The Cost of Marriage

My Chinese teacher walked into my lesson last week and told me she was pregnant, with twins. She was excited, if a bit overwhelmed, but said that her husband was extremely stressed by the possibility of having two sons… Why? Because getting a son married is very expensive, never mind two of them.

She explained, in China, the parents of the groom are expected to pay a bride price (an amount of money either to the bride or her family) to the bride. In her case, it was about a million yuan. In addition, if the groom doesn’t already have one, they are expected to buy the couple an apartment. There’s then also the small question of furnishing the apartment, paying for the wedding and don’t forget the honeymoon! Although the latter two are actually negotiated by the parents of the bride and the groom. The brides parents also don’t get away unscathed, they are generally responsible for buying the electrical appliances in the apartment. In Tianjin specifically they also tend to buy the couple a new car.

At the wedding, all the guests will tend to bring hongbao (红包) or red envelopes of money in as presents for the newlyweds (instead of tea sets and toasters). However this gift, like most gifts, is not freely given. The parents of the newlyweds are expected to pay back an equal amount of money to their son or daughters wedding. So equal, in fact, that after the wedding my Chinese teachers parents sat and counted all the money and made a spreadsheet of how much each family had given so they could return it exactly. All the money involved in a marriage may explain why, despite a change in rules where 2 children of the one child policy, may have 2 children are still choosing only to have one.

The occurrence of such expensive bride prices is fairly recent, and my Chinese teacher sees it as a function of increased materialism since the country opened up. Her parents paid very small bride prices, mostly as a token, because at the time there just wasn’t very much money and more importantly, everyone had equally small amounts of it. As money started to rush in during Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, people got richer, unequally, and the cost of getting married soared. In addition, the male weighted gender ratio means that women are the ‘scarce resource’, for the men and their families competing for them. The massive generations gap in the cost of a marriage is a testament to how quickly things have, and still are, changing in China.

So you have to feel for this husband, who may have to cough up for not one but two apartments, bride prices, weddings and honeymoons.

‘They wear stupid hats and have stupid little moustaches’

DSC_2634 90% of the time my students are just 13-14 year old students no different to those at home. Sometimes, however, hints of the political context they live in appear in my classes. The other day I was teaching my students about Remembrance Day. I told them a story about Jews in Holland during WWII. Halfway through explaining that Hitler used Jews as a scapegoat for the political and economic problems in Germany after WWI one of my students piped up. ‘But the Jews, they did something bad’. ‘The Jewish people, they took all the money and all the business, that’s why the Germans had no money’.When I asked who the Jewish people are a boy called Adolf (and yes, he did pick that name himself) piped up, and said ‘They wear stupid hats and have stupid little moustaches’. Of course, in my view Jewish people were blameless victims of genocide and was familiar with the concept of Jewish people as mean capitalist businessmen only as a stereotype. However, from a Marxist point of view Jewish people were the definition of the enemy and from a Chinese communist perspective the students had been taught to see them as ‘capitalist roaders’.