Keeping Up Appearances: On Marriage Fever and Homosexuality

This is the eighth article in the Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich.

wedding images

Given the fact that most girls by the age of 12 have already begun to consider the minutiae of their future Big Day along with the popularity of reality TV shows on the topic, there is no doubt we are marriage- or at least wedding- crazy in the United States. But if you’re feeling wedding pressure here, thank your lucky stars you’re not a 20-something in China.

In recent years, in part due to its popularity in the West, the business of weddings in China has exploded. The average amount spent on nuptial festivities in 2010 was 200,000 yuan (about $32,000), with most brides scrapping the traditional red dress for a Western-style white one. Walk down the main thoroughfares of Chinese cities, and it’s difficult to ignore the disproportionate number of storefronts glittering with diamond rings and poofy, bedazzled gowns.  Young, glowing couples flock to photography stores where they look through enormous albums to choose the perfect setting for their engagement photos. It’s difficult for even the most independent person to escape thoughts of marriage. That’s probably because, in China, no one does.

wedding images

The “wedding fever” of China is much more than a commercial influence from the West. If there’s one thing I learned from talking to college-age kids in China, it’s that the pressure to enter into a long-term, marriage-bound relationship is both anticipated and expected from the time they leave high school (where they are usually not even allowed to date). Parents, especially from rural areas where family traditions are strictly upheld, eagerly await the day when their son or daughter will bring home a prospective mate who will in turn bring security to their child, carry on the family name and produce grandchildren. Whether their children would marry is not a question for parents- the only questions are when and to whom. Obviously this kind of pressure puts a lot of stress on those who remain single into their late 20s. As they get older, their parents begin to nag at them, worrying that they are passing their marriageable age and will never settle down. The pressure is so great that some men and women even opt to “rent” a partner for holidays to avoid the inevitable parental interrogations.

While men are responsible for carrying on the family name, women have their own burdens. As one friend told me, for women, college can be less about grades and degrees than finding a future husband. While there is pressure to succeed academically in order to get a high-paying job, women who are too successful also become stigmatized. These "leftover women," single or unmarried women over 25, in their pursuit of wealth and higher education are seen as so far from the feminine ideal suited to the roles of wife and mother that they have come to represent the sector of the population that has chosen a life of career over family values.

What about gay marriage?

Courtesy of Stephen, an openly gay man from England who had been teaching with my company in China for two years, I was able to explore that arena into which few straight Chengdu dwellers stray: the gay social scene of Southwest China. Chengdu is often called the gay paradise of China and I had many frank and open discussions with Stephen's, and later my own, friends about the complications of their sexual orientation. They spoke about the stigma of going out to gay bars, the need to keep their identity hidden from their parents, public discretion, and, above all, the pressure to get married.

students posing

China does not have the religious objection to homosexuality of many countries and, since 2001, it is no longer classified as a mental illness. Much of the difficulty in being gay in China then lies not with general societal rejection but in the intense and inescapable pressure to comply with their families’ wishes for them to marry and have children. The simple solution is that they marry, too.

In a recent article, The Economist reported an estimated 70% of gay men are married to straight women. They fulfill their duty as a parent and spouse, with surprisingly varied levels of happiness, but their parents and families have no idea of their homosexuality. Another increasingly popular marriage option among homosexuals is for gays and lesbians to marry each other. Whether they are friends or find each other online, it can be a convenient arrangement for both parties. But things most often get complicated when it comes to decisions on whether or not to have children.

male and female

It never ceased to shock me in conversations with seemingly openly gay men when they would casually mention their girlfriends or wives (none of whom had any idea they were out at gay clubs every weekend). But instead of constantly lamenting their situation, almost everyone seemed to accept that it was a duty to their family and society that needed to be fulfilled.

“Yeah, I will probably get married,” my friend Bo, a slight young man of 20, answered when I spoke with him over drinks at a local KTV bar about his future plans. “I’m just sort of putting it off, I guess.” Bo has known he was gay since he was in high school and has been with his current boyfriend for four years. His tone revealed a simple, dutiful resignation to his future: “I am the only boy in my family.” His boyfriend, he explained, has a male cousin whose children could carry on the family name, so he is under much less pressure to marry. 

wedding ceremony

Considering these practices from a solely Western perspective, it is easy to condemn the relentless pressure from parents and the extreme measures which the gay community must take to appease their families. I will confess the very idea of marrying someone for convenience was unfathomable to me at first. It seemed backwards, archaic, and deceitful. As a product of the West, I clung to an idealistic view of marriage, holding it inseparable from honesty and the ideals of a singular, perfect love, which, as our divorce rates confess, doesn’t always hold up. In China, marriage is more often seen as an institution critical to maintaining the reputation of families and revered as the key to a stable society.

I do not mean to suggest that all marriages work out in China or that they are not based on love, but through my observations I realized, as I did time and again while in China, that if the most dearly-held value in the West is personal freedom, the most important thing in China is harmony. Young men and women under pressure from their parents to marry look for partners both with whom they are compatible and who will please their families. Likewise, Chinese homosexuals see coming out to their families and breaking the tradition of marriage as an unnecessary disruption of familial harmony and will likely continue to do what it takes to keep the peace until the day they are granted the legal rights to marry whom they wish.

Lauren is a 2011 International Studies graduate of the University of Iowa and spent the last year living and working as an English teacher in Chengdu, China.

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