Why can't pretty women like us find the right partners?
That was the question which kept coming up when a group of women in their late 20s gathered at a recent reunion of senior middle school friends in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province.
They have good jobs and look reasonably good, they mused, so why are they not among the ranks of Chinese women who traditionally should be married or even be mothers by now?
The current trend of adults remaining unmarried in Chinese cities is considered to be the third since the People's Republic was founded in 1949. The first in the early 1950s and the second in the early 1980s.
"Well-educated, financially-independent women and poorly educated men with low income make up the largest portions of the single adult population, and the two groups will find it most difficult to get out of that situation," said Wang Zhenyu, sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The women have been criticized for being too picky and having abandoned traditional Chinese values to become too "globalized" but they feel they're just doing what they need to do to build an intimate "strategic partnership" with a man.
"Life is such a long and difficult journey that we have to be choosy in finding an interesting 'book' to read comfortably on our way," said Tracy Shen, a 29-year-old office manager of a French company.
Shen parted with her boyfriend on the eve of their wedding because his parents insisted on living with the couple after the marriage. She said her move was justified because she was paying a larger share for their apartment.
"I know that traditional Chinese families are like that, having two, three or four generations living under one roof. But I simply cannot accept the 'buying one and getting two free' policy, and I don't think many girls of this generation would say yes to that," she said.
"For my right 'book,' I am willing to wait a little bit longer."
And waiting to the women is a conscious decision; not a simple prayer wishing for the right man.
"We girls can dress well and attract more men to have a larger pool from which to choose," said Catherine Lin, a 30-year-old VIP customer relations manager at a Beijing branch of a Singapore-based bank.
Another topic the women discussed was the strategy of waiting a long time, if need be, for the right person versus following a "trial and error" path.
"Just date him," Lin said. "Dump him if he is not 'the one' and pick up another."
But then, one of the women said that waiting was nothing but an excuse.
"I am not psychologically prepared for marital life," said Lillian Feng, a 28-year-old civil servant. Her 34-year-old boyfriend insisted that they get married last year, and the two parted when Feng refused.
Women are demanding more time to prepare for marriage, said Wang, the sociologist. In 1991, Wang said, Chinese women's first marriage was at an average age of 22.2. In 1996, it was 24.2. The same year, in Shanghai, the average age 25.3; in Beijing, 25.2.
Well-educated women are taking their time in preparing for marriage because they don't need their husbands' money to support them, Wang said.
On the other hand, a woman's financial strength allows her the luxury of caution in finding a partner, said Anita Wang, a 28-year-old lawyer at a foreign law firm in Beijing's World Trade Centre.
"While conquering me, a man also conquers my big apartment," she said. "It is so great a venture that I should take care not to give it to the wrong guy."
Parents less patient
Even so, the women acknowledged that members of their families are impatient.
"My mother has sworn that she'll bang her head against the wall if I don't get married soon," Shen said.
The parents of another member of the group said the only comfort is that their daughter is not alone.
"There are a lot of her kind," the woman's mother told her parents, showing them newspaper articles as evidence. "Nearly half of the daughters of my friends, who are approaching 30, haven't started a family, and some don't even intend to do so."
The 20-something daughters are sympathetic to their relatives' sadness, but they have other priorities right now.
"Even when the right man shows up one day in the future, I may not be able to catch him simply because I don't have the time to do so," said Sabrina Li, a 29-year-old project manager at an American investment bank.
Li travels frequently between Shanghai, New York and Hong Kong, and she stays in her office until midnight almost every weekday when she is not travelling.
Anita Wang lost her boyfriend because she wouldn't quit her present job as a lawyer and take on a more leisurely teaching job, as he suggested.
Women say they have been told, since childhood, that they should have their own careers. But because the jobs are in competitive fields, they leave little time for private lives to be blank, unlike the women of even a generation before, who could give full attention to their families because they were under the protective umbrella of a planned economy.
Staying-single trend to remain
With Chinese society in transition, the trend of remaining single and focusing on careers will not change anytime soon, as the previous two waves did, according to Hao Maishou, sociologist at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.
The nation saw a record-high divorce rate after its first marriage law took effect in May 1950. An unexpectedly large number of people who got married during war divorced when peace arrived. By 1953, for every 100 couples who were getting married, 53 couples were getting divorced.
The government played an important role in getting the singles married by arranging meetings of young women with older men at the time, Hao said.
The second wave lasted from the late 1970s and didn't end until 1985.
In 1976, with the end of 10 years of turmoil under the "cultural revolution," most of the 16 million urban men and women who had gone to work in "the vast countryside" returned to the cities, and a large number of them were not married.
The government, trade unions and women's associations were active in finding them spouses. In the early 1980s, "matching agencies," which arranged for blind dates sprang up like mushrooms in the cities.
Even so, a considerable number of men and women did not marry, Hao said.
Some of them, now in their 50s, were forgotten by society. During the reforms of the new century, they were laid off or had to retire early.
In the two previous waves, men and women couldn't wait to say, "I do."
But this time they are not that eager and know many ways to avoid what traditionalists might call the sting of single life. These career women have one another. They have dinner together often and go to yoga courses or fitness clubs.
"Sometimes I do have the impulse to love someone," Anita Wang said.
So, she recently paid US$1,000 for a poodle.
(China Daily April 10, 2006)