DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Women hold up half the sky, that's a famous quote by the late Chairman Mao. It's been picked up in modern times by many non-Maoists who use it to emphasize the importance of women. And in today's rapidly changing China, the saying may be more true than ever.

GREENE: China is where we are going for the latest in our series Changing Lives, a look at how demographic and technological shifts are reshaping how women live around the world.

INSKEEP: And in China, it is the demographics that really stand out. Chinese tradition favors boys - and with China's one-child policy still in place - the result is that for every 100 Chinese girls born, there are 117 boys.

GREENE: By the end of this decade, some 24 million Chinese men will be unable to find a wife. As NPR's Louisa Lim from Beijing, that means perspective Chinese brides can afford to be choosier and more demanding.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: It's Derek Wei's big day, his wedding day. He arrives at his bride's house early in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION AND KNOCKING)

LIM: As tradition demands, the door is locked. With his groomsmen, he bangs on the door.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: The bride, Lucy Wang, her little niece and her bridesmaids are refusing to open up. They want red packets of money first. This is a traditional wedding custom and the women play along by complaining noisily about his stinginess. This is the last in a series of financial transactions that accompanies this, and every, Chinese wedding - as Derek explains.

DEREK WEI: (Through Translator) It's like a negotiation. What do you need to get married? What can I provide? When we reach a deal, we discuss: What does your family want? What does my family have to bargain with?

(Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Now Derek is getting nervous they'll be late. I love you, wife. He shouts. Let me in. From the other side of the door, his future wife, Lucy demands a song.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Her demands have been for more than just music. Although Lucy has an office job in Beijing, she's from Shanxi Province. Wedding customs there demand the groom gives his future in-laws a big betrothal gift, traditionally known as the bride price. Derek handed over 68,888 yuan - a lucky figure - which is more than $10,000. Lucy, however, was not so impressed.

LUCY WANG: (Through Translator) There are lots of coal mine owners where I come from, so they push the prices up. In an ordinary family, the betrothal gift is about $10,000. To be honest, where I'm from, that's hardly anything.

(LAUGHTER)

LIM: Finally, the men lose patience and force their way into the room.

WEI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Derek's on his knees. It's the first time he's seen his wife on their big day - a massive grin on his face, a bunch of pink roses for Lucy. His first thought on hearing of the betrothal gift was pure fear. Most young men getting married in China today are expected to fork out, often providing an apartment, sometimes a car and a betrothal gift too. Things were so much easier when his parents got married four decades ago.

WEI: (Through Translator) My parent's wedding was very simple. You can't even imagine how simple it was. They had a bed, a cupboard, a bike and a sewing machine. That was China in the '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRECRACKERS)

LIM: This is China in the 21st century. And, amid a hail of firecrackers, the happy couple make their way to a roast duck restaurant where their celebration will be held.

FRANK CHANG: (Foreign language spoken)

(APPLAUSE)

LIM: Their MC is Lucy's former classmate, Frank Chang, who got married 12 years ago. He's amazed at the difference a decade makes. On his wedding day, he and his new wife just invited their friend's home for a meal.

CHANG: Very simple wedding.

LIM: What did you give her? Did you give her money?

CHANG: No. No.

LIM: Did you give her an apartment?

CHANG: No. No.

LIM: Did you give her a car?

CHANG: No. No. No.

(LAUGHTER)

LIM: Did you spend any money?

CHANG: When my wife went to my family, first time, my parents just gave her 888 RMB.

LIM: At that time, maybe it was about $100 or so.

Today, as the newly-weds toast their family and friends, it's a sobering reminder of how the gender imbalance and new wealth is changing China. What Frank's wife got 12 years ago is a hundredth of what Derek handed over as a betrothal gift. In total, Derek spent about one year's salary on the bride price and gold jewelry. On top of that, he's expected to provide an apartment for his new wife; his parents' home is about to be demolished, and they'll get two new flats in compensation. Derek is counting on them to give him one as the marital home.

Nowadays, 70 percent of Chinese women believe a man should provide an apartment, along with a marriage offer, according to one official survey. In economic terms, the relative scarcity of women is giving them bargaining power. These women's demands are making China's economy grow even faster.

XIAOBO ZHANG: Rising sex ratios contribute to two percentage points of GDP growth.

LIM: Two percentage points of GDP growth stems from the gender gap, AS men compete to attract a wife. That's according to research by Xiaobo Zhang, an economics professor at Peking University. He sees the competition among men to attract a wife playing out in real estate, as they buy bigger and bigger apartments.

His research has found that almost half the growth in real estate prices is due to the gender imbalance.

ZHANG: In order to save more, families with sons must work harder - they are more likely to become entrepreneurs, more likely to take risky jobs, like working in the construction sector, more likely to work longer hours. All this contributes to economic growth.

LIM: For his part, Derek borrowed some money for this wedding; most young men have no choice due to the soaring cost of real estate. An urban apartment costs fifteen times the average annual income of a homebuyer. So parents like Derek's start saving up from the moment their son is born.

But some argue that women aren't necessarily benefiting. Leta Hong Fincher is writing a book on gender and home ownership in China; she believes women are being excluded from what may be the biggest accumulation of real estate wealth in history.

LETA HONG: There are three main ways in which I argue that women have been shut out of the accumulation of real estate wealth: the first is that the parents tend to buy homes for their sons, but not for their daughters; the second is that homes tend to be registered in men's names only; and the third is that women often transfer their life savings over to the man to finance the purchase of a marital home, which is then often registered solely in the man's name.

LIM: Back at the wedding, all of this is beside the point. Lucy and Derek are planning to register their home in both their names. As a toy tank bearing the couple's rings trundles down the aisle, they drink from a champagne fountain - and share a kiss. Their life together is only just starting. But soon they'll be three - a few weeks later, and they're already expecting their first child. They hope it will be a girl. We wouldn't have to buy her an apartment, explains Lucy, and she'd cost us less than a boy.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And you can see photos from Lucien Derek's wedding on our website, where you can also find an article crunching the numbers found here in our Changing Lives series.

GREENE: Here, a couple numbers: one quarter of American women out earn their husbands. And unmarried American women are buying more homes than unmarried men.

INSKEEP: Hmm. You can see the stats for yourself and join the debate at NPR.org.

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