Chen Hongchang. Image by Deborah Jian Lee and Sushma Subramanian. China, 2011.
Chen Hongchang. Image by Deborah Jian Lee and Sushma Subramanian. China, 2011.
Men gather in Gao Po where the discussion turns to the topic of women. Image by Deborah Jian Lee and Sushma Subramanian. China, 2011.
Chen Hongchang’s aunt, a 39-year-old, Vietnamese woman named Du An Lan. Image by Deborah Jian Lee and Sushma Subramanian. China, 2011.

Chen Hongchang stepped into the thumping private room at the karaoke club. Through the haze of cigarette smoke, he saw them. The women.

Dressed in tight shirts and slinky dresses, they nursed glasses of beer and wailed to Chinese pop songs. As he approached, they smiled, an exciting sight for any guy on the prowl but a particularly thrilling one for Chen. Back home in Gao Po, his rural village on Hainan Island, the chiseled 32-year-old rice farmer rarely gets the chance to flirt. Sure, he sees the occasional mom with her kid. But the single ladies of Gao Po, his only would-be prospects, have all moved to cities to work as waitresses and hairdressers and maids. Every last one.

In previous generations, a young, handsome man whose family owned land was practically guaranteed a wife. But in modern China, bachelors like Chen face an increasingly sparse dating landscape. The nation’s growing gender imbalance, the largest in the world, has left the countryside so overrun with unmarried men that towns like Gao Po have been nicknamed “bachelor villages.” Across the country, males outnumber females at birth by nearly 120-to-100. On Hainan Island, the birth ratio is closer to 130-to-100.

Signs of a skewed gender ratio emerged in the 1980s, and the gap escalated significantly in the following decades under China’s one-child rule. The strictest family-planning policy in the world, it limits couples to having one kid, or two in rural areas, imposing hefty fines on families who exceed their quota. With fewer chances at parenthood, many parents turn to sex-selective technology to ensure a male heir, says Yong Cai, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Researchers expect the gender disparity to widen even further by 2020, creating an imbalance of 24 million more single men than women.

The impending marriage squeeze is compounded by China’s tradition of “marriage hypergamy,” in which women typically marry up, not just in social class or wealth, but also in age. “China is probably the only country in the world that mandates a girl to marry someone two years older than herself,” says Cai, referring to a law that allows women to marry at 20, but requires men to wait until 22. As fertility declines each year and the number of available younger single women dwindles, older men must scramble to find a partner from an ever-shrinking pool.

“It’s a double-whammy game,” says Cai. In contrast to most media reports, he argues that the year-by-year ebbing of the dating population plays a far bigger role than sex-selective abortion in the marriage squeeze. “On one hand, you have a shrinking population, and the population overall has a tendency for men to marry someone younger. At the same time, because of sex-selective abortion, the female cohort is shrinking faster than the male cohort.”

The odds stacked against them, it’s poor village men like Chen who lose out. Even those born before the introduction of the one-child policy or sex-selective technology face the troubling reality that single village women inevitably leave for jobs in nearby cities. In Gao Po, most single guys realize that they also have to migrate if they want a chance at domestic bliss. It’s not a difficult calculation: The village of 230 people is home to exactly zero unmarried women.

But not every man has the opportunity to skip town. Tradition obliged Chen, the eldest in his family, to care for his aging parents and the land. As a result, the numbers say Chen’s road to love will likely be a dead end. “In China, if males don’t get married by age 30 and they aren’t educated, the chance of getting married is almost almost gone,” Cai says.

Yet Chen remains hopeful, even confident, about his chances. Part of that comes from studying Taoist astrology books, which predict that 2011 will bring him a wife. He clings to the forecast, using it to brush off his nagging parents and the villagers who cluck their tongues and wonder aloud, “over 30 and still not married...” And he travels two hours to the spinning lights and karaoke bars of Haikou, the capital of Hainan Island, China’s tropical province in the South China Sea. If he wants to find a wife, to prove the books right, he has no other choice.

A week later, back home in Gao Po, Chen scrolls through the numbers he scored. “A few girls sent me their pictures,” he says, rapidly thumbing his phone. He pulls up a picture of a svelte young woman, reclining on a couch, smiling behind a curtain of heavy bangs.

“We’re just friends.”

* * *

Chen, who dropped out before high school, spends his days in his isolated village, a scant cluster of low-slung homes nestled among acres of tropical flora and rice paddies. On a muggy day in August, he rises at 5 a.m. to harvest beans. His bronzed, sinewy arms are sculpted from years of tending the earth and taming water buffaloes. He rides to the nearby town of Long He to sell his crop, which he fastens to the basket of his three-wheeled motorbike. The trip to town is the most exciting part of his day; he usually passes the afternoon hiding from the sweltering island sun with naps and TV, living vicariously through the dating shows that have become a nationwide fixation.

