If you live in China, you've probably heard about the marriage markets (相亲角- Xiāngqīn jiǎo). My friend and I decided to visit one to investigate. So, we went to Zhongshan Park in Beijing, one of China's largest marriage markets.
After paying the 3 RMB entry tickets, we entered the park with an equal amount of excitement and doubt. Mostly everything we'd heard about the marriage market was from the internet. What if the market no longer exists? Actually, what if it had never existed? Maybe from the beginning, it’s just a made-up story.
But it does exist, and we found it towards the deep end of the park, where we saw a long footpath and a crowd of people. This must be it! Unable to withhold our excitement, we ran towards the market.
“You! You! Why are you taking photos? Show me what you just took!” An angry female voice shouted at me. She grabbed my phone before I could react. The woman seemed to be in her 60s. She wore a slouchy, patterned polyester shirt, with nude nylon tights firmly pressed against her chubby ankles. “Don’t you know pictures are banned in our market? Delete what you just took!”
Flustered, I deleted the pictures and walked away in a hurry. “These damn people, coming here just to mess around!” I could hear her loudly complain as she sank back to her wooden portable chair.
Damn it, this wasn’t a good start. Holding tight to my iPhone, my palm was getting sweaty and my face was burning. I should have been more cautious and done some research before coming. My thoughts drifted as I walked deeper into the market, crossing stacks of A4-sized posters that are packed with details advertising single sons and daughters:
“Beijing female born in 1981. 165cm, accountant for a national company.”
“Never before married girl, born in 1989, master's degree, working in local middle-school, decent income. Slim and pretty, loves arts. Looking for kind and responsible guy born after 1980 who’s over 175 cm tall. Beijing residency and with-house preferred.”
“Single, Beijing residency, engineer of national real-estate company. Annual income over 300,000 RMB, owns apartment and car. Looking for female around 170cm/55kg who's kind, smart and healthy.”
Browsing through the posters, I was soon lost in an ocean of information. Why do all these ads look the same? If the parents want their kids to stand out from the competitors in this market, shouldn't they at least put in some effort to decorate the posters? Make them colorful! Add some sprinkles! Hang up some photos!
But no one does this because the ultimate principle of marriage market is conformity, not individual expression.
The parents who came here on this hot afternoon with their portable chairs, water bottles and A4 posters seem stuck to traditional Chinese cultural norms. Such norms include the belief that “a child is supposed to obey the parents’ order and follow the advice of matchmaker (父母之命 媒妁之言)”. Or that “men and women of age should be married (男大当婚 女大当)”.
Every one of them would start with the same question: Which year were you born?
“Hi girl, which year were you born?” A man tapped my shoulder and asked. “1992,” I answered, startled. “Ah, that’s a bit too young…” he sighed with pity, “are you from Beijing? What’s your job? Would you consider a guy 10 years older than you?” I studied him for a moment before digesting all the questions. He was certainly older than my dad, looking sweaty, tired, yet his eyes were filled with sparkles of hope. I couldn’t just lie to a guy like this. “Sorry, I do have a boyfriend already.” For some reason, I really did feel I owed him an apology.
The man walked away after I turned him down. Over the course of the next hour, we were approached at least ten times by various moms and dads, all asking the same questions. After hearing our answers, the majority would walk away, yet some would linger to throw out more questions or comments to our face, pointing out opinions such as “young ones like you two won’t be steadfast enough for marriage! (小姑娘对婚姻还不踏实) ” and “my son wouldn’t accept girls this young! (我家儿子接受不了)."
After hearing all these blunt comments, I felt like a stupid, puckered onion being brutally poked from the outside. I felt awkward and offended, and to cover it all up, I bowed my head even deeper down to carefully study the endless A4 posters lying around.
1) There were significantly more daughters than sons being advertised.
2) The majority of these bachelors and bachelorettes were born in the 1970-1980s.
3) Almost all of them hold jobs “inside-the-system (体制内)”, such as teachers, doctors and employees of state-owned enterprises.
4) Local residency (户口) and house ownership are super important. A father we talked to even mentioned that he didn't put his son's poster on the ground because he believes, as a Beijing-native, “he has the right to pick others in the market instead of being picked.”
5) But other things like appearance (height and weight), hobbies, occupations and personalities are important too. At the end of the day, match-making is an all-rounded game in which both sides assess each other based on the average score across fields, to hunt down that “not-too-good-my-kid-can't-handle” other half.
For the outside world, the marriage market seems like a pathetically lone island. It’s a disconnected, outdated and closed system, functioning under a set of unchanging rules that were only legitimized and cherished by its own islanders.
We were most curious about one question though: do the sons and daughters actually know their parents are here advertising for them?
As it turned out, this question forced many of them into silence. “My son thinks marriage markets are outdated,” said a woman with friendly, round eyes, “so I never told him I come here. If I managed to find a suitable girl in the market I would add the girl’s parent’s WeChat, ask them to send some photos, and show them to my son without telling him that I found her here. I’d just say she’s the daughter of a colleague or something.”
On the way out of the marriage market, I bumped into a beautiful young girl who, after a quick eye-contact, I identified as another outsider. Like the matchmaking parents would do with each other, we started chatting:
“So what do you think?”
“Insane, the people here are insane! Some came to grasp me and asking all sorts of weird personal questions, I had to escape out like a clumsy idiot!” She was clearly still trembled by the experience.
I couldn’t be more emphatic. for the outside world, the marriage market seems like a disconnected, outdated and closed system. Everything here self-justifies, everyone here knows their purpose; no room for outside interference, no need for “this-is-wrong-why-are-you-still-doing-this-for-your-grown-up-adult-kids”.
That being said, as weird as it sounds, there is also the paradoxical beauty of China's marriage market. When you are actually inside, with your sweat and emotions completely devoted to that situation, things actually make sense. These parents are the generation of Chinese that still believe in the broken belief-system; no matter how much “advanced” ideologies like individualism, personal rights and gender equality have swept by the society, they still couldn’t and wouldn’t let go of the narrative that they can deem who is most suitable for their children.
Call them absurd, redundant or old, yet in the end, they are just like every generation of us in the society - the product of social, cultural and political constructions of our own times, unconscious, insecure, yet full of timeless self-pride.