There are 3 types of people. Male, female and female with a PhD.

There is a saying in China that the three most delightful moments in one’s life come with success in the imperial examination, marriage and the birth of a son. Marriage, in general, is seen as a great time in everyone’s life, not just in China, but is it really that great? You would think it is, marrying someone who you love and want to spend the rest of your life with is a wonderful thing. Yes that is. What about marrying someone because your parents told you to marry them? How many of us would do that? In China, this is still a very common occurrence. Parents of sons and daughters would decide their child’s fate in marriage. Even once decided it didn’t mean it would happen, there was no simple “will you marry me?” and “I do” involved – the Chinese followed the “three letters and six etiquettes” in order to even get to the marriage day. In arranged marriages the focus isn’t love either, it business. Imagine being married for business? It seems so far fetched to me so I interviewed a Chinese student about marriage in China to find out more.

JJ: Is marriage the same in China as it is here in the UK?

Interviewee: Its pretty much the same conceptually, there’s no big culture shock.

JJ: What about arranged marriages? We don’t do that over here, that’s different.

Interviewee: Well, yes I guess it is.

JJ: So why does that happen?

Interviewee: Sometimes people will get married for ID purposes, so one person can move to another, usually better, province and still get all of the financial benefits.

JJ: Are there any other reasons?

Interviewee: Some are political.

JJ: What does that mean?

Interviewee: Well say if two enterprises wanted to unite to gain more power, then what will often happen is families from each enterprise will have sons and daughters marry each other, strengthening the bond between the enterprise and so that both sides can have the benefits of the other.

JJ: Ok, so over here in the UK generally the man will ask his partner to marry him, there are usually no other people involved, how does that differ from arranged marriages in China? Who asks first?

Interviewee: No one really. The two sets of parents will meet up over dinner and discuss what the best outcome would be and what day fits into both their schedules and so on. It’s very business like.

JJ: Have you had any experience of this?

Interviewee: I could have been in an arranged marriage. My mother works in the civil service for a government party, she works at the province level and a friend of her works in the county level, which is lower. So for her friend so gain more power and connections she needs to move ‘up the ladder,’ so she said to my mother that it would be a good idea for her son and myself to get married. My mother said no though, as I was too strong minded, she said that she wouldn’t decide anything like that for me.

JJ: So this is a fairly common thing then?

Interviewee: It’s not common, but its not unheard of either.

JJ: Are there other circumstances in which arranged marriages would be, well, arranged?

Interviewee: If a girl is 25 then the family will begin to get desperate and try to arrange a marriage for them. At that age it becomes very difficult to get married, and if they are 30 there may be no chance of it ever happening.

JJ: No chance of marriage at 30!? That seems really still young to me, why is that the case?

Interviewee: So, there are more male than female in China and the males can be very picky, why choose an older woman when you can have a younger one? The men though, don’t like it if a woman is too educated, they like to be the dominant one, the better one – they won’t have it the other way around

JJ: Well, there are still some people like that here, so I guess that’s similar.

Interviewee: Yeah, there is a saying in China that there are 3 types of people. Male, female and female with a PhD. The female can get married before a PhD but once she has graduated, no matter what her age is, there is a much slimmer chance of her getting married. Its common that people think women with PhD’s must be ugly, they think that they must have had to focus on education because they had nothing else going for them.

JJ: So why is it so important to get married? There are plenty people here who are more than happy to live their life as a single person.

Interviewee: It’s to continue the bloodline. If you don’t get married then there is no chance of continuing the family name.

JJ: How does that impact people who maybe are married then but don’t want to be? Do they get a divorce? Or just stay unhappy for the sake of the bloodline?

Interviewee: There is a big social stigma against divorce. People would rather live unhappily married than be divorced. But there are more people coming around to the idea of divorce, things are changing, which is a good thing. It makes no sense to stay unhappy.

From this I gather that times are changing, that there can sometimes be a different view on marriage if you look at the older generation(parent) and compare that with a younger generation(the child). That the parents tell their child to get married and the child will respect their parent and do as they say, but this isn’t always the case,. In some case like this one, the view on marriage between parent and child was the same, both though that the child can find marriage by themselves.

