By 2020, China will have as many as 24 million men of marriageable age who will not be able to find a bride

For generations, anxious parents in rural China, like those in India's villages, prayed to the heavens for a son, reflecting the strong traditional preference for boys over girls.

In some Chinese villages, however, having a daughter is slowly becoming the rage, at least according to recent accounts of families having to shell out tens of thousands of yuan to find brides because of an alarming shortage of women.

This week, the story of a man in the northeastern Shandong province, who said he had to pay 50,000 yuan (Rs.4 lakh) to find a bride, stirred debate in the media, bringing attention to cases of what are essentially huge dowries being paid to the families of women.

While it is common for the groom's family to bear the cost of the wedding according to Chinese customs, “bride prices” paid by men to their future in-laws were “soaring nationwide, especially in areas where unmarried women are becoming scarce”, said the Global Times newspaper in an article. “Many poor rural families face a very tough position when their sons come of marriageable age, but they are unable to afford such a financial burden.”

The primary reason for this trend, scholars said, was an increasingly skewed sex ratio in China, with 118 boys born for every 100 girls last year — an imbalance that had been exacerbated by sex-selective abortions on account of the one-child policy that came into force in the late 1970s.

By 2020, China will have as many as 24 million men of marriageable age who will not be able to find a bride, scholars have forecast.

Increasing migration out of villages is another factor. “Most women choose not to go back to their hometown after years of working in cities, leaving lots of surplus men at home,” Zhang Yi, a scholar at the Institute of Population and Labour Economics at the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told the Global Times.

The newspaper reported several instances of high ‘bride prices' in villages, as well as “competition so fierce that girls remaining in the village would be snatched away at around 16”.

Tan Huixiang, a mother in southwestern Yunnan, said her family paid 30,000 yuan (Rs.2.4 lakh) as the cost of the engagement of her son, with the wedding leaving her family in financial distress. Bride prices in her village exceeded 100,000 yuan (Rs. 8 lakh), she said.

Another case from the northeastern Liaoning province recounted how 29-year-old Zhai Mingxin had to call off his wedding after his future in-laws demanded 100,000 yuan (Rs. 8 lakh) and gold jewellery.

Scholars said a rising income gap was another factor, and a narrow gap “will make people feel it is not shameful for their daughter to marry a man from a rural family”.

Though China is expected to have more than 20 million men in the coming decade who will struggle to find wives, the country is also ironically witnessing a trend of an increasing number of unmarried women — or “left over women” as the media has rather insensitively dubbed the growing number of unmarried, largely urban, educated and professional women in their late 20s and early 30s.

In a recent article for Ms. magazine, Leta Hong Fincher, a sociologlist at Tsinghua University, pointed out that the sex-ratio imbalance had not, in reality, given women “the upper hand in the marriage market” and she had found very little evidence to suggest women had “turned their scarcity into economic gain.”

“On the contrary,” she said, “my research suggests that Chinese women have largely missed out on what is arguably the biggest accumulation of real estate wealth in history” with women “shut out of the explosion of housing wealth because homes appreciating exponentially in value tend to be registered solely in the man's name.”

“I believe that a key reason why so many educated women in their mid-20s act against their own economic interests when they marry,” she added, “is that they genuinely believe the government-propagated myth about “leftover women”. These women make excessive personal and financial compromises out of fear that they will never find a husband otherwise.