Some parts of China have recently been in the news for rectifying the practice of giving large amounts of 'bride price' or dowry, and for saying no to high bride prices.
On 10 February, Shuyang county in Jiangsu province held an event to encourage unmarried young women to decline high bride prices. Meanwhile, 30 young single women from Daijiapu township in Jiangxi’s Ji’an city signed a pledge against high bride prices.
Nanchang, the provincial capital of Jiangxi, is even planning a mass wedding of 100 couples on International Women’s Day on 8 March, with the slogan “No to bride price, yes to happiness”. At the ceremony, the couples will serve tea to their parents, read a pledge in line with the slogan, and drink a toast to each other.
It is a marriage custom in China for the groom’s family to offer a bride price to the bride’s family, but some places have seen exorbitant bride prices in recent years. Many families, especially rural or low-income families have had to empty their savings for their sons to get married — some are even forced into bankruptcy. Even amicable young couples have argued or even split up over these high bride prices.
Jiangxi’s bride prices
In the first half of January this year, a post on zhihu.com about a woman in Jiangxi asking her boyfriend for a bride price of 18.88 million RMB (US$2.74 million) trended on social media. But even after the incident was debunked and the zhihu.com account that posted the story was shut down, there is still much internet discussion about not marrying Jiangxi women.
In early January, Xinhua’s periodical China Comment ran an essay on how to bring down bride prices, citing a ranking of bride prices over China that circulated online in 2022. Jiangxi topped the list with a bride price of about 380,000 RMB excluding a car and a house.
The report said that while the information on the bride price may not be accurate, high bride prices are indeed a powerful weapon for many families of the bride, and are a sore point for some rural families when getting a bride.
Jiupai News under Changjiang Daily spoke to married people in Jiangxi and found that bride prices in the province generally start from about 80,000 RMB and could go as high as 800,000 RMB.
... the poorer the area, the higher the bride price.
High bride prices have also become business opportunities for Jiangxi’s banks. A promotional poster for “bride price loans” by the Bank of Jiujiang that circulated online in 2021 showed the bank can provide up to 300,000 RMB in loans with a repayment period of up to one year and an interest rate as low as 4.9%. The loan can be used for the honeymoon or the purchase of jewellery, a car or home appliances. The loan applicants only need to satisfy three criteria: be at least 22 years old, be employed for at least 12 months, and one loan applicant must be a regular employee of an administrative institution. However, amid complaints, the bank quickly withdrew the advertisement and apologised.
In a commentary in March last year, CCTV online described the “bride price loan” as a catalyst for social ills, and selling it as a gimmick is sneaky and encourages bad practices.
Bride prices and economic development
Liu Guoying, who runs a dating agency in Nanchang city, told jiemian.com that bride prices have an inverse correlation with economic development in Jiangxi — the poorer the area, the higher the bride price.
Liu revealed that the average bride price in Nanchang city is about 128,000 RMB to 188,000 RMB, with the counties even topping that amount.
Some analyses have it that one important reason for Jiangxi’s exorbitant bride price is the severe gender imbalance. According to China’s sixth census, the Jiangxi province has the greatest gender imbalance among the post-90s population, with a male-female ratio of 120.8:100. This means that there are six men and five women for every 11 post-90s people in Jiangxi, and this generation is the main group in the marriage market in recent years.
People.cn quoted Deng Hong of the Jiangxi Academy of Social Sciences as saying that since reform and opening up, more young women work in the cities, where it is easy to find a match and settle down. Fewer women remain in the rural areas, so this makes it more difficult for the young men there to get married unless they pay a high bride price.
In 2022, many places in Jiangxi held campaigns to change these social customs in order to regulate the high bride prices.
Among them, six agencies including the Pingxiang Civil Affairs Bureau released notices to take appropriate action in the various areas accordingly, to bring bride prices back to its original form as a “gift”, advocating “zero bride price” and recommending that the bride price, if any, should not exceed 30,000 RMB.
Many areas in Nanchang county also started similar campaigns last October. Village cadres in Paifang and Youlan in Youlan town gathered information to stress the importance of changing the custom in rural areas, encouraging people to drop undesirable social practices and establish new ideas of marriage and childbirth. Louqian and Shanshang villages in Nanxin township have also held discussions on bride prices.
Nearly 40% of bride price also includes a car and a property.
A pricey situation
Exorbitant bride prices are not unique to Jiangxi, as seen in a bride price map circulating on Chinese social media platforms in 2022 that ranked various Chinese regions based on the average bride price.
