In China, Money Can Often Buy Love

Money really can buy you love in China — or at least that seems to be a common belief in this increasingly materialistic country.

Many personal stories seem to confirm that the ideal mate is the one who can deliver a home and a car, among other things; sentiment is secondary.

Young couple looking at each other and holding a glass of red wine.
Imagemore | Getty Images
Young couple looking at each other and holding a glass of red wine.

However widespread this mercantilist spirit, not everyone thinks it is a good thing. A spate of Chinese films, plays and television shows have raised the question: What is love in an age of breakneck economic growth?

Many Chinese were shocked this year when a female contestant on a popular TV dating show, “If You Are the One,” announced: “I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.” But others insisted that the contestant, Ma Nuo, now popularly known as “the BMW woman,” was merely expressing a social reality.

Rocketing property pricesin recent years have contributed to such feelings, with many people in Beijing and other cities accepting the idea that a woman will pursue a relationship with a man only if he already owns an apartment.

Feng Yuan, a 26-year-old who works in a government education company, tried to set up a friend with a man she thought suitable.

“When she heard he didn’t own an apartment, she refused even to meet him,” recalled Ms. Feng. “She said, ‘What’s the point? Without an apartment, love isn’t possible.”’

Fueling these attitudes is a drumbeat of fear. After three decades of fast-paced, uneven economic growth, there is enormous anxiety among those who feel they are being left behind, lacking the opportunities and contacts to make big money while all around them others prosper and prices soar.

"When she heard he didn’t own an apartment, she refused even to meet him. She said, ‘What’s the point? Without an apartment, love isn’t possible.'" -Matchmaker, Feng Yuan

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.

Chinese couple_200.jpg
Paul Burns | Blend Images | Getty Images

A character known as B, grilled by a potential mother-in-law about her very ordinary income, yells: “Don’t think that because I have nothing to be proud of you can insult and destroy me!”

“I have my dignity and pride,” B says, “and I don’t want to turn love, which I value so much, into something vulgar and pale!”

A new film, “Color Me Love,” celebrates the cult of materialism but also comes down, somewhat, on the side of love. Modeled on “The Devil Wears Prada,” and with product placement for Hermès, Versace and Diesel, it follows poor but gorgeous Fei as she arrives in Beijing to intern at a fashion magazine.

“Fei, one day you’ll understand,” Zoe, her glamorous editor, cautions her. “Nothing is as important as the person you’ll spend the rest of your life with.”

A tumultuous courtship with a wacky artist named Yihong ends up with the couple united in New York. A closing shot shows her in his arms, a diamond on her finger. The real fantasy, perhaps, is love plus money.

Ms. Feng, who had failed to find a match for her apartmentless friend, said the demands that many Chinese women make on prospective mates reflected weakness, not power. Lower in status, they fear not getting what they want in life, and look to men to provide it.

“Women are very dependent,” she said. “I blame them. Why can’t they work hard and buy a house together with their man? But very few women today think like that.”

Few Chinese men do either, reinforcing the rules of the game. For the 26-year-old events organizer, losing his love to money was justifiable.

“We didn’t need to waste time on a relationship that was doomed to vanish,” he said.