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China’s Property Boom Fuels Romantic Revolution

Kathrin Hille in Beijing
Wednesday, 31 Aug 2011 | 11:50 PM ET

If everything had gone to plan Estelle Qian would be about to embark on a flight from her Beijing home to England for her honeymoon. “We thought September was good because after that it gets really cold and rainy,” she says.

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But now the honeymoon is off. When Ms Qian and her boyfriend started arranging the wedding, her mother demanded — as is common in China — that the groom buy the couple an apartment first. With sky-high property prices , that was out of reach. “Now we’ve put everything on hold and are reviewing our options,” says Ms Qian. “Maybe we should just get married anyway — you have to give love a chance.”

The conundrum confronting the 28-year-old brand manager is one many young Chinese are now facing. The present-day interpretation of Confucian traditions, which treat marriage as a union of two families rather than individuals, may require parents to demand a price for their offspring. But with the price of entry rising beyond reach many young Chinese are starting to opt for “naked weddings” instead, embarking on a life of matrimonial bliss without the usual materialistic trappings.

The phenomenon has even spawned a hit television soap opera, also called Naked Weddings, which follows a young couple who opt to marry despite parental opposition and without the usual financial accoutrements. It topped the ratings earlier this year when it ran on CCTV, the main state broadcaster, and is the most popular TV series ever on Youku, China’s biggest online video site.

For Ms Qian a naked wedding seems like a refreshingly simple option. “Chinese society is so materialistic and there is no trust between people,” she complains.

Behind what looks like a romantic revolution are some very real social dynamics. “Increasing migration, higher education levels for women and, most importantly, soaring real estate prices have made marriage impossible for many if they want to conform with the requirements of tradition,” says Zhang Yi, a marriage expert at the Chinese academy of social sciences.

After dropping in the late 1990s, in line with the typical trend in modernizing societies, China’s marriage rate has also started rising again. After bottoming at 6.1 couples per 1,000 citizens in 2002, it bounced back to 9.1 couples per 1,000 citizens in 2009.

“The huge amount of labor migration across China means we have tens of millions of young people far away from home. They get used to making decisions without their parents and they fall in love,” says Professor Zhang. “In addition, people are choosing naked marriages in scores now because so many have waited for so long that they have reached an age where if they wait any longer, they will be left unmarried for life.”

A recent supreme court ruling that a house bought by one spouse prior to the wedding remained that spouse’s personal property — intended to clarify things in case of a divorce – has only added to young people’s feelings of desperation about such materialism and the lack of romance.

For many young Chinese even the prospect of a naked wedding presents complications.

Zhou Shengwang, a 31-year-old sales agent in Beijing, earns more than Rmb10,000 ($1,568) a month, a salary that places him firmly in the middle class. But he does not feel affluent and still frets about whether he will ever marry at all. “I’m really worried about taking on even more financial responsibility,” he says.

Complicating matters, his girlfriend of seven years has bent the truth and told her parents that he already owns a flat, to make him more acceptable in their eyes.

“If we were to marry, they would demand to see the property certificate. But I missed the moment for buying a flat when prices were still lower, and now it’s far beyond my means – so we can’t ever get married,” he says.

Additional reporting by Chen Yuanni

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