Love an Unattainable Luxury, Chinese Marry for Practical Reasons Instead

Would you want to be a "spare tire"?

You know that feeling when you meet someone, and you just know that you’re going to spend the rest of your life with them? There’s a Chinese word for that: 缘分 (yuánfèn), meaning a predestined relationship. It’s almost exclusively used to describe love, as in “I fell in love with you the first time we met because it was yuanfen.”

At the same time, however, marriages in China usually happen for practical reasons rather for than romantic ones. According to a poll by relationship website Zhen’ai, Chinese have a very specific set of parameters for their potential soul mate.

One of these expectations is salary. Although Chinese society emphasizes equality between men and women, what’s fair for the workforce is not the case between husbands and wives. When asked what kind of difference in salary they’d ideally expect from a future husband, 72 percent of female respondents said they’d want a husband to bring home twice as much as they do. The idea that a man must make more than his wife is shared by male respondents, with only one percent of men saying they’d marry a woman that made twice as much as they did.

Age is another important consideration. While females said they’d prefer someone close in age to them, men don’t want an older wife. Only 17 percent said they’d marry an older woman, and only three percent are actively looking for a woman at least 10 years older.

Then there are the people who will patiently standby and wait for the one they want, even if the object of their desires is already in a relationship. This is known in China as a “spare tire”: a secondary, “back-up” choice should the marriage fail.  This back-up boyfriend is usually somebody who didn’t quite measure up initially, but can be kept in the bullpen as an insurance policy.

While that might not sound so great, Chinese men apparently don’t have a problem with it. Forty-seven percent of male respondents said they would be willing to serve as a “spare tire” for a woman with other marriage plans. Women aren’t willing to do the same though, with 84 percent saying they wouldn’t want to be a spare tire.

With all this talk of conditions and contracts, you might think that dating for love doesn’t have a chance in China. In fact, the concept of two strangers going out on a date for fun and possibly more isn’t common in China. Instead, Chinese go on xiangqin (相亲 xiāngqīn), a meeting between a man and a woman for the purpose of determining marriage.

Instead of dinner and a movie and discovering mutual interests, it’s a fact-finding mission to see if the other party fulfills your expectations of what a ideal spouse should be. Often done with the involvement of family and acquaintances, xiangqin are often stress-filled encounters that are as numerous as they are short. With so much pressure riding on these encounters, many Chinese avoid going on xiangqin, often using the complaint, “I’m too busy with work.”

All this isn’t to say that love doesn’t exist in China. Instead, love in a marriage is what takes place once the proper conditions between husband and wife are satisfied.

No one can say that real love is not important to Chinese. After all, the xiangqin website that conducted this poll, Zhen’ai, means “real love” in English. And where else could yuanfen happen but on a website where you can filter out who you want to meet by salary and age?

Charles Liu

The Nanfang's Senior Editor