Parent inspects umbrellas at Shanghai marriage market.
© Helen Roxburgh

Shanghai’s ‘marriage markets’ are exactly what they sound like. We checked one out

Arranged marriage is illegal in China, but that hasn't stopped Chinese parents from finding other ways of making sure their child gets hitched to The One before it's too late

Every weekend, Shanghai's central People’s Park fills up with determined middle-aged parents, bundled up against city winds with a flask of tea in preparation for a long day at the stalls. They’ve each got a huge umbrella opened up in front of them, a piece of paper describing their offspring’s many talents and prospects pinned to the front of it for all to see.

This is the city’s 'marriage market', where parents of unmarried children come in the hope of matchmaking their children. It’s a social occasion – parents stand around chatting, occasionally making notes or comparing photos on phones.

Parents compare photos of their children at Shanghai marriage markets.

I talked to one of them – Mr Zhang, a chatty man in his mid-50s, wrapped in a green coat and sporting a pink umbrella. He’s here because his son hasn’t yet married, and Zhang is worried that now, he’s left it too late. His son is 26 years old.

“There are limited opportunities for him to meet new people now,” he points out, shaking his head. “He only meets his own circle, his own colleagues. Here we can meet new people and have more opportunities.

“My son didn’t do much dating at university – that’s the best time for meeting people. Now he’s already 26; after 26 the considerations should be marriage, babies, housing. It’s too late to be need to consider timing.”

On paper, finding a daughter-in-law shouldn’t be too hard for Mr. Zhang. His family owns several houses, meaning his son can offer a home to his bride – a big plus given Shanghai’s seriously expensive house prices. His son also speaks English, has a good career, and a valuable Shanghai hukou – a registration card which gives you access to education and healthcare in the city.

Mr Zhang's umbrella at the Shanghai marriage market.
Mr Zhang wasn't too keen on having his photo taken, but here's his umbrella – "Graduate, 175cm, works at state-owned enterprise, radiant young man. Seeking 165cm well-proportioned, quiet graduate partner.'

You’d think parents would be tripping over themselves to snap up Mr. Zhang’s son, with economic prospects like those. But not everyone is necessarily looking for the husband with the ‘best’ financial future – for some parents, like Mr. Fu – a father from the outskirts of Shanghai – it’s about finding someone that will make his daughter happy.

“I don’t mind if he hasn’t bought a house,” he says, of his future son-in-law. “I want them to be happy. She doesn’t have much time for dating, and she’s quite shy. Girls need to be careful in the city by themselves and avoid men that aren’t trustworthy. I’m worried she won’t meet anyone by herself.”

In traditional Chinese culture, marriage and family are the bedrock of society. Chinese youth often face huge pressure to marry, and women unmarried by 27 are dubbed shengnu - “leftover women”.

Arranged marriages have been illegal in China since the 1950s, but parents find other ways to stay heavily involved in marital decisions. Mr Zhang insists that with six people involved in a match (two sets of parents and the children themselves), success is more likely.

“The first step is that the parents meet. There’s a higher chance of success if the four parents get on. Sometimes the two kids might like each other but the parents might not, and then there’s a problem,” he says.

Parents say their children are too busy working to find themselves a suitable match without a little help. A quick browse of the umbrellas and I can see why – lots of them have a pretty impressive list of achievements under their belts, from MBAs, to PhDs, to speaking several languages. Confident, internationally-minded millennials are increasingly choosing opportunities to travel and study abroad, further their education or build successful careers. For these jiu ling hou (“90s generation”), marriage has to wait.

“My son is working in Japan,” says Mrs Zhu, propping her sign up on some steps in the ‘international section’ of the market. “He likes it a lot, he is enjoying studying Japanese, but how is he going to have time to meet a nice traditional Chinese girl?” She wants to meet parents of a girl also working in Japan at the market, so they can arrange for their two children to meet up overseas.


Description of young Chinese man at Shanghai marriage market.
'Japan – Tokyo. Shanghainese single man, born 1986. 1.60 tall. Strong, sturdy, good-looking figure. Working as a manager at Tokyo Commercial Regulation Bureau.'

But China’s matchmaking blues aren’t just about kids working too hard; it’s about there not being enough of them in the first place. China’s notorious one-child policy – in effect for thirty-five years up to 2015 – meant most households have only one child to pile all their hopes on.

The policy, combined with a traditional preference for boys in China, led to millions of gender-selective abortions, abandoned girls, and even infanticide. The result? There are many, many more men than women in this generation. By 2020, China’s government says Chinese men of marrying age will outnumber females by at least 30 million.

The state is particularly worried about the social implications of these ‘surplus’ men, known as guanggun – “bare branches” – typically rural men who get left behind in poor villages. The state-run People’s Daily newspaper warned last year that ‘bare branches’ were more likely to engage in criminal activities such as gambling, prostitution, and even human trafficking.

Interestingly enough, women tend to get the blame for prioritising career over marriage. Impressive though their careers may be, single, educated women are still seen as selfish and disruptive for failing to perform their ‘duty’. The guanggun bachelors seem to get more sympathy from Chinese state media.

These portrayals are beginning to meet with a backlash. An advertisement by cosmetics company SK-II, showing young women protesting against the phrase shengnu and ending up in Shanghai’s marriage market went viral in China. And a 2012 book by Joy Chen entitled Do Not Marry Before Age 30 sold out several times over and became mandatory reading for young urban women, as age-old traditions clash with modern aspirations.

A slowing marriage rate is already playing out in the statistics. In 2015, China saw its second year of decline in newly registered marriages, down 6.3% on the previous year. For the first year ever, the average age of a woman getting married in Shanghai rose to 30.

With more young people in China prioritizing careers over coupling, parents at the marriage market don’t want to waste any time. Mr Zhang has been coming here for three years - since his son was just 23 - hunting for a future daughter-in-law. “There are good opportunities here,” he says, gesturing beyond his umbrella to the buzzing park. “And after all, we only need to find one wife.”

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