Evolution of Dating in China: Trading Pressure for Preference

China's young blossom while elders' control wanes

Leftover women” is a term that often appears in discussions of relationships in China and describes women over the age of 27 or 28 who have not yet married. But Chinese attitudes toward marriage are changing, especially among those in their twenties and thirties – these days, both men and women are putting off tying the knot for longer and having more fun before they settle down, if they settle down at all.

It’s widely accepted that Chinese born in the 1980s and 1990s are more open-minded than their parents, especially when it comes to relationships. After all, most of those parents grew up during a much more repressive period of China’s history, closed off from the rest of the world and subjected to harsher moral judgment. By contrast, their children grew up on a diet of Japanese cartoons and American movies, with infinitely more choices at the grocery store and more chances to study, travel, and broaden their horizons. Until recently, the older generation was still calling most of the shots, but their influence is now waning.Until recently, the older generation was still calling most of the shots, but their influence is now waning.

Divorce on the rise, and when people do get married, they’re waiting longer to do it. Yet this is not a sign of the death of romance, but its birth: Chinese are increasingly rejecting “good enough” marriages for the chance to date more before they settle down. “In sharp contrast to the country’s older generation, who always put their family’s interests ahead of everything, their offspring choose to stay in or leave a relationship largely of their own free will and feelings,” wrote the government-sponsored Women’s Studies Institute of China in an article about changing views of love and marriage. “Fewer young Chinese would compromise their own happiness for an unsatisfactory marriage simply to avoid losing face or embarrassing their parents.”

Other studies back this up. A recent survey by 2RedBeans, the largest dating site for Chinese living abroad, asked over 2,500 Chinese singles about their expectations for love and dating. The results showed that respondents had more liberal views than previous generations on issues like gender roles and dating norms. Q Zhao, the founder of 2RedBeans, believes the more progressive attitudes are a positive sign.  “In mainland China, at 27 or 28, you’re already a ‘leftover woman.’ If you’re that age and you come to the US or Canada, you realize you’re so young … so you don’t worry as much,” she said in an interview. “I think it’s a very good thing, they find out more about themselves, and they find people who actually match them very well to form a family. I think it’s the same for men.”

This trend towards waiting is especially pronounced among Chinese abroad, but it is not limited to that small percentage of China’s population. Young people there, especially in urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai, are dating more before they settle down. Apps like Momo – which is similar in function to Tinder – and other social media tools make it easier than ever for people to meet and explore their options. In the US, many have decried this trend – Vanity Fair recently ran a piece entitled “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,'” exploring the costs associated with a culture of convenience. But Q of 2RedBeans said that new forms of dating played a more positive role in China. “Most Chinese are on the very conservative side of the spectrum, so I think they need to go toward the more open side,” she argued. “In general there needs to be a balance.”

In addition to waiting longer and dating more, Chinese young people are also looking for different traits in potential partners than their parents did. Increasingly, women are paying more attention to their partners’ looks, as evidenced by the rise of the slang term xiaoxianrou, which literally translates to “little fresh meat” and is a generally positive term for an attractive young man. The 2RedBeans survey showed that female respondents showed a stronger preference than in the past for more considerate, domestic partners, known as nuannan or “heating men,” as opposed to the professionally successful and aloof. Sisi, a Chinese journalist living in the US, also felt that her peers simply wanted more from a potential partner. “We already have at least master’s degrees, and we can feed ourselves,” she said. “So we are looking for more than a breadwinner of the family. I think being independent financially and psychologically gives us the luxury of waiting and picking the right one.”

It’s still no walk in the park for many Chinese young people. “The sad story is there are still a lot of pressure from families and society for women who are not married when they reach some certain age,” said Ming, a Chinese woman who moved to the US for graduate school in 2008 and has remained there, adding, “The good news is, I think this situation will change significantly when we assume our parents’ roles.”

“I think my generation is the transition generation,” Sisi agreed. “I’m very excited to see what the next generation does with more liberty and less judgment.”

Photos: PBS

Liz Carter

Former managing editor of Tea Leaf Nation, published author, lover of all things China.