The Rising Price of Getting Married in China
A "best of" repost from our 2023 archives.
Happy holidays from the Demography Unplugged team! We don’t have a new post for you today but a highlight from 2023: a piece on the demographic and cultural drivers behind rising bride prices in China. While several of our “best of” pieces are featured in our intro post, there are many others we’re proud of that are a bit hidden away in the archives. This is one of them.
Since this story was originally published, China reported that the number of marriages in 2022 fell to a record low. While Covid lockdowns undoubtedly affected the total, this trend far predates the pandemic. The number of marriages in China has declined for nine years straight. Early totals from 2023 suggest that the country may see a small uptick this year—but this is unlikely to reflect anything other than a momentary blip thanks to postponed weddings.
We’ll be back next week. Wishing all of our readers a happy new year.
“Bride prices” are up in China, where marriageable women are in short supply and high demand. Local governments are increasingly trying to crack down on the practice.
The Chinese government is trying every strategy imaginable to encourage more marriages and more births. Its latest: cracking down on exorbitant “bride prices.” The government is right to worry about skyrocketing bride prices. But not because they have anything to do with fertility.
Bride prices—a payment or gift from a groom-to-be to the family of his bride-to-be before their wedding—have been a venerable and surprisingly durable Chinese custom since the Western Zhou dynasty (1046 BC to 771 BC). It has persisted through the centuries and has even survived the Cultural Revolution, when the only legally permitted marriage gifts were Mao Zedong books. According to a 2020 survey by Tencent News, almost three-quarters of marriages in China are preceded by the payment of a bride price.
Traditionally, the bride price was a fairly modest gift like food, furniture, or clothing. But in recent decades, its value has climbed into the stratosphere. In some provinces, bride prices average $20K and in some individual cases have climbed north of $100K. While the very highest prices are often a show of wealth from rich families, the prices that are most disproportionate to family income are paid in rural areas. The average annual income in rural areas is below $3K, so paying five figures can easily threaten families with bankruptcy.
Why have bride prices jumped? To answer this question, readers need to understand the logic behind the tradition.
Bride prices are common in a wide variety of societies around the world, from China to Thailand to India to Sub-Saharan Africa. They tend to arise in societies in which at least one of two institutions flourish.
The first institution is polygyny—that is, the custom of men marrying multiple women—because this creates a shortage of potential brides available to men as a whole. The bride price becomes the means by which demand is brought in line with supply. Those men who cannot afford the price, well, they simply go without.
The second is patrilocalism. In patrilocal societies, a woman lives with her husband’s family once she gets married. In effect, the groom’s family is purchasing “access” to the bride’s reproductive power, her future caretaking (of their children and her in-laws), and other contributions to the household. The bride’s parents, who may seldom see their daughter again, will naturally look for something of value in return. Typically, they will look for a groom whose family is socially superior to their own; connecting with it will offer them prestige and security in their old age. In patrilocal societies, therefore, women typically “marry up” and men “marry down.” Or, as an alternative, they may accept a direct gift—that is, the payment of the bride price.
Even without an overall shortage in the ratio of young women to young men, a patrilocal society will institute some sort of bride price since groom families will be competing to obtain the most desirable brides in what is, in effect, a one-way trade in services rendered, from wives to husbands. And in China that’s what we see historically. China has always been a patrilocal society. And it has always had a bride price.
So why, over the last two or three decades, has the bride price in China risen so much faster than household income or wealth? Very simple: It has been facing a steadily shrinking ratio of available brides to available grooms. And when demand exceeds supply, the price always adjusts to clear the market.
What accounts for the unbalanced ratio? In Sub-Saharan Africa, such imbalances are typically due to polygyny. But in China (as well as northern India and many other Confucian societies), it’s due to something else: an unbalanced sex ratio at birth, due to the deliberate preference of families to raise boys instead of girls. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, men outnumber women in China by about 34M nationwide. (In nearly all Western countries, women outnumber men.) The gender ratio in China’s rural areas in 2021 was 108 males to 100 females.
Some preference for male versus female births is evident in most patrilocal societies. Over the centuries, the number of males as a share of all births in China has always been about 1 or 2 percent higher than it would have been without any parental preference. (Without any preference, women give birth to about 105 males for every 100 females; in China, the male number has historically been around 106 or 107.)
After the imposition of the one-child policy in the late 1970s, however, that imbalance rose steeply. Few families wanted to be “stuck” with only one daughter—and thus face the extinction of their patriarchal lineage. The government, moreover, encouraged abortions and set up birth control clinics everywhere in the country equipped with amniocentesis testing, with which parents could learn the sex of their unborn children. Sex selection was not the purpose of such testing, but it was unquestionably an effect.
