Chinese Marriage Rate Hits Record Low as Young People Decide to Stay Single

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

China appears to be experiencing a dip in marriage rates very similar to the one observed in Western societies years ago, and for much the same reason: young urban professional Chinese are putting off marriage because living alone has become more affordable and they wish to defer marriage until they find the ideal mate.

The description of the latest data from the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Civil Affairs provided by the state-run People’s Daily should sound familiar to any student of marriage and fertility in the industrialized world:

The marriage rates were lower in developed regions. For example, last year, only 4.4 people out of every 1,000 in Shanghai got married, the lowest rate in the country, and 5.9 people out of every 1,000 in eastern Zhejiang province got married, the country’s second-lowest rate. Guangdong, Beijing, and Tianjin also registered low marriage rates.

Yuan Xin, a professor of population and development at Nankai University, said the primary reason for the drop is that the proportion of people unwilling to marry is rising.

The average ages of men and women getting married in Shanghai stood at 30.3 and 28.4 years old in 2015, 5 and 5.4 years later than in 2005, according to a report released by Shanghai’s Women’s Federation.

Those who choose to tie the knot later usually have higher educational backgrounds, Yuan said. Nearly 40 percent of female staff at universities are working on or have obtained a doctorate. As a result, they are more likely to start a family with someone of similar educational backgrounds and this may take longer to find.

About 7 percent of women aged between 30 and 35 years old in China are unmarried today, a figure more than 10 times higher than it was in 1990.

The People’s Daily attributed these shifting demographics to the higher cost of getting married and raising children in China’s rapidly-developing urban areas, and the complementary dissolution of the incentives to get married young for rural Chinese moving into the cities. 

The inference is that putting off marriage until a perfectly complementary mate is found is a more reasonable strategy in fast-paced urban areas with immense populations and plenty of resources to make single life easier, compared to small villages with relatively stable populations where early marriage confers significant advantages and is encouraged by tradition.

China’s marriage rate has declined every year for the past five years, adding up to a total slide of about 30 percent, as a younger cohort with distinctly less interest in marrying young comes of age. The next-oldest generation continues to display fairly stable interest in marriage as it ages into its thirties. According to the Xinhua news service, “I’d prefer a high-quality single life to a low-quality marriage” is a common sentiment among young people.

Observing the decline of Chinese marriage last year, NPR found older Chinese women writing up advertisements for their single daughters and taping them to umbrellas. One woman said her 33-year-old daughter disagreed with the practice but “respects her parents’ wishes” that she find a husband.

“Young people these days don’t care about marriage. They don’t pay enough attention to our traditional values. Their views are becoming more Western,” said the concerned mother, attributing her daughter’s desire to remain unmarried and independent to her education in the United Kingdom.

Some of the urban Chinese interviewed by NPR described early marriage as an outmoded tradition practiced by “rural people without an education.” 

Young Chinese women said men were intimidated and flustered by independent women with successful careers and noted that major universities are one of the few places in China where women are more numerous than men after decades of “One Child” population control pushed so many couples to abort female children. 

The punch line noted by foreign observers is that China is now suffering from demographic decline so the Communist Party wants women to start having lots of children again, but they would rather remain single and focus on their careers, while young Chinese men resent being ordered to be fruitful by the government.

“In China, young people are supposed to do as they’re told by their parents and their government. You’re supposed to believe that our country is the greatest and that we should listen to the government and our parents, but it’s all propaganda, and it’s a trap. It’s not for our own good, but for theirs,” a twentysomething Chinese man explained to NPR.

Chinese social media users are well aware of declining marriage rates and discuss them frequently. Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, even has a hashtag that translates to “Why Aren’t You Getting Married?” that gets millions of hits a day. 

These social media threads suggest many Chinese men grew up with the feeling they were “leftovers” due to the imbalance between males and females in their generation, so they grew accustomed to the prospect of bachelorhood. Many of them express irritation with the government for sending confusing signals about childbirth, not only through the old One Child family planning policy but practices such as “late marriage leave,” a lengthy vacation available before 2016 to people who got married after the age of 25.

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