The Butterfly Lovers

In a land where British business people come back after the 6th visit without getting past pleasantries and people are expected to refuse a drink a good few times before appearing reluctant to accept (a glass of water), it’s amazing that over 13 million couples get married every year in China, nearly double the amount per capita than the US.

Yet Valentine’s Day last week won’t have held happiness for everyone. Due to the one child policy in place for the last few decades, many families aborted female foetuses leading to many more men than women. 33.5 million more men than women to be exact – just slightly less than the entire population of Canada. The consumerist culture which has been rushing into Western culture will leave these ‘单身狗’ (‘single dogs’) feeling left out of the Valentine’s celebrations – but that’s not the only pressure to be together.

The unstable nature of Chinese history has led to a strong culture of getting married very early, to encourage stability in relationships. A 2013 survey showed that nine out of ten men thought that women should marry before age 27, to avoid being labelled as a (whisper it) ‘剩女’ (‘leftover woman’). This shocking phrase is used by most people and even by state media, in an attempt to create more stable relationships by encouraging marriage.


The Chinese character ‘爱’, meaning love. My drawing, my photography 🙂

The classic Chinese tale of love isn’t one of marrying young and staying together. The unorthodox fairy tale from the Tang Dynasty (9th century) tells the tale of a young woman dressing as a man in order to get an education (ahem, Shakespeare.). She meets another boy there and they become inseparable friends, and a year after they leave she invites him to visit her, as she misses him so much. After the shock of finding out she is a woman, they ask her father if they can marry. But even though he listens carefully to the two of them, the father says no.

Many versions of this story have been told through the centuries, and have many similarities with some European folklore. In the original tale, ‘cross-dressing’ is hardly mentioned, and the ideas around gender and relationships are much less clear cut than today, which shows up a lot in Shakespeare.

But today, years of romance aren’t needed as much. If you can find your 高富帅 or 白富美, which translate as Mr Perfect and Ms Perfect, but literally mean ‘tall rich handsome’ and ‘fair skinned rich beautiful’, you’re good to go after the first date. Tens of thousands often attend ‘marriage markets’ (相亲市场) to find their perfect match (in such a … er … romantic setting) and sometimes even are discussions between parents holding their children’s ‘credentials’ to be Mr or Ms Perfect.

Things I’ve learned this week:

  • If all the single Chinese men moved to Canada, the population would double.
  • Ancient storyteller Zhang Du may be Shakespeare in disguise.
  • Things to get at the market: rice, tomatoes, wife…?!

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, make sure to share with your friends or put your thoughts in the comments below. You can also subscribe to this blog on the homepage, so you’ll be notified when ‘Sing Low, but Don’t’ is published in the week beginning February 27th, 2017.


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