As a single, educated Chinese woman approaching 30, Nancy Ji felt tremendous stress from her parents to get married. So at 28, she hastily tied the knot with a boyfriend. "My parents put a lot of pressure on me. They nagged me about being single every day, and it was very annoying. My boyfriend appeared at the right time, and he had the right economic profile," Ji says. So they got hitched.
But it didn't take long for the marriage to fall apart, and three years later Ji filed for divorce. Part of the problem, she realized, was how she went about finding a partner. When she was younger, Ji's requirements for a spouse were focused on practical matters, like income, family background, height, and education. Romance wasn't part of the equation. "My parents told me to get married first, and that love can be nurtured later," says Ji.
Marriage based on economic status is normal in China. A lot of Chinese women -- and their parents -- even consider a house and car as prerequisites for potential boyfriends. But these financially driven relationships do not always end happily. A new report by the Ministry of Civil Affairs shows that the number of divorces in China jumped 8 percent last year, and, for the first time in 10 years, the increase of the divorce rate has outpaced the growth of the marriage rate. In Beijing and Shanghai, almost 40 percent of couples now divorce, a figure approaching those in Western countries. Meanwhile, people are getting married later in life. As a result, more members of China's "post-80 generation," referring to those born in the 1980s, are opting for love and attraction -- rather than practical considerations -- in finding a partner.
In China, this idea represents a break from tradition. Joy Chen, a Los Angeles-based author of the best-selling book Do Not Marry Before Age 30, says Chinese culture emphasizes honor, duty, and responsibility in relationships -- not love. These days, though, priorities have shifted.
"Suddenly, in the last 10 or 15 years, there's been an explosion in China of talking about love," Chen says, "Everyone wants true love, but people don't know how to get it."
For Wu Di, this cultural shift presented a business opportunity. A family and relationship counselor in Shanghai and the author of I Know How You Were Leftover, Wu launched a three-month "dating camp" two years ago and charged 4000 RMB (about $650) per student. Together with her partner Bob Liu, a salsa instructor, she offered dance courses, workshops and salons to teach singles how to date and fall in love. Hundreds of people signed up for the camp, Wu says, mostly Shanghai white-collar workers in their thirties who had never dated in their life.
In her weekly workshops that have attracted thousands, Wu lectures about how to negotiate with a partner, how to confront parental demand to get married, and even on subjects like sex and birth control. Salsa dancing is a big part of the training, Wu says, because dancing loosens up shy individuals and the music puts them in the mood right away.
"Chinese people don't know how to date. It's been like that for thousands of years," Wu says. "Young people have higher expectations for marriage now. They want attraction, and their parents don't know what that is."
Wu isn't the only one with that idea. Last year, Alex Edmunds, a 26-year-old Princeton graduate living in Beijing, founded Coucou8, an online dating site that hosts affordable small group events like dinner, cooking classes, hiking, and afternoon tea for singles over the age of 26. Edmunds says that at Chinese dating events, conversations focus on income, wealth and whether or not a person has a Beijing hukou, a permit that qualifies a resident for social services like education and health care. This contrasts with the Western style of dating, which Edmunds defines as an organic interaction based on mutual interests where singles get to know each other before focusing on practical matters.
At the inaugural Coucou8 event, Edmunds found that the Chinese men were low-key and passive, often staring at their phones rather than getting to know the women in the room. So he decided to break the ice by bringing in a host and introducing American-style drinking games. Membership has grown by 10 attendees per month since April.
"China has a very hardworking culture, so there isn't much momentum for people to go to social events and meet people outside of their work environment," Edmunds says, "So what we have to do is bring in a different culture around initial dates and meetings that encourage people to meet based on their personalities and interests."
Both Wu and Edmunds are targeting China's "leftover women," a new term describing educated, urban women over 27 who are disadvantaged not just by society's perception they're "too old" for marriage, but also because their successful careers and economic security intimidate prospective suitors. The government adopted the term in 2007 and promoted it in the state-run media.
Leta Hong Fincher, a PhD candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University and author of a forthcoming book about leftover women and Chinese gender inequality, says that the Chinese government wants "leftover women" to create "quality" babies by scaring the women into marriage. This goal dovetails with a China State Council plan to upgrade "population quality" in 2007, the same year the term "leftover women" came into wide usage. Ever since, the government has invested a lot of effort in marrying off these women by running large-scale matchmaking events.
"All media are controlled and censored by the government, so when the government wants to send a very strong propaganda message, that message is extremely effective," Fincher says, "The majority of women are still internalizing this ideology. They are genuinely very afraid that if they don't marry by the time they turn 30, they won't find a husband."
According to Joy Chen, however, Chinese culture has played a role in pressing women into marriage long before the arrival of the Communist Party. Thousands of years of culture and tradition have labeled women who are neither a wife nor a mother as social outcasts. For the post-80 generation -- one that was caught in the transition between traditional and modern China -- the term "leftover women" is especially suitable.
But the real source of adversity towards single women has a simpler explanation: parents. In contemporary China, Wu says that a generation gap has emerged between people born in the 1950s who lived through the chaos and poverty of the Mao Zedong era, and their (usually only) children who grew up under vastly different circumstances. According to Chen Haiyan, a popular dating coach on Chinese social media, this conflict results in anxiety for the parents, especially mothers, and depression for the daughters.
"Every time a woman calls home, her mom will cry and yell and ask why she hasn't married yet," she says, "Their grandmothers will then say that they don't want to die before seeing you get married."
Stressed, scared and stigmatized, many women will give in and rush into a loveless marriage before age 30 and then rush out of it within one or two years, Wu Di says, thus driving up the divorce rate in China. Nevertheless, as the idea that it's ok to be single past a certain age continues to gain acceptance in China, women will have options that didn't exist in the past. Challenges remain to get to this level, but both Wu and Joy Chen are optimistic: they believe the term "leftover women" will disappear in the next decade as more women remain single after age 27.
For Nancy Ji, divorced and lost at 31, life has never been better at 37: She has recently started seeing someone she met at Coucou8 events, and her perspective on what she wants has changed.
"Now I hope I can find someone who I can connect with based on interest and personalities," Ji says.