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Why More Women in Beijing Are Delaying Marriage

Corinne Dillon, Contributor

Beijing retiree Huang Guipu has spent the past two years setting up his 29-year old daughter, Huang Fei, on more than 30 blind dates. Much to Mr. Huang's chagrin, however, not a single suitor has turned out to be Mr. Right.

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According to China's 2010 census, Ms. Huang is just one of more than half a million unmarried women 28 years and older in Beijing. Known collectively as shengnv (leftover women), Huang is part of a growing urban trend in which many college-educated, financially independent women are deliberately delaying marriage for both personal and professional reasons.

In a society that still places a high premium on young brides and mothers, however, parents are not taking their daughters' decision to marry later lying down.

"The whole family culture is still very strong in China,” says Xiao Suowei, a sociology professor at Beijing Normal University who studies Chinese marital and familial relationships. “Parents are thinking about their kids in 20 years” and worrying that if their daughters don’t get married before 30, they might be considered too old to bear children, no man will want to marry them, and they will miss out on the joys of family life entirely, she adds.

China's famed gender imbalance, for which rural areas are largely to blame, masks a much smaller difference in the overall sex ratio at birth in cities like Beijing, where numbers are only slightly more than worldwide averages and have been since the 1980s.

Beijing women born in the ‘80s, therefore, are not in desperately short supply the way their rural counterparts are, which means that white-collar Beijing bachelors like 32-year-old Li Xiaoming can afford to be a bit selective in choosing a wife.

"Why would I marry a woman who has been 'left behind’? If she's 33 and not yet married, maybe there is something wrong with her," Mr. Li says.

Indeed, like Li, many men say they want someone who will be a good mother and take care of their parents as they age, not someone whose sole focus is her career.

For the mothers and fathers of today’s shengnv, most of whom were married with children by their mid-20s, the notion that a successful career woman is equally or more a credit to her parents than a married daughter – especially one who has already given them a grandchild – challenges the very essence of what it means to be a good child by traditional Chinese standards.

"My daughter has her whole life to achieve professional success, but only a short time to find a husband and become a mother," worries Zhang Xiaofei, the mother of a single 29-year-old who works at an IT company. "I'm worried she'll get left behind if she does not meet someone soon."

In an effort to make sure that doesn't happen, Ms. Zhang, like Mr. Huang and thousands of other parents hoping to find spouses for their grown children, often gathers in typically tranquil corners of city parks for lively weekend matchmaking sessions. Most parents come with large posters clearly listing their daughters’ age, height, salary, and sometimes, positive personal attributes.

Yu Qian, a 28-year-old attorney, says she does not mind that her mother regularly attends matchmaking events, but refuses to marry a man simply because of parental pressure.

“I could get married today if I wanted to,” Ms. Yu says. Instead, however, she has chosen to pursue a master’s degree in international business law at the University of Amsterdam, something she insists would not be possible if she were already married.

“In China, marriage is not just a matter between two people,” she says, “it’s more about two families. If I were married, my decision to go abroad would have been a decision made by two families, and it would get too complicated.” So complicated, she says, that she probably wouldn’t have gone.

While Yu has chosen to pursue her dream in defiance of her mother's wishes, she acknowledges it isn’t easy.

One anguished friend of hers posted recently on China’s Twitter equivalent, Weibo: “My mom and dad are urging me to marry…I am bearing so much pressure! You guys really have no idea.”

Professor Xiao argues that because Chinese children are raised in philosophically Confucian households where respect for one’s parents is paramount, even grown children are vulnerable to criticism. “These women care about their parents – theirs are the opinions that really matter to them,” Xiao stresses. “It doesn’t matter what other people say, but when their parents tell them, ‘You should get married, otherwise you never will. If you don’t get married at 28, you are an undesirable woman,’ can you imagine how that makes them feel? It’s really terrible.”

Still, in a society where young women are often criticized for being overly materialistic when it comes to marriage, Xiao believes that many shengnv are sincerely looking for the right person. That they are holding onto their marriage ideals even as they get older says a lot about their determination.