Among them, Jiangxi topped the chart with an average bride price of 380,000 RMB. Regions asking for a bride price of 200,000 RMB or more include Fujian (300,000 RMB), Zhejiang (250,000 RMB), Jiangsu (200,000 RMB) and Liaoning (200,000 RMB). Regions with an average bride price of more than 150,000 RMB include Shanghai (180,000 RMB), Shandong (170,000 RMB), Anhui (160,000 RMB) and Tianjin (160,000 RMB).
In September 2020, Tencent’s Guyu Data released a survey on the country’s bride price situation in 2020 based on the responses of 1,846 Chinese residents. Zhejiang ranked first with an average bride price of 183,000 RMB, more than twice the national average of 69,095 RMB. Other regions listed on the survey include Heilongjiang (152,000 RMB), Fujian (131,000 RMB), Jiangxi (112,000 RMB) and Inner Mongolia (110,000 RMB).
Apart from bride price, over 70% of grooms also gave jewellery, which is the “three touches of gold and four touches of silver” (三金四银). This consisted of a gold necklace, a pair of gold earrings, a gold ring, as well as a silver bowl, a pair of silver chopsticks, a silver hairpin, and a silver bangle. Nearly 40% of bride price also includes a car and a property.
The survey also found that over 40% of families argue over bride price. Nearly 50% of male respondents think that giving money as a wedding guarantee is a terrible practice that must be abandoned because it is a burden solely shouldered by the groom’s family. On the other hand, over 60% of female respondents believe that bride price represents the groom’s sincerity to the marriage.
Male respondents think that the most reasonable bride price should be between 10,000 RMB and 50,000 RMB, while female respondents think that it should range between 50,000 RMB and 100,000 RMB.
Crackdown on bride price
Last year, China recorded its first population decline in six decades. As various local governments ramp up efforts to encourage marriage and childbirth, they are also advancing marriage custom reforms mainly targeted at exorbitant bride prices.
Last May, Gansu’s Dingxi capped bride prices at 50,000 RMB and stipulated that both urban and rural wedding banquets should have no more than 20 tables. Since the campaign was implemented last June, some statistics have shown that bride prices have been controlled between 0 and 50,000 RMB among 70% of the married couples in the city, at an average of 49,000 RMB, down 10.9% from before the campaign started.
Henan also advanced various marriage custom reforms across 20 regions last July. For example, Ningling county recommended that bride price should not exceed 30,000 RMB, while Mengzhou city stated that the bride price for urban and rural marriages should not exceed 60,000 RMB.
... new values and norms have yet to be established in these places where old rules and customs are losing clout. As a result, bragging and the need to gain “face” took over as people compare one’s bride price with others.
Last September, Geng Zhenhua, party secretary of Shandong’s Shan county, officiated a group wedding for 20 couples that have decided on little to no bride price to advocate a modern and simplified wedding tradition. Mashang Ping (马上评), a commentator on The Paper (澎湃新闻) praised the move. However, good customs take time to form.
A commentary on gmw.cn (光明网) said that there are cultural reasons why bride prices are getting increasingly excessive. It noted that new values and norms have yet to be established in these places where old rules and customs are losing clout. As a result, bragging and the need to gain “face” took over as people compare one’s bride price with others.
The commentary also mentioned that exorbitant bride prices are also driven by deep economic factors. Only by identifying the underlying logic behind this phenomenon can a fitting solution be implemented to lift the burden of farmers.
... curbing excessive bride prices through government intervention is essentially using price controls to stop prices from rising. From a historical and practical perspective, this method has never been successful.
Will executive orders on bride prices be effective?
An article published last year on Kofuf (功夫财经) analysed that from an economic point of view, curbing excessive bride prices through government intervention is essentially using price controls to stop prices from rising. From a historical and practical perspective, this method has never been successful.
The Chinese people have a saying that a son is a “China Construction Bank” (中国建设银行), while a daughter is a “China Merchants Bank” (中国招商银行, lit. China’s bank for bringing in businesses). While this is just friendly banter, it indirectly reflects the problematic marriage customs in some areas.
Amid a demographic crisis, Chinese authorities will spare no effort to encourage young people to marry and have children. While cracking down on excessive bride prices could remove some of the obstacles of couples hoping to get married in the short term, there are also other relevant social issues such as the protection of women’s rights after marriage, gender equality and marriage values, all of which cannot be changed overnight.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “拒高价彩礼拯救中国婚姻？”.
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