Love letters: The A, B, C and D of finding 'the one' in Shanghai

Love letters: The A, B, C and D of finding 'the one' in Shanghai

High family expectations, economic pressures and a complicated social pecking order are creating new challenges in the search for love in China
Looking for love in Shanghai
Looking for love in Shanghai? You need to know your ABCDs.

With Chinese Valentine’s Day (Qixi Festival) approaching on August 16, love is on people's minds. But in recent years, it may not be in their hearts. With high family expectations and economic pressures creating new challenges in the search for love in Shanghai, it is becoming increasingly difficult for 20- and 30-somethings to find a suitable dui xiang -- a partner -- to share their life and assets with.

For Shanghaining, it’s not as simple as finding that person who makes your heart melt. Bridget Jones would be stuck in China. Carrie Bradshaw? A definitive “sheng nu” (a leftover woman) with a big shoe collection.

In addition to being lovable, in modern Shanghai Mr Right is expected to provide a house, a car and comfortable living for his spouse.

Ms Right doesn’t have it easy though. She has to be good looking, economically savvy and have a high EQ. More and more often, she has her own stable job -- though she should make less than her husband.

Know your ABCDs

Such is the demand for high quality mates, that top-tier males are thin on the ground. In addition, in Shanghai, it's widely believed that the ideal childbearing age for a woman is between 24-28. When she hits 30 in China, a woman is considered a sheng nu (left over woman) or “3S”: single, born in the 1970s and stuck, many smart and successful, just not married.

Looking for love in Shanghai -- Zoe“The main requirement is that that the girl has to be wen rou [to have a gentle disposition],” says Zoe Zhong, of what people are looking for in a woman in Shanghai.

Shanghai resident Chen Heng Tao explains the challenge: “First, you have to understand the ABCD system. An 'A level' woman is the whole package. She is ambitious, successful in career, comes from a privileged background and has an advanced degree. She wants a man who is at least her equal, so she is looking for an 'A level' man. There are fewer 'A level' men than 'A level' women because unfortunately for her, 'B level' women -- that is a woman with a regular job and a bachelor's degree -- also wants a 'A level' man or 'B level man' at least. So the 'A level' men will be grabbed up by 'B level' women. It doesn't hurt that 'B level' women are usually younger and more attractive by that measure. Since 'A level' women are financially independent, they won't resort to dating 'C level' or 'D level' men, so they end up as sheng nu.”

You know that something is wrong when dating starts to sound like an algebra equation.

Ideals into action

Zoe Zhong, a 24-year-old Shanghainese who works in advertising, says that when Chinese men reach the marrying age (usually mid to late 20s), they look for someone like Xue Baochai from “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a character known for her tact and social grace. “The main requirement is that that the girl has to be wen rou [to have a gentle disposition],” Zhong explains.

It’s not that Chinese men demand complete obedience from their wives (Shanghainese men are often credited with being kinder than their wives), but they do look for a gentle, obliging personality -- or at least the appearance of one. It has become a tactical necessity for the big make-or-break moment in many relationships: meeting the family.

And after marriage, EQ is still needed to cultivate the many social relationships -- guanxi -- required to get a better job, get your kids into the better schools and your parents out of the hospital waiting queue and into the assessment room.

If the initial requirements are met, creating and maintaining that good relationship with a dui xiang’s family is the next critical test for many young, local couples. This delicate process is not unlike trying to climb into a packed bed where half a dozen people are already sound asleep -- it's all about fitting in without stepping on any toes.

“The right person for you also has to be the right person for the family,” says Ronan Wang, a 28-year-old Shanghainese who works at the Expo. “You have to consider that it's normal to live with parents after college, up until getting married. So as soon as the parents say no, it becomes very hard for a relationship to continue.”

What do you and a girl from southwest China have in common? You don't even eat the same things!— Refrain heard at the Shanghai marriage market

Additionally with the average wedding in Shanghai costing approximately RMB 150,000 (including wedding banquet, jewelry, honeymoon, and furniture for their new apartment), 60 percent of young couples in Shanghai look to their parents for financial help on their wedding day, according to a recent survey by Shanghai Morning Post. That gives parents much more influence over who their children bring to the alter.

Bringing love home

But among all these expectations, does love get lost?

According to Zhong, “In Shanghai, many people are concerned with economic things. But sometimes, you'll fall for someone you randomly met, and you will pay less attention to these things.”

