In China, Looking For Mr. Right (Enough)

200 newlywed couples pose at the National Stadium in Beijing i i

hide captionDespite China's advances over the past few decades, when it comes to marriage, tradition holds sway. Here, 200 newlywed couples pose at the National Stadium in Beijing, Oct. 10, 2010.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
200 newlywed couples pose at the National Stadium in Beijing

Despite China's advances over the past few decades, when it comes to marriage, tradition holds sway. Here, 200 newlywed couples pose at the National Stadium in Beijing, Oct. 10, 2010.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The shiny surface of modern China has been dazzling visitors for several decades now. But just underneath the surface, many aspects of life are still very traditional.

Take marriage, for instance. One might think all those thoroughly modern, young Chinese women are looking to live the single life, Sex and the City-style, into their 30s.

Not so, as it turns out.

Sarah Xie is a Shanghai marketing executive. She's an attractive, sassy 24-year-old, yet she's anxious that she may have already missed the boat on meeting Mr. Right.

30,000 singles attend a matchmaking fair in Wuhan, China, in 2007 i i

hide captionA matchmaking fair for the Qixi festival (or "Chinese Valentine's Day" ) in Wuhan, the capital of central China's Hubei province, attracted 30,000 singles and their parents and friends in 2007. Chinese parents often still play an active role to find suitable mates for their children.

Zhou Guoqiang/Xinhua/AP
30,000 singles attend a matchmaking fair in Wuhan, China, in 2007

A matchmaking fair for the Qixi festival (or "Chinese Valentine's Day" ) in Wuhan, the capital of central China's Hubei province, attracted 30,000 singles and their parents and friends in 2007. Chinese parents often still play an active role to find suitable mates for their children.

Zhou Guoqiang/Xinhua/AP

"I am single right now, and I am worried all the time. I have some foreign friends, they kept telling me that you are young, you are only 24, you should do whatever you want. And my parents, my family — my grandma, grandpa or my aunties, uncles — they are telling me, you are getting old. No girls will be wanted after 30, so you have to grab the guy that you have right now and get married," Xie says.

Matchmaking Pressure

What may seem to the Western mind as setting your standards rather low is Chinese pragmatism at work. The aim in China often is marriage — not love.

Xie's parents have told her it's great if you can have both. But if a vaguely presentable guy with a good salary and nice habits shows up, you can't be too picky.

"You don't follow the dream ... find a guy you love, and he loves you, and live happily ever after, it's a bubble — not everybody can get it. That's what my parents taught me," Xie says.

She's not sure if she agrees with them.

"I still feel young. I still have my chance. I can keep looking for Mr. Right. But another part of me is worrying every night, 'What if I don't find that guy, what if when I pass 30, nobody wants me anymore,'" Xie says.

Every Sunday morning in Shanghai's People's Park, a huge crowd of parents gathers, worrying about exactly that. They hold pieces of paper, sometimes laminated. The papers are then pinned to a nearby wall. Written on each is the child's name, sometimes a photo, and a brief resume.

In the absence of traditional matchmakers, and faced with the horror of having an unmarried child, fathers like 66-year-old Ren Zhiming feel they have no option but to come out and try to connect with other parents.

"My daughter's 29 years old," he says, "so of course I'm worried. I'm here talking to mothers and fathers who have older, unmarried sons."

Ren adds that the worst thing would be if his daughter were to become a shengnu, a derogatory term meaning, literally, a "leftover woman."

"Can you introduce a nice boy to my daughter?" asks one lady. "Are you married yourself?" asks another.

Urban Chinese society, it seems, is obsessed with the situation, so much so that art is now imitating, or at least reflecting, life.

A Matter Of Misguided Standards?

A popular play that has toured Chinese cities in recent months is called simply and starkly, Shengnulang, or The Leftover Woman. The play is about a woman who reaches 30 still single, and it's ringing a lot of bells in Chinese cities.

The play's director, Li Bonan, says the problem is modern women are confusing material wealth with happiness.

"Of all the unmarried women in Chinese cities now, very few are unmarried because they can't find love or a suitable partner," Li says. "They're unmarried because of their pursuit of money and status and a house and a car. And they cannot find a man who satisfies these material desires."

The director says Chinese women need to get back to relishing the simpler things in life. And he says that as China continues to evolve, people's expectations will be able to settle down, and so will all the unmarried women.

Xie says she's holding out for Mr. Right, but she knows the clock is ticking.

"If by that time, I want to marry [a] guy, and I [don't] love him that much — just because he checked all the [right] boxes, I think I will still marry him, but it's going to be a very hard decision," she says.

When asked if she is, in the end, a realist, she replies, with a heavy sigh: "Yeah, sadly, yes."

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