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Pity China’s ‘bare branches’: unmarried men stuck between tradition and capitalism

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Xuan Li, NYU Shanghai

Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, is a highlight in Chinese society. But for many young people, the joy of vacation and family reunion is mixed with questions from parents and relatives about their achievements in the past year, including about their relationships.

This is a particularly stressful occasion for single men who – unless they choose to rent a fake partner or have a stroke of luck at the local marriage “market” – are forced to face the miserable fate of singlehood.

These involuntary bachelors, who fail to add fruit to their family tree are often referred to as “bare branches”, or guanggun. And the Chinese state has recently started to worry about the dire demographic trend posed by the growing number of bare branches.

The 2010 national census data suggests that 24.7% Chinese men above the age of 15 have never been married, while 18.5% of women in the same age group remain unwed.

The disparity in marital status between the sexes is particularly large in younger age groups. According to the same data source, 82.44% of Chinese men between 20 and 29 years of age have never been married, which is 15% more than women of the same age. The gap is approximately 6% among those in their 30s and less than 4% for those in their 40s or older.

Hiding in plain sight?

China’s surplus of men is attributed, at least in part, to the family planning policy implemented in the country since 1979. The One Child Policy, coupled with the patriarchal tradition of son preference, has led many families to give up on their daughters. This has happened through gender-selective abortion, infanticide or by giving away girl children.

The bitter fruit of the preference for sons is a female deficit of 20 million people in the coming decades for men of marrying age.

But there is an argument that the sex birth ratio might not be as skewed as all that. It points out that many of the “missing” girls were unregistered at birth in official records. By examining multiple waves of census data, for example, researchers have found that millions of “hidden girls” turned up in later statistics.

That being said, the extreme 118:100 sex birth ratio still points to huge pools of bachelors in China in the decades to come.

What alarms the state is not the singleton status of these men, but their socioeconomic characteristics. China’s wealth is unequally distributed across the population, with particularly huge income gaps between urban and rural populations.

As in most countries, men are expected to be the head and main provider for the family, and women are allowed and encouraged to “marry up” to males with resources. Caught between the patriarchal tradition and the widening social gap, Chinese men on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder have a particularly hard time attracting brides.

The “marriage squeeze” would not be so devastating for these bachelors had the Chinese government been thorough and persistent with its gender equality policy. Gender equality has been written in the constitution since 1954 and has been proudly promoted by the socialist state.

New generations of Chinese women, who now make up 45% of the country’s workforce and are almost on par with their male compatriots in education enrolments, no longer need to be financially dependent on future husbands. They have the potential to shake rigid gender roles that require men to shoulder the economic burden alone.

But the translation from educational attainment to earning power and equal status is not at all straightforward. The labour market in China has become increasingly hostile towards women in recent years and the gender gap in employment rate and income have expanded.

Many young women – especially those without promising career prospects – are looking again to marriage as their once-in-a-lifetime chance for upward social mobility. This is reflected in the increasing dating costs and rocketing “bride wealth” that women request from their male partners, which further disadvantage impoverished men.

Young men – economically disadvantaged and sexually frustrated – might eventually vent their anger through violence against others, thereby threatening public security and social stability. At least, that’s what the Chinese government fears.

The conviction is not ungrounded. Social scientists argue that long-term bachelorhood not only compromises men’s well-being, but also puts hormone-fuelled, underprivileged men at risk of gravitating towards aggression, as already observed in historical China and contemporary India.

Easy targets

Social gaps are so difficult to close that the Chinese authorities are firing at the easier target: women.

Over the years, the Chinese state has tolerated sexist representations of women in high-profile media outlets, put derogatory labels on unmarried women by calling them “leftover” and describing them as “emotional” and “extreme”, and
curtailed women’s rights after divorce.

But little is discussed in official channels about abandoned girls, domestic and international human trafficking, and supporting women in workplaces.

Of course, not all “bare branches” are disadvantaged because of socioeconomic reasons. Homosexuality was formally decriminalised in China as recently as 1997 and removed from the list of mental illness in 2001.

Still excluded from the institution of marriage or any civil union, many Chinese gay men either have to stay legally single or form a sham union – often with lesbians who have the same problem. But some choose to or have had to marry straight women, causing tremendous distress to both parties.

