A shocking, albeit unverified, story has been making the rounds on Chinese social media, highlighting concerns over the traditional practice of paying a bride price.
It was a tale that resonated with many Chinese people. A local station ran a story about a man who wanted to marry his pregnant girlfriend. But when he wasn’t able to afford a payment of more than £20,000 (about $30,000), the woman’s father put an end to any talk of a prospective wedding – and forced his daughter to get an abortion.
It’s unclear whether there’s any actual truth to the story. The man wasn’t identified by the station and attempts to contact him or find out more have been unsuccessful. But the strong reaction to the story online points to a larger issue anxiety over the rising cost of bride prices in a country where there’s a marked shortage of women.
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The bride price is similar to a dowry, but paid from prospective groom to the family of the bride, rather than from the bride to the groom’s side of the family. Manya Koetse, China expert and editor of What’s on Weibo, says it’s a centuries-old tradition in the country that lived on through the communist era. And Koetse, who initially spotted the story of the man and his girlfriend making the rounds on Chinese social networks, says the sums involved today are rising in step with China’s growing economy.
“It was there in the 1950s, 60s, 70s… In that time the bride price could be a thermos flask, or bedding,” she says. “Later on it became furniture, then a radio or a watch. When we come to the 1980s it could have been a television or a refrigerator. And since China’s economy has been opening up, that’s when the bride price started changing into hard cash.”
Economic prosperity is one reason for the rising bride price, but another key factor is the shortage of women caused by China’s one-child policy.
A traditional preference for males who provide labour and traditionally look after their parents in old age led to a huge increase in sex-selective abortion and even neglect and infanticide of female babies.
Currently, according to Harvard researchers, there are 118 men for every 100 women in China, and an “extra” 40 million males in the country.
Consequently, in some areas the bride price has skyrocketed, and the people who are most hurt by this are men in rural areas.
“They’re called ‘bare branches’,” says Koetse, “guys who are very poor, aren’t educated, they don’t have a wife or children, so they’re like a tree without leaves. There are villages across China which are full of men like this.”
“They have double trouble actually,” she says. “Women leave these villages to move to bigger cities to find a man who can offer them more than the guys in the village. And the few women who remain might have 20 men each who want to marry them, so they can ask for a high bride price.”
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The Harvard researchers say the gender imbalance could lead to higher crime and social unrest among a “restless class of single men”.
As for the reaction to the story about the man whose girlfriend was forced to get an abortion, Koetse says the online reactions in China to the local news were somewhat surprising, at least to Westerners. Many people defending the father’s actions and criticising the couple for getting involved with each other without thinking of the implications. Others took a different view and criticised the bride price tradition.
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