Why in China Women are ‘Required’ to Marry Young

And How Millennial Women Should Fight With Dated Yet Mainstream Tradition

After an almost ‘pressure-free’ 5-year in Hong Kong, I moved back to Shanghai earlier this month. It was a hard decision. I have friends (majority of my social network after college) and a relationship in Hong Kong, whilst career (exciting job opportunity) and my family in Shanghai. There’s a further concern to the Shanghai option: I know what I would face to live in China as a single female who has passed 28 years old.

It’s not a secret to the world that in China social norms ‘require’ women to marry young. But why such outdated tradition still exists and prevails in this country with the second biggest economy in the world, and why there is an increasing population % of single female in China who are referred to as ‘Leftover Women’?

The reasons are rooted in three layers.

  • Macro environment: As Michael Spencer mentioned in the article, China is facing severe gender imbalance due to selective abortion. By end of 2014, male to female ratio was 105:100, unmarried male to unmarried female was 2:1 for the 70s. Female is gifted with reproductive ability. But the society defines it as responsibility, and ascribes social instability partially to men fighting over the scarce female ‘resource’ . That might explain why the government / mainstream media is silently permitting or promoting the concept of ‘marriage proves a woman’s value’. They don’t want females to choose to be independent because they know women can have the option of whether to have the next generation or not by her own, but men can’t.
  • Family influence: Most of the parents for people between 20–40 years old were born after 60s or 70s, just as when China began to open up. For them, it is far easier to adopt advanced technology than advanced concept. One moment you are amazed to see grey-haired parents spend more time on smartphone than you do, the next moment you want to run away because they start nagging about why you are not married when you turn 28.
  • Individual value: Women are well educated in China (48% of students admitted to college are female); however the notion that ‘women should marry up, men should marry down’ has not changed in this male-dominated country. Smart and accomplished Chinese ladies have limited ‘eligible’ gentlemen to choose from who need to possess higher financial capability or career position.

Because of the complexity that results in Chinese millennial women’s marriage struggle, it requires a joint effort from both society and individual to work on below aspects.

  • Re-definition of marriage: Marriage need to be redefined in China. It is not a mission and should not have a deadline. It should be a natural decision when you have learned the meaning and the associated responsibility, and are ready for it.
  • Rights on decision making: After understanding what marriage is, women should be given back the rights to choose the life they want, and should be respected whether she decides to be a nurturing mom or a happy single lady.
  • Family as shared responsibility: If a woman starts a family, her male partner need to recognize that taking care of a family / raising kids is a mutual responsibility. The society should tolerate and provide necessary policy / infrastructure for men to take an increasing family role. In that case, women will no longer need to pair with a more ‘socially capable’ men.

Any fight against rooted tradition is a time-consuming journey. I’m frustrated with current situation but am optimistic in the long run as I see more and more Chinese women awakening, along with many people from the rest of the world voicing up to promote gender equality and empower women. Among the supporters, there’s a most commonly asked question I’d like to try answer as the ending of this post.

“You are a well-educated and independent woman with international exposure, why can’t you just live the life that you want?”

Quick answer is you can, but it’s hard. Individual determination could be powerful, but there are many social components associated with the marriage struggle as elaborated above. It’s like wanting to see in the darkness without lights or candles, or feeling like driving in a city without roads or gas stations. Can you build your own torch or own infrastructure? Probably yes. But it will sure require much more effort from an individual than a collective society.


Do you have any thoughts or feedback on women’s struggle to get married young in China? Feel free to share your comments below! Individual opinion will one day change ideology architecture, I hope.