Bottom line: China has developed the most lopsided sex imbalance at birth of any nation on earth. And the rise of this imbalance has pretty well anticipated the surge in bride prices that in fact showed up about 20 to 30 years later.
The rising sex imbalance at birth was first detectable in the late 1970s. And the rise in bride prices was first noticed when these babies, all grown up, started marrying shortly after 2000. After rising in a meteoric trajectory, the sex imbalance peaked at 117 males to every 100 females born in 2005. This birth cohort will be reaching its late 20s (the typical marriage age today in China) in the early 2030s.
Conclusion: If we assume that the bride price will continue to track the ratio imbalance, we may reasonably expect the bride price to keep rising (relative to median income and wealth) for the next ten years at least. Quite simply, this problem is not going to get better anytime soon.
That doesn’t stop the PRC from trying to discourage the practice. While authorities have attempted to cap bride prices in the past, their efforts have taken on renewed fervor in light of China’s impending demographic decline. Local officials are setting maximum prices, asking women to sign public pledges to reject high prices, and running PR campaigns extolling the virtues of in-laws who don’t ask for too much money.
Yet if we think of the bride price a means of matching supply with demand, it is tempting to conclude that there is something nonsensical about the PRC’s intensifying campaign of disapproval. The marriage prospects for Chinese men have turned into a massive game of musical chairs, and someone just took away millions of chairs. That means, one way or another, a significant share of these men will end up single for life. If the PRC cannot or dare not impose any alternative means of allocating a scarce resource—in this case, brides—some sort of market will always prevail.
In short, steeply rising bride prices are a symptom of China’s bride shortage, not a cause of low birthrates. And, as this shortage intensifies, it is triggering wrenching changes across Chinese society. Most obviously, it aggravates class inequality. As women “marry up” to the most affluent and best-educated groom families, the vast majority of poorest and least educated men will be unmarriageable.
It also aggravates regional inequality. For people born into impoverished rural communities or “hukous,” there is only one way to gain full citizenship in an affluent urban hukou—and that is (as a woman) to marry a man who already lives there. Even an urban groom of modest means, therefore, has something valuable to offer a rural bride: access to urban amenities for herself and her children, including much better public schools and healthcare. As a consequence, rural provinces are losing young women even faster than they are losing young men.
Those men who are left over—those who are thrice-cursed by low income, inferior education, and rural residence—face daunting odds in their search for a bride. In China, they are often called “bare branches,” because, like the lowest branches of a tree, most are fated never to sprout leaves. Many today try to import brides, voluntarily or by force, from even poorer countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, and Pakistan.
Otherwise, their options are limited. Their only hope is somehow to come up with a lot of money to put on the table. And if they can do that, they may not much care what the government thinks about it. In an interview with Bloomberg, one Hebei resident said that she had no choice but to fork over her entire savings when her son was asked to pay over 40X his monthly salary to secure his in-laws’ approval. “There’s no way that the village officials could control this,” she observes, “unless they can offer my son a girl to get married to.”
Ultimately, what is motivating the PRC to crackdown on high bride prices may not be low birthrates after all. What may really be worrying the government is something else: the prospect of mounting discontent, especially in rural provinces, due to an excess of young unmarried males.
While low fertility, without question, is a genuine long-term problem, it doesn’t pose any immediate threat. The acute bride shortage, on the other hand, presents an inverted mix of challenges. In the long term, the bride shortage may well solve itself. The sex ratio of newborns (see the earlier chart) is already rebalancing now that birth limits have been relaxed and now that parents perceive that daughters are worth a lot more than they once thought. Over the next ten or fifteen years, however, the bride shortage may push social grievances to the breaking point.
Over the millennia, the emperors of China have learned that one of the fastest ways to lose “the mandate of heaven”—that is, the trust and loyalty of their subjects—is to disrupt the basic social equilibrium between town and country, rich and poor, men and women, parent and child. At the moment, the ruling PRC does not appear to be managing any of these equilibria very well. It’s doing an especially poor job in the rural countryside, where historically most of China’s great rebellions have started.
These worries about popular discontent may be helping to drive China’s recent turn towards authoritarianism. It’s probably no coincidence that President Xi’s iron fist looms larger at a time when there are millions of “bare branches” bachelors that the government fears may end up lashing out. If so, the PRC would be following a playbook already well documented by sociologists who study polygynous societies around the world. Wherever there is a large surplus of unattached young men, many of whom are likely to be frustrated and desperate, a strong authoritarian power structure is what typically emerges to keep them all in line.
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