Dating divides generations

At 25, Rikki Lu is at an age where her parents expect her to be finding her lifelong partner and settling down.

Instead, she has resigned from her job as a nurse and has gone travelling around the globe with her younger boyfriend.

Her parents are not impressed.

A Shanghainese couple having their wedding photos taken at The Bund. Photo: Emily Farquhar.

Today in Shanghai, many young Chinese are struggling with dating. Either because they cannot find someone who meets their own expectations or they fall in love with someone their parents simply do not approve. As China becomes more Westernised, so do its ideas. Some Shanghainese choose the Chinese tradition of dating and seek to find a man who is rich, older, has a house and has a car, whilst others are opting for love.

Others like Rikki Lu. Lu sits patiently and explains her difficult situation as the vegetables rise to the surface of the hot pot . She says her parents do not approve of her boyfriend because of his age, wealth and job security.

“I said yes I separated with him but we are still together.

“Maybe one day, I will take my boyfriend, go to my house and talk to my parents because we cannot avoid this talk. So, I guess they will accept because they know they cannot change me, they cannot control me, they know me,” she says.

China’s traditional dating system is different to Australia’s, according to University of WA architecture student Ruiyue Wu. The 25-year-old Shanghainese is in her eighth year of living abroad in Perth, Western Australia.

“It’s not about love, it’s more about two families,” Ruiyue Wu says.

More wedding photos at The Bund.
Photo: Emily Farquhar.

Traditionally, if a Shanghainese couple decides to get married, both families will arrange a meeting to discuss life after marriage and what each party can offer to the relationship.

Wu says often the couple will prepare in advance for this parental meeting because it’s not based on the couple’s love for each other but instead on the couple’s monetised future. If the male cannot provide a house or must move back to his home city to care for his family, this could be problematic for the young couple.

Fudan University College of Foreign Languages and Literatures professor Jian Sun says historically dating was arranged by official matchmakers. The authorities would then oversee the process of dating. “And at that time of course, the sexual relationship was prohibited before marriage so it’s very difficult for the young lovers who fell into what we call the sea of love,” he says.

“If this happened.. the authorities would intervene.. and they would talk to you very seriously about the matter from the point of view of morality. Of course this kind of situation changed after China was opened up to the outside world because people got to know much about what was going on in the West.”

China has become much more open to Western ideas since in the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping replaced Mao Zedong as the leader of the Communist party. Professor Hongyun Sun, who heads the Chinese language program at Boston University, says China has been changing rapidly in the past 20 years and as a result, many traditions are disintegrating but social pressures still are maintained.

“A lot of traditions are breaking, a lot of young couples accept, they move in together and get to know each other more before they get married. And the older generation tends to accept the kids are getting married late. But there are still some, I wouldn’t call it tradition, I would call it more like social pressure, like ‘you need to find a boyfriend before 25’ from the society and from your own parents,” she says.

Zhao Ying enjoying traditional Chinese tea. Photo: Emily Farquhar.

Despite the social pressure, increasing numbers of young Chinese are seeing marriage as a burden and this is reflected in the statistics. According to the China Daily newspaper, the Ministry of Civil Affairs released data to show there has been a 5.7 per cent drop in couples married in the first quarter of this year across China compared to previous years, with developed regions such as Shanghai recording low figures. And compared to five years ago, the number of newly registered marriages has dropped by 29.54 per cent.


Shanghainese project manager 26-year-old Zhao Ying says of her generation: “They think single is freedom. They will have more time to do what they want to do and do something they like. Maybe if you’re married, you will focus more on your family. You will have more responsibility.”

We are talking on a cosy Saturday afternoon in a Shanghainese tea house. Steam from the black tea hovers over the delectable nibbles.

Ying says although people now are beginning to accept contemporary ideas such as one’s sexual orientation, independence and getting married over 30, there are still people who will abide by China’s traditional family focus; to act on parents’ wishes and what they say. “If my parents don’t like my boyfriend strongly, I think I will break up this relationship because I think his parents and my parents must like each other,” she says.

Many parents who dislike their child’s choice of partner are found at the traditional Shanghai Marriage Market at People’s Park in the centre of the city. A place where the role of parents in organising an arranged marriage is exemplified.

Shanghai Marriage Market. Photo: Emily Farquhar.

A sea of umbrellas at the Shanghai Marriage Market. Photo: Emily Farquhar.

In a metropolis of skyscrapers and modern buildings lies a colourful little park; colourful not by the green vivid gardens but by the rows and rows of umbrellas lining the footpath. It’s a Sunday morning and the park is full of locals perched behind each umbrella. They aren’t just any locals but determined parents eager to find their child’s perfect match.

A middle-aged man with a warm smile and a goatee springs out from behind the umbrellas. He begins to sing to me in opera style, drawing in the crowds of smirking parents. It doesn’t stop there. Mr Zhu Long Cheng, a Shanghainese father to a successful single son, agrees to an interview as he graciously paints a portrait of my unfamiliar face.