Looking at this conversation I don’t see many direct similarities with marriage over here in this time but it wasn’t so long ago that divorce was frowned upon, that people married for wealth (some still do) and that men wanted to be the dominant part of the relationship. It’s maybe old fashioned to us now but as the Chinese student said “things are changing.” Maybe in a decades time they will be where we are at, maybe.

Girlfriend asks Boyfriend: If your mother and myself were drowning, whom would you save?

In my search to find out what I could about China, I interviewed two exchange students. Ding Wang and Weiran Zhang who are both here studying Digital Interaction Design and will be taking the Masters in Ethnography next year. They are here on the ‘3+1+1’ program, which enables them to earn dual degrees, one here in Scotland and one in their respective universities back in China.

I wanted to find out what they thought of China and to see how it differs from what I thought of China after having visited Xi’an in 2008 on a work expedition.

Allow me to start first, with my knowledge of my own country, Scotland. I cannot tell you all that much in terms of history, I was never interested that. I can’t recall any stories of Scotland’s history told to me by my family.

So when I asked Ding and Weiran about China I was a little taken aback when I found they had so much to say. Ding told me “China has a thousand faces,” that of the four ancient civilizations (China, India, Babylon, Egypt) China is the one who has kept its traditions and a lot of its culture has survived where the others have not. She believes China is a dynamic and energetic place, she also noted that life over here in Britain was particularly slow paced. They both referred to China as “the worlds biggest factory,” which, I was quite surprised by. I assumed that the Chinese would not mention something like that, given some of the poor living/working conditions and money the migrant workers get but as I later found they have strong values revolving around hard work which made me realize why she said that.

They both told me about the history of many of the major cities in China and about a few of the Dynasty’s too, they spoke for quite a while about China and its history. They knew a lot about it, which made me feel pretty bad for knowing next to nothing about my own country. It has never been a strong value of mine to know all about the country I live in, but they have a strong sense of honor over the motherland and they seemed to enjoy talking about it too and re-telling stories of China they must have once been told themselves.

China, to Ding and Weiran, is also a modern country. With, in their opinion, some of the most modern cities there are. They also noted that although China may have the richest city, it also has the poorest village. These villages are soon becoming cities they told me, with the ‘Open Door’ policy that can only be called to have come into full action by 1949. The Open Door policy basically meant other countries were allowed to trade with China, because of this China has been quickly becoming more and more modern since then. A village one day could be a city the next, this reflected Ding and Weiran’s knowledge of the history of the cities, they expressed that there was a huge amount of ‘young’ cities as apposed to ‘old’ cities like Xi’an. Even though the older cities are being modernized they expressed that it was a great tragedy that a lot of the heritage of some of these places was disappearing but were reassured by the fact that at the moment most cities have to retain some of their heritage and history and are not allowed to completely re-shape a city.

So I come back to the question in the title. A girlfriend asks her boyfriend, if your mother and myself were drowning, whom would you save? I found out that Chinese women sometimes ask this question to their boyfriends. At first you may think, what a weird question and as a westerner I’d probably agree with you. You may also think that it’s quite a silly question. I’d also agree with you on that. This question is full of pitfalls and problems, more than we could understand. Family is one of the most important values a Chinese person has, if not the most important. Everything revolves around the family and mostly the mother, as she is the one who gave birth to you. The Chinese work incredibly hard not for themselves but so they can support their families as it is their duty, responsibility and desire to do so. They have a huge amount of respect for their families. So given that family is the most important thing to a Chinese person and that their honour is at stake if they abandon them think again about the question the girlfriend has asked her boyfriend. Put yourself in the shoes of the boyfriend, you want to spend the rest of your life with this woman, so you want to please her but you cannot possibly disgrace your family by saying you’d choose her. How can you decide? The reality is that there is no good answer to this question, only problems. If the man chooses his mother, the girlfriend will feel unloved but if the man chooses his girlfriend he will disgrace his family honour and the girlfriend will feel horribly embarrassed to be with a man who would do that. When Ding and Weiran explained this to me, I couldn’t help but think, well why on earth would you ask a question like that? They told me, it wasn’t to see whom he would choose, it was simply to meddle and test him. Not everyone does this, I must stress that, but it’s not out of the ordinary if this were to happen.

So my question is, how do we connect with a country so vastly different from our own?

Old/Modern China

Credit to Pure Media UK

Link to Interview