We were aware that Shanghai’s ladies know how to enjoy themselves better than most, but a report from Women of China that analyzes 2010 census results confirms it: Shanghainese are putting off marriage at higher than expected ages, with the average age for marriage registrations standing at 29.77 years-old for women, and 32.45 years-old for men (though this state of affairs might be different if more costumed proposals took place).
And yesterday, the Global Times reported that over 82 percent of women saw single-ladies-put-your-hands-up type situations as “a positive way of life”, with 500,000 single women in Shanghai between the ages of 20 and 50 giving credence to the claim.
The paper describes the situation as “ominous”, a reference to the population concerns and male-female ratio imbalance that have been on the horizon for years. China Daily recently reported that the country’s workforce population will peak in 2013, and decline steadily afterwards.
But shouldn’t this group of single, cosmopolitan 20-somethings be considered just a drop in the bucket for the population of nearly 1.4 billion?
What this rise in marriage age and divorce indicates is a changing system of values. Discussions about love and marriage in modern China have created a popular saying, “marriage is the grave of love” (‘结婚是爱情的坟墓). While starting a family is still a number one priority in China, its importance is rivaled in urban areas by getting into a good university, achieving a successful career, and meeting Mr. Right. When this standard is applied to looking for a spouse, marriages that tend to be focused on income and status fail, unsurprisingly, or at least end up as unhappy and loveless affairs. Little wonder that the institution of marriage has somewhat lost its luster.
Shanghai really shouldn’t be too worried about the increase in marriage age. Cities in Europe and the US have had higher marriage ages and divorce rates, but it has not led to a socio-economic disaster. In fact, the trend is part and parcel of becoming a bigger, more successful economy. While lifestyles are going to change in Shanghai, and already have, it does not mean the perception of upper-20s to middle aged single women will follow suit.
According to population researcher Chen Yaya, Chinese society still regards unwed women “like aliens”, and that the media considers successful single thirty-something women as being “left on the shelf.” Meaning, no matter how successful women become or how content they are with their own lives, it matters little to society if it doesn’t lead to a walk down the aisle, followed by a bun in the oven.
This culture at odds with itself reminds us of the same creeping feeling you get from watching an episode Mad Men. It’s the realization that embodying an ideal of “success” is possible, as long as you forgo the things that truly make you happy.
By Fotini Gan
Picture from LovelyWeddings.com