Shanghai Marriage Market. Photo: Emily Farquhar.

Cheng says his son is ready to have a girlfriend but refuses because of his busy work commitments and lack of relationship experience. “And if he meets the beautiful girl, he is really afraid to talk with you,” he says. “I try my best to find the beautiful girl. He says you find the beautiful girl not so beautiful.”

Wu says at the Marriage Market the parents will bring what she referred to as their child’s resumé. The laminated piece of gold paper states the child’s level of education, their assets, which city they are from and a photograph. If two children’s characteristics align, the parents will organise for them to meet.


Fudan University student Li Qian.
Photo: Emily Farquhar.

Fudan University English literature student Li Qian, 25, is from Jiangxi Province and isn’t a Shanghai local but believes this kind of traditional blind dating found at the Marriage Market makes her age group feel uncomfortable and shameful. “Yeah it’s just like selling goods and bargaining. We are not commodities,” she says.

Wu shares the same view. With a firm tone, she says she wants to have full control over who she chooses, and does not want anybody else to do it for her. “The decision might be wrong but I will take the responsibility for myself,” she says.

Shanghainese executive assistant Xiao Jun Yan.
Photo: Emily Farquhar.

Another liberated Shanghainese, executive assistant Xiao Jun Yan, 30, leads the way to a major shopping mall where she too has a secret boyfriend. It’s five o’clock on a Tuesday night at Hongqiao train station. The guards are on duty and the locals flash by us as the sun descends behind the buildings. Yan says she plans to tell her parents about her boyfriend in a couple of years once they get married and move into a house her parents bought for her.

“Now is not the time to tell my parents I have a boyfriend because; one he is a countryside man, two he is younger than me and three he is a coach in gyms,” Yan says.

Xiao Jun Yan says her parents tried to introduce someone to her but she didn’t like him and wanted to choose a partner herself. “This is good for me but it’s different for different people. Maybe someone likes parents to choose who they love, it’s okay.”

Why would anyone want their parents to choose who they love?

The answer is Confucianism; a traditional Chinese ethical and philosophical system which is influencing the way generations of Chinese think and act. For example, in a family you should listen to the father. When the father dies, the wife should listen to the eldest son. And if the husband is alive, the wife should listen to the husband.

Professor Sun says even when his father talked to him in the past and was not right, he wouldn’t dare challenge him. Whereas today, Professor Sun can only give suggestions to his own son and hope he will accept them. “And mostly he just has his own way. He really won’t accept my ideas 100 per cent so that’s a big change,” he says.

Shanghainese nurse Rikki Lu says Chinese people traditionally try to be the perfect child their parents wish them to be. “Now my parents don’t like my boyfriend but I love my boyfriend. I still love my parents, so how do you balance them? This is a big problem.

“In the past, maybe we would’ve broken up but now I still want to decide for myself.”

For many, staying single is a tough but popular decision to make.

It’s a casual Friday night at People’s Square, a popular meeting point in Shanghai. The street bars are buzzing but the karaoke bars are buzzing even louder. From South Korean rap to romantic Chinese love songs, the groups of singles are securing their slots for the night.

Single friends at The Bund.
Photo: Emily Farquhar.

Project manager Zhao Ying is there with her three best friends; Miss Cui Ru, 26, Miss Shen Chen Jia, 26, Mr Jiang Yi, 32. All are single and all are embracing the unconventional approach. Cui Ru, the most outgoing of the group, says she has her work, her family and her friends to think about and therefore has no time to dedicate to finding a new boyfriend.

As she tosses her hair to the side, Ru says of her generation: “They want to play. They want to be free. They want freedom. Freedom is very important.”

All three believe they are accustomed to going out with each other to the movies or to dinner, and therefore there is no need to conform to the traditional dating codes of revolving your social life around finding a new boyfriend.

Ying explains: “If I find a boyfriend, it’s okay. It I don’t, it’s okay too in my opinion.”

In China, if women reach the age of 30 and are yet to marry, they face the stigma of being labelled ‘left-overs’.

Single woman at Fudan University.
Photo: Emily Farquhar

Some think left-over women are too independent. Some think their age is not ideal. Some think they are too picky.

Fudan University student Li Qian says some left-over women tend to portray a tough exterior but only because they cannot find their ‘Mr Perfect’ to rely on. “Actually they are fragile in their heart. They want to find someone to support them but can’t find a man that can meet their standards,” she says. “We do have boys but they are not excellent enough. It’s not only about the number, it’s about the quality.”

Women today have more power and status than ever before so, says Rikki Lu, stacking her dishes at the hot pot restaurant.

“I want to control my life by myself. So, only I can choose the right things, not other people. It might be wrong, the decision might be wrong, but I will take the responsibility for myself.”


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The 2018 Curtin Journalism Shanghai Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.