Every Saturday and Sunday, the People’s Park in Shanghai is a bustling trade floor featuring negotiation, advertisement and brokerage – of future spouses. Parents flock on behalf of, and often unbeknownst to, their children to peruse everything from income to Chinese zodiac sign in a desperate search for their child’s perfect suitor. It is the economics of love – welcome to the fascinating, and morally questionable, Shanghai marriage market.
Known to the locals as renmin Gongyuan xiangqin jiao, which translates as ‘Blind Date Corner’, the market was described as “match.com meets farmers market” by the Huffington Post. It consists of thousands of small placards. Written on each are the essential traits of one young man or woman – age, job, income and education are accompanied by height, family values and zodiac sign. £2 will get an advertisement displayed for five months, and a little over £10 will fetch a professional marriage broker.
But it is not the spouses-to-be who pay those sums and swarm round the People’s Square, inspecting these profiles as one might check the ripeness of a fruit; it is their parents. Yet the majority attend without the consent of their children.
One father told CNN: “My daughter doesn’t approve of me coming here – I stole a photo of her to bring to the market.” Meanwhile, a marriage broker lamented the oversupply of prospective wives: “There are too many leftover women in Shanghai.” The phrase ‘leftover women’ is commonly applied to educated, single females over the age of 27, often because they have higher salaries than their potential suitors.
Jin Lei, mother and six-month veteran of the market explained her motive: “Girls aren’t willing to open their mouths and say ‘I want a boyfriend’, so we help them do that.” Her daughter has refused to meet every single suggested candidate.
The marriage market began in 2004 and is considered a reaction of the parent’s generation to China’s social modernisation. The country has a strong and ancient tradition of preserving family lineage, and weddings are far less about romance than they are an economic investment. Urbanisation, technology and increasing wealth have had an impact on Chinese courtship that we might call liberating but that traditionalist parents often believe to be corrupting.
These parents retain a deep sense of obligation to ensure a respectable marriage for their offspring. One mother remarks: “Modern parents have very high demands for their children … what the parents didn’t achieve, they want for their children.”
From one perspective, then, the Shanghai marriage market is a place of honourable duty and family commitment. From another, it is a place of commodification and paternalism, not to mention entrenched sexism. It is a captivating ethical enigma. It’s even recommended on tripadvisor.
Sam Harman is currently a Researcher for Stowe Family Law. He also attends Christ Church, Oxford where he is reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics and writes for The Oxford Student newspaper.