In China, men pay rising dowries as ‘bride prices’ surge

The problem, exacerbated by a gender imbalance due to China’s family planning norms and preference for sons, has now found a mention in a Communist Party policy document.

Updated - February 19, 2023 09:30 am IST

Published - February 19, 2023 01:14 am IST - BEIJING

Couples standing on a bridge as they wear traditional Han Chinese dress during a group wedding ceremony on the West Lake in Hangzhou in China. Representational file image.

Couples standing on a bridge as they wear traditional Han Chinese dress during a group wedding ceremony on the West Lake in Hangzhou in China. Representational file image. | Photo Credit: AFP

A widening gender imbalance in rural China is driving men to pay record dowries known as “bride prices”, a practice that has grown so widespread that the Chinese government last week pledged to intervene.

While the bride price, a dowry paid by the groom to the bride’s family, has a long history in China, the Chinese government fears that the increasing number of single men in comparison to single women has exacerbated the trend. The imbalance is a legacy of decades of stringent family planning restrictions that have also led to China’s population shrinking in 2022.

The phenomenon has received so much attention that it has now figured in the Communist Party’s first policy document for 2023, released on February 13. As has been the case in recent years, the document focused on rural issues.

‘Change outdated customs’

While the main thrust of the document is on revitalising rural areas, production, infrastructure, and technology, “Document No.1” also pledged to launch a campaign to curb “exorbitant ‘bride prices’ and extravagant wedding ceremonies as part of nationwide efforts to strengthen the construction of public cultural-ethical standards in the country’s rural areas,” reported the Communist Party-run Global Times.

“The document encouraged local governments to formulate norms for changing outdated customs,” the report said, noting that while “’bride price’ is a traditional Chinese prerequisite for marriage….as a goodwill gesture between the couple and their two families...the ‘bride price’ has risen from a token amount to very high levels.”

The practice of dowries paid by the groom is also widely prevalent in urban China, ranging from purchasing household appliances for a new couple to even cars and real estate.

The Chinese Communist Party has now launched a campaign to curb the trend, with one provincial government in southern Jiangxi holding a group wedding with “zero bride price” last year to popularise the message.

Skyrocketing prices

The practice is, however, deeply ingrained, and the widening gender imbalance is now driving up the “price”. According to Chinese media reports, the price can now go up to 200,000 Yuan (around ₹24 lakh). A report claiming that a bride’s family in Jiangxi had asked for 880,000 Yuan (around ₹1 crore) had triggered debate about the recent trend, although it was later denied by authorities.

“The skyrocketing ‘bride price’ is a result of ‘over-materialism’ and the extreme disparity that exists today between rich and poor,” Mu Guangzong, a professor at the Institute of Population Research at Peking University, told the Global Times, adding that “the imbalance of the male to female ratio, especially in rural areas, partially due to the concept of son preference for many years, is another factor.” A 2017 survey by Central China Normal University in 267 villages found that there were only 63 single women for 100 single men.

Later marriages, fewer births

Meanwhile, a growing number of Chinese women and men are choosing to avoid marriage altogether. In 2021, marriage registrations in China fell to 7.64 million, the lowest figure on record since registration numbers began to be publicised starting in 1986.

Those that do marry are also choosing to do so later as well as to have smaller families, denting years-long government campaigns to encourage larger families and stem an ageing crisis in the country.

Last month, the National Bureau of Statistics said that China’s population had fallen by 8.5 lakh in 2022, the first decline since the famine in 1961. India is set to become the world’s most populous nation this year, overtaking China.

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