Ladies: Beware 'Phoenix Men'

A survey of single women in China reveals a growing fear of men with too many family obligations.


Carlos Barria/Reuters

A recent survey of over 35,500 single ladies in China offers some insight into Chinese women's attitudes towards men and marriage. The survey, which included questions such as "Why are you still single?" and "What kind of man do you hope to marry?" shed light on the types of men that single Chinese women prefer, with some surprising results.

While 51.13 percent of the women surveyed regarded "getting married" as their goal, they reported that the top three male traits that made them prefer single-hood were men's constant involvement in "ambiguous" love affairs, their tendency to talk a lot but accomplish little, and their stinginess. While these feelings may resonate globally, what set the Chinese marriage market apart were respondents' attitudes towards men, as well as their expectations and standards for their potential future husbands.

When asked "What kind of men are you willing to marry?" the most popular response was "a divorced man who owns a house and car," followed by "a successful 40-something man who has gone on a lot of blind dates but is still single." Interestingly -- and even a bit surprisingly -- the least popular kind of man, coming in behind even "an unassuming computer programmer," and "a handsome freelancer," was the so-called "phoenix man," a high-level corporate manager with a lot of relatives. More broadly defined, a "phoenix man" is someone who came from humble beginnings, made his way through school, exhausted resources of his family in the process, and was expected to change the fate of the family when he eventually succeeded.

Instead of being regarded as heroes who changed their own destinies, "phoenix men" have long been unpopular in the Chinese marriage market, especially among "peacock girls" -- those from urban, relatively wealthy families. Women dislike what they perceive to be the men's insecurity, fear of failure, penny pinching, inferiority complexes, and prioritization of his extended family over his own wife and kids. These are thought to be traits irreversibly ingrained in his psyche by the time he reaches adulthood.

Many Chinese believe that when you marry someone, you are marrying into a lifestyle and an entire family. In a country with conservative marriage traditions, many men and women still think divorce is shameful and that second marriages should be low-profile. China has some long-standing traditions when it comes to marriage, including especially tight family ties, living with the husband's family after marriage, and having the wife serve his parents and potentially his entire family. In modern days, couples who live and work in more westernized urban areas are less likely to abide by such traditions, but they have not completely disappeared and may remain in the back of women's minds like a time bomb.

Many single Chinese women therefore find it difficult to decide whom to marry. On the one hand, marrying a relatively rich divorced man is like taking a "secondhand" man, and they may feel they lose face by doing so. On the other hand, marrying an affluent "phoenix man" might embroil the woman in endless troubles with his extended family.

Netizens weighed in on the dilemma. One woman commented on the survey, "I personally think that you may lose face by marrying an old man [a divorced, middle-aged man], but at least you might have some security in life. He might also be less flirtatious [with other women]. A more stable life would bring you a sense of safety." On Weibo, user @bt桃子 remarked, "One reason marrying a divorced man is better than marrying a single man is that you can see what his attitude toward marriage is: whether he is abusive, whether he is responsible enough, whether he likes to get involved in love affairs. It's hard to learn any of this about a single man unless you've lived closely with him for a while."

A comment by Weibo user @一帘花碎影 illustrated some of the main complaints women have about "phoenix men":

Love yourself! Stay away from phoenix men! They bear the entire family's hopes while in college, and get what they believe is a good job in a state-owned company with a salary of two or three hundred thousand a year. If you are not from a rich family, his entire family will think that you are not good enough for him. Down the line, his relatives will always come visit him, borrow money for all sorts of reasons, and make you help them get jobs. If you don't help them, they will think he is an ungrateful child who has no appreciation for their sacrifices.

Women faced these tough choices in a variety of ways. A plurality of those surveyed reported that in their single lives they chose to devote themselves to their work. Almost half reported they had no sex life. A sizable 13.28 percent said they did not want to marry, while 23.87 percent said they were, "uncertain, tired, and might never love again."

In the end, many Chinese women still find choosing a marriage partner very difficult. An easier relationship might come with other trade-offs, while a harder one might not be worth the energy spent. It is worth noting, though, that only single women participated in this survey, so it does not reflect the views of all Chinese women or Chinese society as a whole. Many couples are happily married every day: the marriage registration computer system recently crashed because of the large volume of couples who wanted to get married on May 20, a date that is a homonym for "I love you" in Mandarin.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.