NPR

In China, Looking For Mr. Right (Enough)

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. (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.

"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.

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?'
Sarah Xie, 24

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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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

In China, traditional social norms are increasingly at odds with the benefits and expectations that come with a booming economy. And many young Chinese women find themselves torn. On one side is the image of the liberated woman staying single as long as it takes to find love. On the other side is the very old yet very real cultural pressure to marry and marry young.

Rob Gifford reports from Shanghai.

ROB GIFFORD: Sarah Xie is a Shanghai marketing executive. She's an attractive, sassy 24-year-old who could be mistaken for a New Yorker, except for one thing: At 24, she's worried she may have already missed the boat on meeting Mr. Right.

Ms. SARAH XIE (Marketing Executive): I am single right now, and I am worried all the time. I have some foreign friends, they kept telling me that you're young, you're only 24, you should do whatever you want. And my parents and my family, like, my grandma, grandpa, all 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.

GIFFORD: What may seem setting your standards rather low in the Western mind is Chinese pragmatism at work, where the aim often is still marriage and not love.

Sarah's parents have also 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.

Ms. XIE: You don't follow the dream, like, you find a guy you love, and he loves you, you live happily ever after is a bubble - not everybody can get it. That's what my parents taught me.

GIFFORD: Do you agree with them?

Ms. XIE: I kind of don't know 'cause I still feel like I'm young. I still have my chance. I can keep looking for the Mr. Right. But another part of me are worrying, like, every night, what if I don't find that guy? What if when I pass 30 and nobody want me anymore.

(Soundbite of park)

GIFFORD: In Shanghai's People's Park, every Sunday morning, a huge crowd of parents gathers, worrying about exactly that. They're all holding pieces of sometimes laminated paper, which some of them then pin to a nearby wall. Written on each is their 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 felt they had no option but to come out and try to match-make with other parents.

Mr. REN ZHIMING: (Speaking Chinese)

GIFFORD: 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.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking Chinese)

GIFFORD: 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.

(Soundbite of play, "The Leftover Woman")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Chinese)

GIFFORD: A popular play that has toured Chinese cities in recent months is called simply and starkly, "Shengnulang" -�"The Leftover Woman." The play is about a woman who reaches 30 still single, and it's ringing a lot of bells in modern urban China. The play's director, Li Bonan, says the problem is modern women are confusing material wealth with happiness.

Mr. LI BONAN (Director, "The Leftover Woman"): (Through translator) Of all the unmarried women in Chinese cities now, very few are unmarried because they can't find love or suitable partner. They are 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.

GIFFORD: Li says Chinese women need to get back to relishing the simpler things in life. And he believes that as China grows more mature, people's expectations will be able to settle down, and so will all those unmarried women. Sarah Xie says she's holding out for Mr. Right, but she knows the clock is ticking.

Ms. XIE: If by that time, I want to marry that guy, and I don't love him that much - just because he checked all the boxes, I think I will still marry him, but it's going to be a very hard decision.

GIFFORD: So you are a realist in the end?

Ms. XIE: Yeah. Sadly, yes.

GIFFORD: Rob Gifford, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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