China's Love Market

Another unexpected offspring of communist tradition and modern market economics

| June 15, 2006

In traditional communist China, the Western notion of love simply did not exist -- or perhaps, existed only as a devotional term uttered preceding direct objects like 'Chairman Mao' or 'the Party.' Likewise, marriages of this era occurred exclusively by means of the unromantic process of filial arrangement. Yet, according to Xiao Jia Gu, writing in a New Statesmanpiece (that's unfortunately now behind a paywall), as communism concedes ground to empowered individual consumers in modern China's increasingly market-oriented economy, the imported idea of 'romantic love' seems to be increasing proportionally in value -- for better or worse.

The integration of the long-held (and rarely questioned) dictates of communism with free consumer agency, notes Xiao Jia Gu, has added an element of 'choice,' as well as a certain commodification of the individual, to the institution of Chinese marriage. For example, in Beijing, parents of marriageable age children meet routinely at a 'love market' to compare their respective children's photos, work histories, salaries, and animal signs in an attempt to gauge compatibility, or, better yet, strike it rich with the likes of a 'diamond bachelor.'

For their part, actual marriage candidates -- likely, the products of faithful communist, one-child households -- often struggle more intimately with both the romantic and economic aspects of 'love.' Xiao Jia Gu highlights the young professionals, 'some with PhDs' among them, who find consolation through attending a self-proclaimed 'school of love.' And even though the class's teacher espouses accessible romantic ideals, he does so for a market fee, because, as Xiao Jia Gu's laments, '[w]here there is confusion, there is also a business opportunity.'

This sentiment certainly rings true for Beijing's many law firms, making a nice profit from that other imported staple of Western love: divorce. In fact, China's soaring divorce rate, up by 500 percent in the last two decades, has even spurred a hit TV drama, simply titled, Chinese-Style Divorce. This high divorce rate reinforces the perils of competitive market love and allows Xiao Jia Gu the grounds to ponder whether the 'emotional contours' that lay ahead for the Chinese people 'will be as harsh, in their own way, as the world they survived.' -- Evan Noetzel

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Related Links: The State of Love and Trust (in Shanghai)