Owning a house though is often an expected step in the marriage process. Many couples delay marriage until they can afford to buy a home. Although more and more people are forgoing this requirement and have gotten married for the hell of it -- called “naked marriages” -- so far, they're still the minority of marriages in China. 

Although housing prices are notoriously high in Shanghai, 60 percent of couples surveyed by Shanghai Morning Post said they will still buy an apartment immediately after -- if not before -- getting married. It’s a non-negotiable requirement for them.

And that is asking a lot. Over the last five years, according to Shanghai’s Uwin Real Estate Information Services, Shanghai’s average property prices have doubled to RMB 14,986 per square meter, putting homes well outside the reach of China's growing middle class. The average home in downtown Shanghai costs approximately RMB 34,638 (at of the end of 2009) per square meter, while the average salary was RMB 42,789 in Shanghai last year.

The difficult real estate situation in Shanghai has a small, but growing number of people considering marrying without owning a home. Xu Boling is one of the minority who are boldly going without a house attached to their wedding vows. “I’m the only one of my friends who doesn’t have an apartment before marriage,” says Xu, who opted for a naked marriage but not without great hesitation. "It has been difficult to explain to people, but I'm comfortable with it now.

Shanghai marriage marketFor those looking for love in Shanghai, the road is long and often includes a stop at the weekly Shanghai marriage market in People's Square.Looking for love

But while some opt to quicken the marriage process by forsaking traditional protocol, most are not prepared to cut corners. Shanghainese are less likely to look for expats due to cultural and linguistic challenges, and they will discount people from rural areas and other provinces in favor of other Shanghainese.

“What do you and a girl from southwest China have in common? You don't even eat the same things!” is a common refrain heard at Shanghai’s weekly marriage market in People’s Square.

“Almost everyone I know who is in a relationship is connected with his or her dui xiang by three degrees of [social] separation or less,” says Chen Heng Tao. As requirements pile on, finding a partner becomes an increasingly arduous endeavor.

Not only that, but young men and women in Shanghai face serious challenges. According to both sexes, a 20-something Shanghainese man is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He wants to date, but in China, dating is seen as a direct route to marriage and a man who starts a relationship without the promise of a house, a car and a stable economic situation for the woman can be seen as irresponsible and undesirable.

The concept has even entered Chinese pop culture with Ma Nuo, a contestant on one of China's most popular reality dating TV show, Fecheng Wurao (非诚勿扰, “If You Are the One”), confidently declaring, "I'd rather be sitting inside a BMW and crying than sitting on a bicycle and smiling." Comments like this have been subsequently banned from Chinese TV, but not before causing a stir online. 

With standards set so high, it's no wonder that Wang and Chen meet women through xiang qing, meaning they go on blind dates with suitable potential dui xiang orchestrated by their parents, danwei and friends, a common practice in Shanghai. They allow it precisely because they are so busy working to gain job and financial security that they don't have the time or energy to negotiate the dating scene on their own.

“Sometimes, on a date, the girl's parents will sit down with us at the table with me and ask 'How much do you make?' It's awkward,” says Wang. “Dating in Shanghai is very high stress.”

You have to consider that it's normal to live with parents after college up until getting married. So as soon as the parents say no, it becomes very hard for a relationship to continue.— Ronan Wong, Shanghai native looking for love

For women, it's a race against time to find a good, responsible man with an accepting family and sometimes competing against would-be mates.

A shortage of good partners

Yes despite Chen's ABCD analysis showing how troublesome it can be for a woman to find a good man, many men are also concerned that they will be left wanting for women. China will have approximately 24 million unmarried Chinese men who cannot find wives by the year 2020, according to a study from the University of Kent (that's more than the current female populations of Taiwan and South Korea combined, to give it some context). But it affects Shanghaining less than the average Zhou. 

“Involuntary bachelorhood so far is largely confined to the poor," explains Professor Wang Feng, Chair of the sociology department at University of California, Irvine and an expert in Chinese population demographics. "For men, especially those in Shanghai, finding a wife is still possible and marriage is still one of the primary markers of success in life.”

Despite the challenges, Wang is hopeful that finding long-term love in Shanghai is possible. And he's willing to compromise. “We're still talking about 'ideally' here. If you never adjusted your demands, there might be only one person in the entire world for you and they may not even want you. I remind myself that financial issues are at least solvable, but there is no replacement for love in a relationship.”

Joanne Yao is a writer and editor based in Shanghai.
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