The link between love and money may be universal, but in China it remains a taboo subject, at least among the older generation. So a slew of lowbrow dating shows in which young women talk openly about their minimum standards in the wallet department have touched a nerve.
Two television programs in particular, "If You Are the One" and "Take Me Out," exploded in popularity earlier this year before hitting the wall of government censorship on June 9. The trigger was "If You Are the One" contestant Ma Nuo, who became the Snooki of China by misquoting the Patrizia Reggiani quip: "I would rather weep in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle."
While the shows remain on the air, they are subject to a State Administration of Radio and Television directive that they not "sensationalize unhealthy and incorrect perspectives on marriage and love, such as money worship." Predictably, their ratings have dived.
Experts on Chinese culture say that the shows" true offense was being too realistic. "As to what part of the shows offended officials, I think maybe it is the way they represent the reality, too frank and too straight, not necessarily the real content," surmises Wei Wei, a sociologist at East China Normal University.
James Farrer, the director of the Institute of Comparative Culture at Tokyo"s Sophia University and author of "Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai," agrees: "The Chinese Communist Party censors cultural products when they touch a nerve that is not only out of line with Party values, but also seem to be tapping into a reservoir of real social discontent or repressed desires."
And there"s plenty of frustration out there, Mr. Farrer explains. "In this case, the problem seems to be that the dating shows express the anxieties of women and men over marriage, the problem of many women that they still rely upon men for economic mobility, and the problem of men that marriage prospects seem so much tied to their economic performance."
Dating shows first debuted in China in 1988 with "Television Red Bride" on Shanxi Television, but they didn"t cause much controversy. "These previous generations of dating shows deliberately downplayed the material factors in marriage and focused very heavily on the ideas of "destiny" and "love" or developing feelings for the other person based on mutual understanding and the right chemistry," recalls Mr. Farrer.
"For these previous generations of dating shows, I think these participants might have more genuine goal of dating and marriage if they decided to come to these show," adds Mr. Wei. Of the new crop, "I think they are more about "show" rather than "dating," especially among the episodes before the censorship kicked in."
"If You Are the One" originally featured a panel of 24 single women who brutally interrogated and often hastily rejected a succession of individual bachelors. Those who made it to the end with women still interested could ask them out. The similar but gentler "Take Me Out" rotates women and men as the judges and judged.
Leng Li, a professional matchmaker at Shanghai marriage firm Happy Life, asserts that the shows represent "a portion" of Chinese singles: "On TV, women want a man double their own age, because their own family situation is bad. So finding a rich man will change their life-because they just need money, not love."
Ms. Leng estimates that such women constitute about 50% to 60% of the county"s bachelorettes. "Rural girls coming to the city feel their situation is unfair, they see the well-off lifestyle and want it and get it however they can." However, urban women with better educations and affluent parents have their own resources and are less avaricious. She adds that despite Shanghai girls" reputation for materialism, in dating they actually are the least so, because their families" resources allow them more educational and professional parity.
On weekends in parks around the China, dating dramas of a different type unfold. Parents as nervous as teens on a first date gather to display and swap the pictures and statistics of their unmarried adult children. The specific requirements for a son- or daughter-in-law usually include age, height, income, profession, and for men, having a "marital house." The lack of property ownership is the ultimate deal-breaker for Chinese women.
The required "marital house" is chicken to the egg of China"s bubbling property prices. "Owning a home is very important in Shanghai. For marriage, people feel they must have their own apartment-now especially, because property prices are going up," explains Ms. Leng. While a few women will marry just for love, she continues, some "80% to 90% need the man to have an apartment or the ability to buy one." This phenomenon dates back to early Chinese dowry tradition, as a means of compensating maternal parents for the empty investment of raising a daughter who would join another family. "A home has always been required, it"s just that in the 1960s it used to be from the work unit."
The desperate but still picky singletons advertised by their parents in the park are 80% to 90% female, which Ms. Leng attributes to women"s improved academic and professional situation in urban China. "Men look down, for younger, poorer and dumber women, while women demand men better than them. For example, a man of 40 with an apartment can get women 25 on up," while "women won"t want someone lower."
Amid the mob scene at the People"s Park marriage market, I am cornered by a Mr. Ye, obviously a regular and outspoken fixture there. He complains of the expectations women place upon their potential suitors, emboldened by the growing surplus of men. "All the city girls here are two million kuai girls, these old virgins of 26 to 40. They just want the house and the car, not the man. Rural girls are cheaper, but even they require a house."
Many a Shanghainese asserts that Shanghai parents prefer daughters to sons as the latter require expensive property and other purchases to secure a wife. "Men worry about money, women worry about marrying. If you have a girl, hope she will be pretty; if you have a boy, hope he will be smart," sighs Ms. Leng.
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