No longer wanting to spend their lives alone or to deceive innocent straight women, Chinese gay men are starting on the long, hard fight for marriage equality. Victory is still a long way away; China abstained from voting on the UN resolution on the rights of LGBT people in 2011. And in June 2016, a Chinese court dismissed a gay couple’s lawsuit for their right to marriage.

Despite the conservative stance of the government and the dominating power of capital, there are signs of progress. In a recent survey on relationship values conducted by, – one of the leading internet companies in China – both male and female respondents listed “individual space” (32.8%) and “real connections” (24.6%) as their top requirements for starting a marriage. Only 9.3% males and 16.6% females put “house and car” as a requirement, suggesting a rejection of the purely materialistic model of marriage.

Similarly, in study on dating attitudes and expectations among Chinese college students, both sexes put “kind”, “loving”, “considerate” as the most desirable qualities in a romantic partner.

If they play nice and work with women to push for gender equality, perhaps there’s hope for the bare branches yet.

The Conversation

Xuan Li, Assistant Professor of Psychology, NYU Shanghai

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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After One-Child Policy, Outrage at China’s Offer to Remove IUDs

Without apologizing, the government said it would pay for the procedures, a year after pivoting from punishing couples for having a second child to encouraging them to do so.


China’s Building A Giant Titanic Replica With An Iceberg Collision Simulator

Looks like Jack and Rose are headed east: A giant Titanic replica will anchor a new theme park in China’s Sichuan province. 

Photos show workers assembling the 882-foot-long, approximately $ 145 million replica, called the New Titanic. It will eventually include recreations of the famous ship’s ballroom, theater, swimming pool and guest rooms based on Titanic blueprints obtained from around the world, CNN reports.

Plans also include a simulator that will let visitors virtually experience hitting an iceberg, as the original ship did before it famously sank more than 100 years ago. Executives from a Chinese investment firm hosted a ceremony Wednesday to mark the start of construction. 

Unsurprisingly, the decision to turn a tragedy into a tourism opportunity has proven a bit controversial. Hollywood production designer Curtis Schnell, who is consulting on the project, said it is being handled in a “very respectful way,” Reuters reports. 

When finished next year, the replica will remain docked in a reservoir as part of a larger theme park that will also feature replicas of a Venetian church and European castles

This new project is not to be confused with the Titanic II, a real working ship that’ll set sail in 2018. Nostalgia, ahoy!

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China’s Reforms At 30: Challenges and Prospects (Series on Contemporary China)

China’s Reforms At 30: Challenges and Prospects (Series on Contemporary China)

This book consists of papers presented at the International Conference on “China: The Next Decade”, organized by the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore in 2007 to commemorate the Institute’s 10th anniversary. With eight papers covering China’s economic, social and political development, this volume offers a balanced yet in-depth assessment of the challenges facing China in the next decade. Featuring contributions from internationally renowned scholars, this timely volume analyzes key aspects of China’s reforms and development, such as the financial reform, international trade, leadership succession, social protests, health care reform and ethnic relationships. It is suitable for China scholars as well as advanced undergraduate and graduate students interested in China’s polity, economy and society. Contents: How to Sustain China’s Growth Miracle? (E S Prasad); China’s Mounting External Balances: Trade, Foreign Investment and Regional Production Sharing (S Y Tong & Y Zheng); China’s Protest Wave: Political Threat or Growing Pains? (A G Walder); The 17th Party Congress and the CCP’s Changing Elite Politics (You J); Diminishing Demographic Dividends: Implications for China’s Growth Sustainability (D Lu); Towards Universal Coverage: China’s New Healthcare Insurance Reforms (E Gu); A New Perspective in Guiding Ethnic Relations in the 21st Century — “De-politicization” of Ethnicity in China (R Ma); Is There an Asian Value? Popular Underst
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Meet Joe Wong, China’s Funniest Export

I have a particular fondness for comedians, and have had close personal friendships with some of the great ones over the years. Even as a teenager in the 1960s, my favorite reading material was not comic books, but rather biographies and autobiographies of comics– W.C Fields, Jack Benny, George Burns, Steve Allen, Groucho Marx, Red Skelton, Woody Allen, and many others, all of which I still have in my library. I also have maintained a collection of volumes of one-liners by Robert Orben, Joey Adams, and other comedy writers.

