things will get better,” one netizen from Hubei wrote.

“Young people should not be incited by a few phrases and blindly follow. Everyone will approve of people rationally defending their rights, but stay far away from color revolutions.”

The idea that foreign forces meddle in Chinese affairs for their own agenda has come up various times over the past years, during the Hong Kong protests but also during small-scale protests, such as a local student protest in Chengdu in 2021.

The term “color revolution” is recurring in these kind of discussions, with some netizens suggesting that foreign forces, such as the CIA, are trying to get local people to cause unrest through riots or demonstrations to undermine the stability of the government.

“It’s not always external forces, it can also just be opposition,” one person on Weibo replied: “In every country you’ll have different opinions.”

“What outside forces?” another commenter said: “I’m not an external force! I am just completely fed up with the Covid measures!”

Read more about the “11.24” unrest in China here.

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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