Shopping for a Marriage

First place entry in the 2007 Student Field Notes Contest

First place entry in the 2007 Student Field Notes Contest

BEIJING—It’s early Saturday morning, and along the path that curves away from Beihai Park’s main entrance, middle-aged men and women sit crouched in the sticky heat. In front of them are propped signs covered by clear plastic folders: “My son, age 25, Bachelors degree in Business Administration, employed by Coca-cola,” “My daughter, age 22, Masters degree in Resources Management, employed by Ministry of Land Resources.” People of all ages stroll by, browsing the signs and occasionally asking questions of the vendors. One man, squatting against a thick tree trunk, waves his arms wildly while explaining to several women why his son is such a catch. Here to peruse the wares, Li skips over to a proud parent for more information and comes back breathless with giggles. “Too young!” she says.

Despite China’s rapid modernization, many Chinese continue to approach getting married less as a romantic quest than a necessary step toward adulthood. Matchmaking, which has roots in the traditional culture, is part of this practical approach, and it has a surprising number of adherents among Beijingers. It’s only logical: many young people here live with their parents until marriage, as Li likely will, and sometimes after. Li’s mother began trying to find her a husband several months ago, and while she hasn’t found him yet the search is well under way: “I’ve already met with two men,” Li says.

For Li, marriage, with its attendant combined assets and dual income, represents a stable, coupled identity and, perhaps more important, a certain lifestyle. To get to and from her job as an editor with a publisher of IT books, she spends four hours a day on city buses—lack of time is part of the reason she needs her parents’ matchmaking help—and would like to live closer to her office, but on her own she can’t afford Beijing rents. She’s learning to drive, which she says will shorten her commute, but, with the city’s car population already at 3 million and rising, driving isn’t a long-term solution.

Just inside the park’s gate, the path winds through willow trees along Beihai Lake. An imperial garden for more than a thousand years, Beihai is now open to the public, and like most Beijing parks it’s crowded with people engaged in all sorts of activities, including ballroom dancing, opera singing, water calligraphy, badminton and jianzi, a game like hacky-sack. Not least, the park is a place where couples can spend time together, and be seen.

Everywhere we look, young lovers stroll slowly along the shore, enjoying the breezy shade, or row boats along the lake’s rippling surface. They take turns posing for photographs beside the temples and art dotting the park. Many wear identical T-shirts – a trend that has become rampant in Beijing. “So you can tell they’re a couple,” Li explains.

Coupled Chinese men are perhaps particularly proud—the search for a mate has become especially difficult for them. Forget North American quests for a soulmate. Because of the skewed sex ratio that’s developed since the one-child policy, millions of men will likely never find a Chinese bride. No one likes to be the last one standing in a game of musical chairs, and experts predict the country’s lack of women could lead to antisocial and violent behaviour among men.

At the north gate of the park, a young bride stands beside the lake to be photographed. Rather than the traditional Chinese red, she is dressed in a Western white wedding gown with bustier and full skirt. A bridesmaid perches in stilettos at the side, waiting, holding a bouquet. The bride is exuberant; the photographer tells her not to show her teeth in all of the pictures.

Andrea Gummo

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