I want to introduce you to a comedian who I have never met, but with whom I have frequently communicated with since he first gained my attention about 5 years ago. Joe Wong is Chinese, and came from Beijing to the U.S. as a student in 1994. He ultimately obtained a PhD in Molecular Biology from Rice University in Houston– and he looks exactly like a guy who holds such a degree. In spite of this impressive accomplishment, he went into stand-up comedy, a decision I am sure thrilled his Chinese parents.


How he transformed himself from an egghead to a comic is remarkable. He went to a comedy club in Houston, where he understood nothing and loved everything about it. He joined Toastmasters International to help him with his English and public speaking. Later he moved to Boston to accept a job with a pharmaceutical firm and at night took a comedy class at a local high school. He read dictionaries, and honed his English and comedy. Eventually he qualified for the Boston Comedy Festival, and ultimately was spotted by David Letterman’s bookers.

Joe became a favorite of David Letterman and Ellen Degeneres, having made multiple appearances on both of their shows. He received a standing ovation at the White House Radio/Television Correspondence’s Dinner in 2010– a notoriously tough room.

He has a unique style, pace, delivery, look, and material. But, most importantly, he has something going for him that most comics wish they had– a stance. Like Jack Benny or Phyllis Diller, his comedic characteristics make him stand out from the crowd. He’s like a deer in the headlights, a bit surprised he’s in the spotlight, slightly reserved with a touch of socially awkwardness.

One of my favorite moments was after he finished his first national television appearance on The Late Show in 2009, Letterman approached him to shake his hand. Joe seemed unsure as to where to go or what was expected of him. It was a Wally Cox, Don Knotts, or Woody Allen moment, and the audience loved him for it.

One night I took a DVD of some of Joe’s television work to show my pal Phyllis Diller. We sat in her den watching, but Phyllis was both hard of hearing and had difficulty understanding foreign accents. After 5 minutes, Phyllis said to me “Is he speaking Chinese? I don’t understand a word he has said– but he is FUNNY!” Although she couldn’t figure out what he was saying, she did comprehend that his very essence was comical– a nerdy and nervous Chinese guy doing American style stand-up.

Ironically, Joe was discovered in and returned to China because of his U.S. television appearances. Over 50 million people in China have watched him on various internet sites, both in English and with Chinese subtitles. He was offered a gig hosting a comedy/investigative reporting show on a Chinese TV network CCTV2, and returned there to do so– with 5 to 7 million viewers per episode. In the meantime he is also performing American style standup comedy in Chinese venues and has garnered international attention, including being featured on the CBS Evening News and in the New York Times. He can perform 2 hour standup comedy shows in either English or Mandarin Chinese!

My friend, Emmy award-winning comedic actor Fred Willard, shares my passion for books on comedy and comedians, and we often exchange them with each other. He recently gave me Fred Allen’s 1954 book “Treadmill to Oblivion.” Fred Allen concludes his publication with this bittersweet observation, “When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished it slinks down Memory Lane into the limbo of yesterday’s happy hours. All the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.”

I have a hunch Joe Wong’s best laughs are yet to come. It wouldn’t surprise me if he returns to the U.S. with his own sitcom that would be watched worldwide. Stay tuned.

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Impact of China’s Rise on the Mekong Region

Impact of China’s Rise on the Mekong Region

Presents a contemporary analysis of the impact of China’s rise on the Mekong Region at a critical period of Southeast Asian history. As the most populated country and the second largest economy in the world, China has become an increasingly influential player in global and regional affairs. Economic ties between China and her southern neighbors are particularly strong. Yet relations between China and the Mekong region are complex and embedded in other socio-cultural and political issues. China’s accelerated growth, increasing economic footprint, global search for energy, natural resources, and food security, and the rapid pace of its military modernization have created a wide range of new challenges for smaller countries in Southeast Asia. These new challenges both encourage and limit cooperation between China and the emerging ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). This book pays close attention to some of these challenges with particular focus on the impact of Chinese investment, trade, foreign aid, and migration”

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