Thor's China Diary

Till Death Do Us Part

@19 April 2000

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Last semester my postgraduate writing class dealt with a piece comparing arranged marriages and love matches. The author, a Japanese American, looking at actual outcomes concluded that the arranged variety had a greater success rate than the American dating/"love" system; (perhaps because expectations were more sober).

The postgraduate students, mostly men and women in their early twenties, were dismissive, almost all of them. Romance was the way to go, they were certain. Romance was forever. I pointed out dryly that the limerance effect, the biological bonding that they called love, lasted on average around three years. That had been arranged by nature, for the nurturing of a young child. After that the marriages that lasted were generally based on something else: sexual habit, friendship if they were lucky, social convention, sometimes straight economic profit. They were polite about it, but their written assignments showed, utterly unconvinced. Nothing was going to interfere with the romantic illusion. Other people might divorce or fall out of love, but not them. I was potently reminded of their attitude to the world of work, and suchlike social realities. That also was built on ideals. The future was rosy. In the world of paid employment, as in sex and marriage, they were virginal. (Chinese undergraduates are not allowed to marry, and even postgraduates live in tiny cramped bunk dormitories. There's a limit to the naughtiness you can get up to on the back of a bicycle).

The emotional and attitudinal gulf between Chinese people in their thirties or older, and those still at school or university is extraordinary. This chasm is found in all societies of course, but in many the unrobing of adult life comes much earlier. Sometimes that is destructive, but with care, it can also be the foundation for resilience and constructive adaptation. With adult mainland Chinese the stark transition from slogan and ideology to real work and marriage seems to be (almost typically) far more destructive. Your thirty-something middle class Chinese (i.e. the kind of people I mostly meet) is apt to feel disillusioned, powerless and cynical. It is a recipe for low productivity at best, and frequently for corruption.

Maybe it has been just an accident of acquaintance, but I also seem to keep running across Chinese women in their thirties and forties who have decided that they've been riding the wrong horse. They want out of their marriages, child or no child.  It would be easy to blame the traditional patriarchal attitude of Chinese males colliding with a new feminine consciousness for this phenomenon. No doubt that has something to do with it, and it is certainly a line promoted by the women themselves. But I think that there is something more fundamental at work, an accented version of the "mid life crisis" that confronts people everywhere.

I know some of the men affected by this female restlessness, and on the whole they are not pigs, goats or roosters. Very often family is at the centre of their lives, they are prepared to make almost any sacrifice for it, and they hold their women dear. They are often perfectly happy to let their wife also have a career. In these cases it is the woman who is doing the rejection, playing fast and loose or putting a career ahead of any emotional involvements. There is nothing particularly Chinese about any of these issues of course, although some cultural groups shed the romantic stuff earlier. From a report in the South China Morning Post, 19 April 2000, we learn that in a sample of 400 unmarried Japanese women, 6% want a baby but no marriage, 64% only want a marriage to get a baby, not a man. So the Chinese rhetoric is more traditional, but the net outcomes are similar.

If there is one characteristic that people of Chinese origin claim for their cultures above all others, it is the central and unshakable role of the family unit. Scratch any Chinese person and you are likely go get a homily on the subject. Armed with doorstop wisdom at this level, self-reported from a phalanx of Chinese looking persons, any number of foreign & Chinese "experts" have written ponderous tracts of ethnology, history, cultural interpretation and economic prediction. I don't believe any of it. The self-reported cultural practices of Chinese cadres, Anglo-Australian golfers, Tartar herdsmen or New York stockbrokers are myths, constructed ideologies, held with earnest belief and shattered continually in practice. Maybe men are more earnest about such myths than women, but that's only a guess.

The important thing is that there is always a dissonance between social myth and reality. Some people, and some groups of people, take the myth seriously enough to become mentally ill when they hit a bit of cognitive dissonance, the intrusion of real human relationships. In China public appearances are so important that the idealized (Confucian) family myth is a universal paper mask, shielding the frozen smiles of countless dead relationships. No doubt this adds something to that statistic of only 9% of Chinese being happy overall with the quality of their lives: the second unhappiest people from 22 polled countries (the global happiness average being 24%: South China Morning Post, 15 April 2000). The divorce rate for Chinese immigrants to Australia stands at about 60%.

All this stuff is middle class mewling for the peasant class of China, where marriage or partnering is still more like a trade in chattels, normally arranged by third parties, or purchased, or both. There is a national shortage of women. In some provinces it is a very large shortage because of female infanticide (reduced from earlier times), and abortions after ultra-sound gender prediction in pregnancy (illegal, but a predictable element in the national epidemic of corruption). It is hard to think of a social practice anywhere where cruelty and selfishness are more directly self-defeating. The large cohort of men who can never marry naturally form a core of social discontent in the countryside, and terminate the genetic line of the families who so heartlessly gave them life. This shortage is also the engine of a vicious and organized slave trade in women and children, abducted from poor western provinces and sold in the richer eastern lands. Each year the police rescue around 10,000 of these miserable victims, but that scarcely seems to make a dent in the traffic. The going price for a female child bride is evidently around 2,200 yuan; (8 yuan = 1 American dollar).

"Till Death Do Us Part" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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