Matchmaking in the Park

It is Sunday morning in Shanghai People's Park and many Chinese aged 50 and above are eagerly exchanging information, asking questions and peering at slips of paper detailing the characteristics of single adults.They are looking for marriage partners for their children. 

Dr. Deborah Davis, a professor at Yale University's sociology department, spent her Sunday mornings in Shanghai thus: she observed these parents and talked to them about their motivations, and tried to tease out their states of mind coming into this peculiar weekly event that had been around since 2007. She concluded that mothers often feel regretful about keeping their children so tightly bound to themselves, or encouraging them to go so far in their careers that they haven't been able to find a mate. On the other hand, fathers are often angry that the adult child is not doing the searching for himself or herself. Most of all, this goes to show how much parents are emotionally invested in the lives of their usually single son or daughter. 

This participant observation and oral history exercise was part of Dr. Davis' field work in China for a research project investigating post-socialist marriages.

In 2003, Yan Yunxiang identified the dominant trend in marriages in the late 1990s to be the 'trump of conjugality'. Yan argued that in socialist China where there was compressed economic opportunity, men and women brought in almost equal assets into the home, which formed the basis of greater equality and mutual dependence in the marriage. Moreover, 'cradle to grave' welfare provided by collective enterprises took care of childcare while the parents were at work, provided pensions, and even allocated housing. The marriage did not have to supply all these welfare goods. Even if the parents of the married couple wanted to be financially invested in their children's marriage, they had little private property and assets to do so. Parents also did not control their children's jobs, their friends, or their property. This led to greater independence and individuation of adult children. As a result, loyalties between married spouses often trumped loyalties between parents and their adult children. 

Professor Davis argues, however, that there has been a “re-verticalization of marriage,” whereby ties between parents and children overwhelm the “horizontal” conjugal desires and priorities of husbands and wives. One most clearly observes this pattern during wedding preparations and rituals and during the first years of marriage, but it also is salient after children are born. Using snowballing techniques to collect data on WeChat, interviewing married Chinese and even viewing the DVDs of weddings, Professor Davis found that parents were often the ones who planned the wedding and invited the guests. She characterized weddings as the parents showing off that they have been successful parents, while the bride and groom are playing performance roles in the ceremony. In the stage of forming a home, the young couple often cannot afford to establish and own the home without the financial help of the parents. When the first grandson is born, both sets of grandparents are often obsessed about the wife's health. If the wife is not living with the husband's parents, her mother will often move in and stay for at least a couple of months. During this period, there is a vertical emotional vortex between the grandmother, the wife, and the grandson that sometimes even repels the husband. As an example, Professor Davis mentioned how it was common for the grandmother to sleep in the same room as the baby and the wife (her daughter), relegating the husband to the sofa in the living room. 

Professor Davis posited that this re-verticalization of marriages occurred due to demographic, economic, and cultural changes in the cities of post-socialist China:

·         One Child Policy - Parents are more financially and emotionally invested in their only child

·         Promotion and protection of private property - Allows for substantial accumulation and passing down of family property

·         Erosion of 'cradle to grave' welfare - The modern solution to disappearing enterprise-provided childcare is the mother, the mother-in-law, or if the family is rich, a servant. Daycare services are expensive and few. 

·         Inflationary prices for urban housing - Young couples cannot afford housing on their own

·         Privatization of education - Education of the grandchild becomes an enormous expense that cannot be borne entirely by the child's parents

·         Resurgence of Confucian values - Chinese increasingly view family loyalty and listening to parents as part of China's strength. 

In sum, today's young couple needs their parents in a way that the couple's own parents didn't need their parents back in the time of socialist China. In turn, the parents today are willing and able to provide this emotional and financial support for their adult children.

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