(CTN News) – Traditional Chinese culture views the Qixi Festival, China’s version of Valentine’s Day, as a joyous occasion for marriage.
Qixi, a festival honouring the undying love of Chinese mythological characters Zhinu and Niulang, is held annually on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
With the holiday falling on the traditionally romantic day of August 22, a marriage registration office in Mianyang, Sichuan Province, decided to broadcast the ceremony.
There was only one catch, though. Spectators reported seeing a small number of couples really tie the knot.
The broadcast was cut off at some point.
Viewers online were treated to scenic vistas of Mianyang rather than an empty marriage registration office.
Later, local officials refuted rumours that only a few marriages were recorded on the big day.
It was too late by that point.
The vacant Mianyang marriage registration office went viral on Chinese social media and became a symbol of the country’s falling marriage rates.
Despite government programmes to encourage couples to marry and cultural expectations around matrimony, official numbers reveal that the marriage rate in China is plunging.
The average number of marriages dropped from 13.5 million in 2013 to roughly 6.8 million in 2017.
According to statistics, the Chinese population is marrying later, divorcing at a higher rate, and increasing its share of singles.
Many young Chinese say they can’t see themselves getting married because of how their lives are now structured.
“Marriage is kind of dying in China,” Yu Zhang, a 26-year-old Shanghai resident, told Al Jazeera.
Zhang and his partner of two years have discussed marriage several times, but they always come to the same conclusion: “The thought of getting married makes us more stressed than happy.” Zhang is a laboratory technician.
Marriage represents the coming together of two families, the purchase of a new home, and the beginning of a new family in their minds.
And those three objectives currently appear impossible to achieve.
“My mother and her parents don’t get along, the housing market is bad, and having a child is just too expensive,” Zhang said.
Zhang and his girlfriend may now go to their favourite restaurants and travel around China more freely once COVID-19 limitations were relaxed.
He argued that it would be impossible for the couple to conceive a family and make ends meet if they were to immediately begin saving for a home.
Local and national Chinese authorities have been attempting to convince Zhang and his girlfriend to get married, but they haven’t had much luck so far.
In May, pilot projects were announced in over 20 Chinese cities with the goal of encouraging marriage.
Last month, it was revealed that a county in China’s Zhejiang Province would begin providing monetary awards for weddings if the bride was 25 or younger. The “right age” for getting married and having children has also been publicly emphasised by officials.
Popular culture in China has also been mobilised. Recent trends in both television and fashion have highlighted the significance of having a spouse.
Guangzhou resident Jessica Fu thinks the government’s focus on marriage is related to its goal of increasing the birthrate.
The 31-year-old marketing coordinator told Al Jazeera, “Having children in Chinese society mostly happens within marriage.”
The falling birthrate in China has paralleled the falling marriage rate, creating the conditions for a demographic crisis in the country if the trend is not reversed soon.
However, Fu is unconvinced by contemporary culture’s glorification of married life or by government programmes designed to encourage couples to tie the knot.
I don’t like what marriage does to people in China,” she remarked.
Fu explained that, for as long as she can remember, both of her parents have been miserable in their marriage, but they have stuck it out because they believe divorce to be a socially unacceptable option.
“And then my cousin got married recently, and she is under a lot of pressure from her husband and in-laws to abandon her career and be a traditional Chinese woman,” she continued.
Fu said that she hopes to find a lifelong companion someday.
“But I choose not to get married,” she continued.
The “single economy” of China
According to Pan Wang, a senior lecturer in Chinese and Asian Studies at the University of New South Wales in Australia, the introduction of personal choice has altered the marriage dynamic in Chinese society.
“Married life is just one of many lifestyle options today,” Wang, author of Love and Marriage in Globalising China, told Al Jazeera.
According to Wang, China today has a flourishing “singles’ economy” that caters specifically to single people in every aspect of life, from buying home appliances to dining out to solitary entertainment to vacation packages.
Choosing to be single was less of a viable option for certain Chinese people in the past.
Numerous weddings were orchestrated not only by parents and families, but also by community elders, corporate bosses, and institutions.
“Love and marriage for previous generations was more of a communal affair than a personal choice,” Wang added.
However, during the 1990s, China liberalised and modernised, placing a greater emphasis on education for both men and women. This, together with extraordinary economic growth, radically altered Chinese culture.
As tens of millions of men and women followed the jobs to the growing metropolis, traditional communities began to break apart.
From 1980 until 2015, China enforced a one-child policy that caused many families with a historical bias towards boys to instead devote their time, energy, and resources on a single kid, who was often a female.
A new generation of Chinese women grew up in this fast modernising country, and they’re using their education to get ahead in the workplace and in life.
Chinese women have forged new paths in society and achieved financial stability that was previously available to them only through marriage.
Marriage “used to be the centrepiece of life but now it no longer has to be,” Mu Zheng, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera.
While government policies and economic growth have altered the economic circumstances and life options accessible to men and women in China, cultural norms have not shifted at the same rate, according to Zheng, who studies modern Chinese marriage and family dynamics.
Women are still expected to be good moms and husbands, while males are still considered as the primary breadwinners, despite the fact that both men and women are still required to work hard outside the family structure.
Zheng argues that modern youth nowadays feel stifled by such norms, while gender roles may discourage marriage for some individuals.
Young people in China are held to unrealistic standards, according to Shenzhen native Yuan Xu.
The COVID-19 outbreak caused the 25-year-old to lose her job at a Chinese computer business, and she is now managing the social media accounts of a local restaurant chain for longer hours and less pay.
“The economy is really bad right now for young Chinese people,” she said to Al Jazeera.
Xu remarked, “When I lost my job, I took whatever I could find,” and went on to explain that she only has one day off each week and that her salary is too low to allow her to save much.
The official rate of youth unemployment in China was 21.3% in June, an all-time high that has forced the government to stop reporting jobless statistics.