Chinese New Year: a time of renewal, celebration and family. But for many young people, it is fast becoming a dreaded - or even avoided - event. The pressure for women, in particular, to be married and have children by the age of 27, is creating deep-seated familial tensions. Twenty-nine-year-old journalist, Yuan Ren, investigates the phenomenon that is forcing marriage or 'bihun' in the Chinese culture and considers what it might take to put an end to it.
This Sunday, my family and I celebrated Chinese New Year’s Eve. There was shrimp, wine, fruit, and braised meat on the dinner table – all the yummy dishes you would expect.
With grandparents, aunts and uncles eating together, there was a lot of well-wishing and drinking-tos, including this classic one from my 80 year old grandma:
“This year I’m waiting to drink the wine at your wedding banquet.”
“I think you’d better drink more of this then,” I reply, intimidated and gulping down my own wine.
The last few times I’ve seen my grandma in the past year, she has repeated the same desire for me to find “my own person”. Of course, she isn’t one bit bothered about what wine there is to drink at my wedding - even if she does like a Boudoir.
“It’s really time to consider solving your personal problem,” grandma continues, not referring to any chronic conditions that I have, or any boyfriend-beating tendencies exhibited.
“Solving your personal problem” in Chinese talk means finding a solution to the problem of “not being married.”
I’ve actually gotten off lightly.
In recent years, “forcing marriage” or bihun has become a common phenomenon across China, and particularly so during Chinese New Year when young people return home and face rounds of interrogation and heavy pressure from relatives to marry.
For some, it becomes so demoralising that they don’t go home at all during New Year’s, or try to leave at the first opportunity.
Wang is a 30-year-old PhD student living in Henan. As many Chinese people in their 20s and 30s are, he is keen to get married. He regularly meets women through ‘introductions’ that colleagues and friends set up.
“All my relatives are interrogating me and trying to enlighten me [about marriage]; aunties and uncles are taking turns bombarding me about marriage,” he says.
“I’m leaving to go back to Beijing tomorrow and escaping from home.”
Two years ago, an advert by the popular marriage website Baihe (the e-harmony of the US) painted the ugly side of bihun, and caused outcry by depicting a sick grandmother repeatedly asking her granddaughter: “When are you getting married?” The last scenes show the grandma in hospital with tubes in her nose, still pleading and the granddaughter showing up in a white wedding dress with a man. “I got married”, the girl says, crying.
Ahead of Chinese New Year, the China Youth Concern Committee Health and Physical Culture Development Centre (yes that exists) published the China Forced Marriage Survey Report where men and women 40-years-old and under were asked whether they had experienced bihun.
Nearly 80% of all respondents said ‘yes’, including 86% of 25-35-years-olds; three percent not even within legal marriage age (22 for men and 20 for women), said they’d been pestered about it. The report showed that “forcing” varies across region: in Sichuan, bihun is a united family attack; in Shanghai, relatives just keep repeating the same lines hoping to drill it in; in Guangxi, family arranges “blind dates” for their children during New Year’s.
With women getting better educated, having broader horizons and becoming wealthy off their own backs, young people aren’t as easily entering into marriage as their parents -who still take a traditional view.
My generation is getting married later; there is even the phenomenon of “Leftover Women” – well-educated, single women of and above 27.
It's causing families stress and, in many cases, creating huge tensions for parent-child relationships.
Mei Huang, a 28-year-old student studying at Queen Mary University in London, is back in Zhejiang province for Chinese New Year and says all this bihun talk is “driving [her] crazy”.
When I tell her about my own grandma’s penchant for marriage wine, she replies: “Oh yes my grandma said the exact line yesterday”. Huang explains that the bihun is mostly coming from her grandma, who is 80 years old, and her four aunties. “It’s really pissing me off they are trying to set me up on dates!” she adds.
In line with the Baihe advert, emotional blackmail is also a realistic part of bihun, as Huang’s own experience attests to. “My grandmother said that if I didn’t resolve my personal problem soon, she might not be around to see me married! The sort of talk that makes you want to cry.”
The prevalence of one child families – a result of the one-child-policy from 1980 until last year – further adds to the pressure and magnifies the situation. A few months ago, my male cousin got married, and the family pestering that used to be split among us (more on me since I’m a girl) has completely shifted to just me.
“Your cousin has solved his problem now, so it’s your time to consider your own”, says my grandma.
It seems that the older generation feel young people today need reigning in and guidance on all personal affairs by their parents.
Unfortunately, marriage is just the beginning: after that come babies and the Pandora’s box of questions and guidance. “Why has it already been a year of marriage and no baby?” alongside “quit smoking and drinking” – so that a man’s little swimmers are in tip top condition.
And with the scrapping of the one-child-policy, it's only a matter of time before the: “when is the second baby coming?” question too.
The pressures of bihun aren't going anywhere, anytime soon. The saying: "not getting married and producing children is unfilial" is so culturally ingrained, that not having children is still one of the worst acts you can commit against your family.
Even when bihun verges on verbal or mental abuse – as it often does – it's hard to protest formally as it's your family.
There is, however, some public pushback.
A group of Chinese women recently tried put up a poster with the words "quit bihun; my life my choice" in an underground station. The local authorities and police rejected the design: society was clearly not embracing such a stand against traditional notions.
For now, a more open, equal conversation between parents and children is needed: while Chinese New Year can be painful for singletons, there's clearly parental distress too.
Putting on the pressure on the issue marriage isn't conducive to getting anyone married; communicating may be the first step forward to 'solving' the issue, and reaching harmony during a holiday that's all about family.