A lot of Chinese PhD candidates headed for home at the beginning of February to celebrate Chinese New Year. It is quite possible that their parents will raise the subject of marriage and propose candidates. This kind of parental involvement in the choice of partner is quite usual in China. Eight Wageningen PhD candidates talk about what that means for them.
Photo: Hollandse Hoogte
‘It does feel a bit awkward,’ says 26-year-old Wageningen PhD candidate MeiMei. For a long time her parents did not interfere with their daughter’s love life, but that changed recently. A little while ago they came up with a profile of a boy from Shanghai. ‘It feels unnatural. My parents initiated the contact, which makes everything much more loaded. I feel obliged to respond with a serious yes or no. It is not fair to my parents just to say, we’ll see.’
MeiMei is not the only Chinese PhD candidate in Wageningen whose parents – or grandparents – get involved with their choice of partner. Resource talked to eight of them, who talked openly about it on condition that their real names and recognizable details were withheld. The PhD researchers’ observations are broadly similar: it is usual in China to get married under the age of 30. If a partner hasn’t appeared before you are 25, parents often give destiny a helping hand, even if their son or daughter happens to be doing a PhD in Wageningen. And even if you have found a partner, that is no guarantee that you will be left in peace.
‘I developed my relationship quite independently; my parents had nothing to do with it,’ says Zihao, who met his girlfriend at Wageningen University. The only tense moment, in his view, will be when she finally meets his parents. ‘The parents of a friend of mine withheld their support, which destroyed the relationship. My girlfriend, who is doing her PhD here too, is worried about that for us. I’m not worried, I see it as a formality. After all, we’re both OK aren’t we?’
For parents who are afraid their child won’t find a marriage partner in time, all sorts of markets and events are organized in China. ‘To facilitate things for them there are special ‘love corners’ in parks, covered in little notes in which parents present their children,’ explains MeiMei. ‘Other parents walk down the long rows of them looking for a suitable candidate for their child. It is not very different to the dating sites here in the Netherlands, I would say. The one big difference is that it is not the children but the parents who take the initiative.’
It is especially challenging for parents of a son to find a wife for him. In China there are on average 1.2 men per woman. ‘Especially in the big cities such as Shanghai, girls are incredibly picky and their parents are even pickier,’ says PhD candidate Lei. The selection criteria are educational achievement, profession, salary and home ownership. ‘Those last criteria are especially important,’ says MeiMei. ‘It is much harder for a man on a low salary or in a rented house to find a wife. That is because in China there is no standard pension provision for everyone, and the norm in our culture is for us children to look after our parents in their old age. So a good partner for their child is in the interests of the parents as well.’
You might think it would be easier for women to find a husband. But according to the PhD candidates, there is a catch here. ‘It is traditional for a woman to marry a man with a higher status and for a man to marry a woman with a lower status. That makes it difficult for a woman PhD candidate,’ says MeiMei. ‘In some media there was talk a while ago about three sexes: men, women, and women with a PhD. The latter category was said often to remain alone and unhappy.’
According to Dutch online magazine De Correspondent, however, the reality is more complex than that. Last February Adrienne Simons and Kathleen Ferrier wrote in an opinion piece that the government liked to keep the image of ‘lonely heart women’ alive. Because putting unmarried men in the spotlight ‘would mean exposing a much more serious problem’, namely the effects of the surplus of men.
Parents of women PhD candidates do however feel there is no time to lose in finding a husband. The hope of grandchildren plays a role here, say the PhD candidates. ‘The wish is to pass down your blood to the following generation,’ explains 24-year-old Yutong. ‘As a woman you can’t afford to wait too long, otherwise you will lose your fertility.’
Yutong cannot imagine not getting married. ‘My parents were looking for a husband for me too. I told them it was not necessary because I am still young, but if I haven’t found a partner in a few years’ time, I will agree to a suggestion from my parents. There is a useful side to their helping me too: my parents know me best, so they also know best what is good for me. In many cases you get married first, then you get to know each other better and love can follow then.’
For Chinese twenty-somethings who are not happy with their parents’ matchmaking efforts, there are some useful options available on the market, such hiring a temporary partner to help you mislead your parents. The Chinese PhD candidates in Wageningen that Resource talked to haven´t resorted to this, though. They try to fend off their parents´ efforts in kinder ways or they cautiously check out whether a person their parents introduce them to is in fact a suitable match.
´Bluntly contradicting your parents is not done,´ says MeiMei. ´I mainly try to listen carefully to their arguments in the hope that they will then get a better sense of my point of view too. It is difficult that I can only discuss it with my parents through digital media. I live in the Netherlands and I am working on my PhD, and I just want to get on with my work. So if I meet a nice boy while I´m at it, fine. But if I don´t, that´s fine too. I will be perfectly able to take care of myself later, and I don´t need a husband for that. And I think the worst thing would be to be stuck with someone I don´t love for the rest of my life.´ But MeiMei does see the advantages of her parents´ help too. ´If I fall in love with someone my parents introduce me to, that would be great of course.´
Lei is less mild about it. ´Love hardly comes into it when parents choose,´ he thinks. He refuses to cooperate. ´I am quite independent in my thinking. That matchmaking urge in the family just causes a lot of stress, as far as I can see, both for parents and for children. Luckily my parents agree that I should concentrate on the things that are more important to me, like my PhD. They did show me a photo of a girl, but I didn´t do anything about it.´
He started a relationship at secondary school, but his parents forbade it because his studies had to have priority. ´We kept that relationship going in secret. It is ironic: when I was in love I wasn’t allowed a relationship, and now that I am not in love, I am expected to have a relationship.’
Bowen’s parents want to help him find a wife too. ‘But they are not pushing me yet; they are giving me time to finish my studies abroad.’ And as far as Bowen is concerned, that study period will not end any time soon. ‘I am gay, I don’t want a wife at all. A lesbian friend suggested me get married so we could both go our own way. But that’s not what I want. I just want to stay with my partner and maybe marry him one day.’ Bowen is going to do his utmost to stay in Europe. He is not telling his parents about his orientation for the time being. ‘They will only worry about it.’ His partner did visit China last year and they got on very well: at the end of the holiday, his parents even told his partner he was very welcome to come again. ‘And of course your wife is welcome too,’ they added.
‘Do I regret that I can’t talk about it openly with my parents?’ Bowen smiles. ‘Well I so often can’t anyway.
PhD candidate Xinyi’s story is different to those of all the other PhD candidates Resource talked to. Her parents don’t try to help her find a husband at all. ‘Only my grandparents mention it sometimes, but then I just change the subject. My parents are in an arranged and unhappy marriage themselves. They don’t want to do that to me.’
Another rather different story is told by 32-year-old student Li Xie, who, unlike the eight PhD candidates, doesn’t mind his real name being used in this article. He doesn’t trust his parents and thinks he should get to work himself to find a wife. ‘I had better get a good degree, otherwise I can forget a relationship.’ The former chair of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars in the Netherlands (ACSSNL) suspended his studies for his Master’s in Wageningen for a while but is now studying hard again. ‘As a man without a higher degree I would rather not try to date a PhD candidate,’ says Li Xie. Secretly he rather envies western men. ‘You do see Chinese women with western men but it hardly ever happens the other way round. You take our women away from us; I would like to get revenge, actually.’
At the end of the discussion Li Xie says: ‘Could you take a photo of me as well? I think over there by that window is a good place.’ He smiles. ‘Who knows, this article might bring me a date.’
This article is largely based on interviews with eight Chinese PhD candidates. Their names have been changed at their request.