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’.

A Walk Around the Block

Everywhere I look in this area I can see the school, big, imposing… and fee paying. Although it’s not the most expensive school in the city, parents do pay 10,000 rnb/y (£1000) for the pleasure of having their kids educated here. Given that the average wage in Tianjin is between 3,000-5,000 rnb a month that makes these kids rich (even if they do pale in comparison of the top 1%). The view out of the big window of the main building looks out into downtown Tianjin and it’s major building works. The place most of these kids are aiming for.

Two steps outside the school though, you catch a glimpse of another China. Here, house doors are covered with Chinese New Years decorations (believed to protect those who live inside), little corner shops with crickets in cages (Jiminy!), and old men sitting outside playing Chinese Chess. What is most surprising is that around a school, there are also quite a few derelict shops. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in investing money locally.

China grew rich and changed so fast its not a place where old and new exist alongside each other, it’s where they literally crash into one another (warning: gapyah blog/guide book line). For a lot of people this experience is similar to that old friend from home that won’t leave you alone to hang out with your new glitzy University friends, and keeps wanting to visit old haunts when all you want to do is go to the college bar and pretend you’ve always been this ‘cool’. However, usually these friends are also the ones who are best able to remind you who you are and why on earth you decided to study Anthropology.

Trade City

It’s very hard to explain what Tianjin is like, especially because using phrases like ‘a bewildering mix of new and old’ sounds like a line from a very cringey guidebook or a stuck-up gap year kid’s blog…

Saturday, I went on a 3 mile walk from where I live, along the river, up to the central train station. On the walk we walked past the main food market, the basic design and energy of which probably hasn’t changed for centuries, given this port city’s long history of trade. Next we walked past the former colonial concession areas, given to European countries after the second opium war, complete with embassies and churches. The war forcefully opened China up to foreign trade in 1860. The last European concession was abolished the same year communist revolution took place (1949). Although home grown, it used ideas imported from a German philosopher. Memories of this revolution stood in the middle of the colonial area in the form of a civil war memorial. Finally, the 21st century, with China’s mass trade with the rest of the world and the growth of Tianjin to the 4th biggest city in China was echoed in the final leg of the walk, nearing the centre of town, covered in sparkly skyscrapers.

Tianjin Foreign languages School

This is me. Tianjin Foreign Languages School. I teach about 350 of the 2000 students. The 13-14 year olds (hooray for puberty!).

The students are definitely much harder workers than in the UK, with a starting time of 7:30 am (yes, that means I start then too) and a finishing time of about 7 pm in the senior school. They also stop and bow every time they see a teacher in the corridor and say ‘Nihau Lau shi’, or ‘Hello teacher’, when it’s me. The chopsticks in the cafeteria are a bit of a novelty, and so is the pleasant orchestral theme that’s played instead of an obnoxiously loud bell at the start of every lesson. Finally, the mass synchronised exercises the students do (still working on getting a photo of this) during the breaks are very different from the games of ‘it’ that I’m used to.

Other than that, it looks, feels and sounds probably exactly like every other secondary school on the planet. The boys still refuse to sit next to the girls. Loud students still groan when you move them to sit apart from their friends. And the word homework is still met with a groan.


Every time I walk into town I walk over this bridge. Most days it looks like the first, but the odd day after a rain-storm you can actually see as far as the ‘Tianjin Eye’ from where I am (the circular thing in the middle of the photo, which is indeed a knock-off the London eye).

Smog isn’t just a problem in Beijing, which gets most of the media attention. 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China and only 1% of the country’s city dwellers consistently breathe air considered safe by the EU.

The air pollution is caused by a combination of: an over-reliance on coal, heavy industry in cities, vehicle emissions and sand storms from inner Mongolia. Coal, the main culprit, is the world’s cheapest and dirtiest fossil fuel. For China, it is also the most abundantly available locally, so obviously preferable to reliance on Russian or the Middle Eastern gas or oil.

Recent legislation has attempted to curb pollution. It is now compulsory to install desulphurising facilities at power plants, and there is some control of the amount of cars on the roads. However, from what I have seen and read, China is still a country where growth is the main priority, and definitely not the reduction of pollution.

If anyone fancies keeping up with the state of my, and everyone else in this city’s lungs this year, keep an eye on: