The 30 women sat in wooden chairs, facing each other in a rectangular formation. At the front of the room was the ruling Communist Party’s hammer and sickle logo, with a sign declaring the meeting’s purpose: “Symposium of unmarried young women of the right age.”
Officials in Daijiapu, a town in southeast China, had gathered the women to sign a public pledge to reject high “bride prices,” referring to a wedding custom in which the man gives money to his future wife’s family as a condition of engagement. The local government, describing the event earlier this year in a notice on its website, said it hoped people would abandon such backward customs and do their part to “start a new civilized trend.”
As China faces a shrinking population, officials are cracking down on an ancient tradition of betrothal gifts to try to promote marriages, which have been on the decline. Known in Mandarin as caili, the payments have skyrocketed across the country in recent years — averaging $20,000 in some provinces — making marriage increasingly unaffordable. The payments are typically paid by the groom’s parents.
To curb the practice, local governments have rolled out propaganda campaigns such as the Daijiapu event, instructing unmarried women not to compete with each other in demanding the highest prices. Some town officials have imposed caps on caili or even directly intervened in private negotiations between families.
The tradition has been met with growing public resistance as attitudes have shifted. Among more educated Chinese, particularly in cities, many are likely to see it as a patriarchal relic that treats women as property being sold to another household. In the rural areas where the custom tends to be more common, it has also fallen out of favor among poor farmers who must save several years of income or go into debt to get married.
Even so, the government’s campaign has drawn criticism for reinforcing sexist stereotypes of women. Chinese media outlets, in describing the problem of rising marriage payments, have often depicted women who seek big sums as being greedy.
After the Daijiapu event went viral on social media, a flurry of commenters questioned why the burden of solving the problem fell on women. Some commenters urged officials to convene similar meetings for men to teach them how to be more equal partners in marriage.
In China, “as with most state policies regarding marriage, women are the central target,” said Gonçalo Santos, an anthropology professor who studies rural China at the University of Coimbra, in Portugal. “It’s a paternalistic appeal to women to maintain social order and harmony, to fulfill their roles as wives and mothers.”
By targeting women, official campaigns like the Daijiapu event sidestep the fact that the problem is partly of the government’s own making. During the four decades of the one-child policy, parents often preferred sons, resulting in a lopsided gender ratio that has intensified competition for wives.
The imbalance is most pronounced in rural areas, where there are now 19 million more men than women. Many rural women prefer to marry men in cities to obtain an urban household registration permit, or hukou, which provides access to better schools, housing and health care.
Poorer men in rural areas must pay more to marry because the women’s families want a stronger guarantee that they can provide for their daughters, a move that instead could plunge them deeper into poverty.
“This has broken many families,” said Yuying Tong, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The parents spend all their money and go financially bankrupt just to find a wife for their son.”
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Officials have acknowledged their limited ability to eliminate a custom that many families see as a marker of social status. In rural areas, neighbors may gossip about women who command low prices, questioning whether something is wrong with them, according to researchers who study the custom.
The tradition is also linked to entrenched attitudes about the role of women as caregivers in families. In parts of rural China, the payment is still seen as a purchase of the bride’s labor and fertility from her parents, researchers say. Once married, the woman has typically been expected to move in with her husband’s family, get pregnant and be responsible for housework, child raising and the care of her in-laws.
But as the soaring cost of living has exposed gaps in China’s social safety net, securing a high marriage payment can be a way for lower-income families with daughters to build savings for unexpected medical bills or other emergencies. And with parents living longer, some women are demanding higher prices as reimbursement for being the primary caregivers of the older generation, researchers say.
Sociologists say a more effective way for the government to curb the tradition would be to put more funding toward child care and into health care for seniors.
As more young Chinese delay or shun marriage altogether, their parents’ expectations around marriage payments are shifting, said Liu Guoying, 58, a matchmaker in Nanchang, the capital city of Jiangxi Province, which is notorious for bride prices that can exceed $50,000.
Parents eager to facilitate a smooth start to the marriage are increasingly passing the payment to the newlyweds as a gift, she said. Some parents so desperately want their daughters to be married, she said, that they are willing to settle for less cash as long as the prospective son-in-law treats their child well.
“Pity the hearts of the parents of the world,” Ms. Liu said.
A new generation of women, more educated than their parents, may also be playing a role in changing attitudes around the issue. A 2020 survey of around 2,000 people in China found that highly educated couples were less likely to pay bride prices, believing that loving each other was enough.
But even for women like Luki Chan, 27, who went to college, an opportunity her mother never had, escaping the pressure of hometown traditions can be difficult.
Ms. Chan grew up in a mountainous region of Fujian, a province in southeast China where marriage payments are often high. Her mother expects to receive at least $14,000 from the groom when Ms. Chan gets married, she said, as repayment for the money she spent on her schooling.
Now, Ms. Chan is building her own career in Shanghai as a theater producer and is in the process of registering for marriage documents with her Taiwanese boyfriend. Ms. Chan fears that when her parents find out, their demands for a bride price will ultimately prevail. Ms. Chan rejects the tradition, regarding it as tantamount to being sold.
“When I see the patriarchal system that exploits women, and the misogynistic marriage customs, I am very scared to discuss marriage with my family,” she said.
Officials see the lavish payments as an urgent problem that could hinder economic development and trigger social instability.
Across the country, cities are trying to popularize the idea of getting engaged without exchanging money. This month, local officials in Nanchang hosted a free mass wedding for 100 couples who got married simultaneously inside a massive sports stadium, touting the slogan: “We Want Happiness, Not Bride Price.”
The couples wore red and gold traditional Chinese wedding outfits, performing the ceremony in a synchronized choreography. Their relatives watched from the bleachers, with local government officials getting the prime seats.
But in a sign of how much the custom still persists, dozens of residents across China in the past year have complained to local officials in online message boards about exorbitant marriage payments.
In one post last summer, a resident said he was “begging” his local government to regulate marriage payments in his rural village of Baixiang in southwest China, where many farmers live in poverty.
Three weeks later, county officials replied that they had sent a team of investigators to interrogate the resident’s girlfriend at her home. She told investigators that her parents agreed to marry her off for about $40,000 and refused her pleas to lower the price. The boyfriend’s family had only paid half of it so far.
After “great efforts on all sides,” officials said, the girlfriend’s father agreed to a payment of about $9,000 and returned the rest to the boyfriend’s family. The refund took place at the local Communist Party bureau, with party officials as witnesses.
The officials concluded their report with a message for the couple: “Wishing you a happy life!”
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