The new creed can be hard, as a 26-year-old cultural events organizer learned.
The man, who asked for anonymity to protect his privacy, earns about 4,000 renminbi, or $600, a month, making even a modest apartment in an unfashionable district of Beijing unaffordable. These homes can cost about $3,000 per square meter, or about $280 per square foot. Housing inflation is severe. Ten years ago, a similar apartment cost about $345 per square meter.
Instead, he tried to impress his girlfriend of three years by saving for a year to buy an iPhone 3. The newer iPhone 4 — a hot status symbol — had just gone on sale. But at about $900, that was beyond his means.
The phone was not enough. Last week, she left him, citing pressure from her parents to find a richer mate.
He is heartbroken, believing, despite all, that his girlfriend truly loved him. “Why else did she live with me for three years?” — albeit in a rented apartment. Yet, he is philosophical, too.
“I understand her situation and the pressure from her family,” he said. “I also understand that her parents want their daughter to find someone who can give her a better life.”
The only way to find love, he said, is to become rich. “The most important thing for me now, is to work and earn a living.” he said. “I need to grow stronger, support myself and my parents, and then my future girlfriend can have a good life.”
Such calculations have their critics. The hard-nosed attitude of Ms. Ma, the BMW woman, earned her a gentle reprimand recently from the film director Zhang Yimou. In an interview in The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, he urged young people to re-examine their values.
“I don’t think economic advancement and our yearning for love are mutually exclusive,” he said.
Mr. Zhang, who turns 59 on Sunday, represents an older generation that remembers the more egalitarian, if also poorer and more politically repressive, Maoist era, before the economic changes that unleashed the scramble for material advancement.
His latest film, “Under the Hawthorn Tree,” depicts the innocent love between a teacher, Jing Qiu, and a geologist, Lao San. Set in 1975 toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, and without a BMW in sight, the film shows the teacher spending quite a lot of time smiling on her sweetheart’s bicycle. Love is the thing, it concludes.
Other productions have joined the debate.
“Fight the Landlord,” a play by Sun Yue that premiered in Shanghai last month, is another ringing defense of love in an age of materialism.