Marriage too costly for some rural bachelors in China

Migration from rural areas to cities and an imbalance between the sexes has left the cost of marriage unaffordable for some country families, China Youth Daily reported

After the noise of firecrackers faded, Zhang Hu and his wife returned home with heavy hearts.

Their son's marriage cost the impoverished family their entire savings and a debt of as much as 150,000 yuan (S$31,433).

It is a huge sum for a family from a poor mountainous village in Northwest China's Gansu province.

Fodianwan village is a notoriously poverty-stricken village in Qingyang. "Our village is so poor that there is barely any girl willing to marry young men from here," said Zhang Hu.

He said villagers had been used to the soaring price of betrothal gifts, or caili in Chinese, which means money a man takes to propose to the woman he loves.

The less developed an area is, the more costly the marriage is for the groom, especially in a place such as the Loess Plateau in Northwest China where the natural environment is harsh.

"Love is no longer about tender feelings, but a matter of price," said Liu Yanwu, a professor of sociology at Wuhan University.

Liu has surveyed the changes in cost of marriage in rural areas over past decades: from the 1970s to 1980s, marriage was hardly a burden to a rural family, and in the 1990s, a marriage cost the income of a rural labour of three or four years on average.

But since 2000, the cost has witnessed a sharp increase: today, it needs a rural labour to work for 20 years to pay for the marriage if expenses such as house purchase are included - for a typical rural marriage the groom's family is expected to provide house, and even a car in some better-off areas, for the newlyweds.

In rural areas of Qingyang, the price of betrothal gifts has jumped from around 10,000 yuan in 2004 to 150,000 yuan by last year.

The marriage of Zhang's son almost dragged the family back to poverty.

One reason for the soaring bride price is the imbalanced sex ratio in China.

For every 100 newborn girls, there were 115 boys born across the country last year, and in rural areas, where only boys are regarded as the heirs to carry on the family line, the ratio between men and women of marriageable age is even higher - in some places it is close to 2 to 1.

The imbalance makes the competition for a wife fierce among rural bachelors.

The migration of rural populations to cities is also blamed for the rising cost of rural weddings.

As China's urbanization has gathered pace up since the opening-up and reform policy was introduced in the late 1970s, more and more rural people have migrated to cities seeking better pay and an improved life.

As a result, the number of women of marriageable age in rural areas is in decline and there are not enough partners for rural young men, said Zhang Yi, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The situation is worse in impoverished areas such as Qingyang. Since women are reluctant to marry into families from poor villages, the groom's families have to pay a higher price for betrothal gifts, which means men from the poorest families are least likely to marry, said Zhang.

To keep a rein on soaring costs, the Qingyang government introduced a regulation against exorbitant betrothal gifts and extravagant wedding ceremonies last year, but the move proved a failure.

"The effect of the rule cannot reach our village because the tradition is too deep-rooted," said Zhang Hu.

"In the marriage market, men from poor families are in disadvantageous positions and have a weaker ability to bargain with women's families," said He Xuefeng, rural government researcher at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

"To woo a potential spouse, men from poor families have to pay a higher price for betrothal gifts, which raises the cost of the marriage market, and other families have no choice but to follow suit.

Thus a vicious circle is formed," said He.

The rising cost of marriage in rural areas has also led to other social problems.

Li Yanlin is a villager in Leping, East China's Jiangxi province.

He bought a Vietnamese bride for his son for 45,000 yuan last year. However, his daughter-in-law disappeared only a few months later along with some other brides from Vietnam.

Asked why he would buy his son a bride, Li said the cost of a Chinese marriage is too much for his family.

In recent years, many women from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam have married rural Chinese men through marriage brokers or human traffickers.

Marriage between such couples has become a prosperous business and one can easily find information about such foreign brides on online trading platforms.

But such illegal marriage is often fragile. Many foreign brides escape shortly after their wedding and domestic violence shadows the families as in the illegal relationships, husband and wife are unequal.

To help left-over bachelors find partners, local governments should develop their economies and improve the income of residents to encourage more women to marry local men, said Zhang Yi, adding that a rebalancing of China's sex ratio is also urgently needed.