Chen ambles back home through the narrow concrete lanes of his village, passing a sleeping pregnant pig and a badelynge of ducks. He runs into another bachelor, Chen Suchiang, 42, who has just returned with a net full of freshly caught fish. Suchiang invites Chen to share his feast. At Suchiang’s house, another bachelor friend, Wu Zubing, 37, is already washing vegetables in a plastic tub. Within moments, the kitchen comes alive with men at work. Their hands move expertly, gutting flopping fish, flying across cutting boards. Soon the table is set with steaming plates of fried fish, vegetables sautéed in fresh garlic and chilies, an omelet, fish soup and roasted peanuts caramelized in cane sugar. They raise bowls of beer above the feast and shout an enthusiastic “Gan bei!” (“Cheers!”)

As they sit around the table enjoying their meal and smoking, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to women—the ones who got away and the ones who never were. In China, they say, there is nothing alluring about the bachelor lifestyle. It calls to mind visions of monks in saffron robes, not sexy James Bond-like archetypes. “I’m a traditional Chinese man,” says Chen, who dreams of raising two children, a boy and a girl. “I prefer to have one woman all my life. If I have too many girlfriends, it’s not good.”

Chen has never had a girlfriend. He has tried, though; he even consulted a matchmaker a few years back. His first set-up was with a gorgeous, long-legged woman whom Chen would have married in a heartbeat. Wracked with nerves and unable to hold the conversation, Chen botched all three dates. The woman reported to the matchmaker that she found him “stupid.” The words “felt like a big rock stuck in my heart,” Chen recalls. But he didn’t exactly take the higher ground with his second set-up, whom he rejected immediately because she was too short and too fat. His third match fizzled for reasons he still cannot grasp. When he would call for follow-up dates, she’d vaguely claim to be out of town and hang up.

His friend Chen Suchiang has had better luck, but more heartache. At 23, he fell hard for a woman from a nearby village. She felt like an old friend from the moment they met. They moved in together, but she soon left for the city. Tied to the land, and to his ailing mother, Suchiang coudn’t follow. Pick a lucky date on the calendar for our wedding, his girlfriend said before leaving. But months later, she brought home some devastating news. She had met someone else. They were engaged. Isolated in the village, Suchiang has never had the chance to love again.

The third bachelor at lunch, Wu Zubing, had a few casual relationships while working in Haikou years ago, but opportunities dried up once he had to move back home. As the designated caretaker of his parents and property, he’s had less freedom to pursue the ladies than his brothers, all of whom met their wives after moving to the city. Wu owns a dirt-floored convenience store in the village. He knows he can’t be picky. But he still feels slighted when friends and relatives set him up with women with mental problems and physical disabilities.
“For me, I never give up. I want to find a good wife and have a family,” he says.

Out of options, a few of Gao Po’s lonely bachelors recently asked a local matchmaker, Zhong Hongmei, to help them find mates. The wild-eyed 40-something is not the superstitious village elder you’d picture fretting over young men’s love lives. She’s more madam than matchmaker, willing to find anything her clients want—a woman to give birth to a son, a fling on the side—so long as they have the dough. These impoverished bachelors often aren’t worth her time. And they are getting increasingly desperate over the years, she says, ever since a local newspaper named Gao Po a bachelor village. “There must be something wrong with them if they can’t find wives,” she says.

It’s the exact opposite for women from the village. Wu Chunping, 22, who left Gao Po to find work in Haikou five years ago and is now a waitress at a karaoke bar, says confidently that she has her choice of men, as do most women she knows. “For a girl in your early 20s, it’s easy to get the attention of men,” says the kitten-faced young woman. “In my opinion, at this age, one girl has at least two or three boys chasing after her.” Wu has a boyfriend, whom she met at her previous job at a hair salon. They plan to get married in a few years.

* * *

From Albania to Taiwan, countries with stark gender imbalances share three characteristics. The first is a rapid decline in fertility. Either women limit their family size by choice, or, as in China, by force of government policy. Second, with smaller families, there’s an acute pressure on mothers to ensure those precious few children are boys. Of course, there’s a financial motive in rural areas to have boys who can perform hard labor. In India, the skyrocketing costs for dowries contribute to the preference. But Lena Edlund, an associate professor of economics at Columbia University who studies marriage markets in Asia, says the desire for sons runs deeper than economics. “Ancestor worship pushes toward the notion of having one vine of ancestors through the male line,” Edlund says. Parents want to ensure they have boys so they will be worshipped in the afterlife. Third, for a skewed gender ratio to take hold, sex-selective technology must be widely available. In the early 1980s, government birth-planning officials distributed ultrasound machines throughout China to monitor the placement of women’s IUDs, which were inserted, sometimes forcibly, to prevent pregnancies under the one-child policy. It wasn’t long before the machines came to be used for other purposes.

After a generation born under these conditions, a marriage squeeze was inevitable. “If there are more men than women, someone is going to be left out, and it’s going to be the poor guys,” Edlund says. One day, as Chen ventures into the jasmine-scented jungle to find his water buffalo, he describes his family members, many of whom have been impacted by these demographic shifts. His brother keeps striking out with girls he dates in the city; his sister found a husband instantly; his uncle, desperate for companionship, bought a trafficked bride from Vietnam.

Chen’s younger brother, Chen Hongyuan, moved to Shenzhen in 2000 in search of higher-paying work and a larger pool of single women. But he found that dating in the city was still a challenge. “Aside from the extremely handsome, rich, and powerful, most Chinese guys have a tough time finding wives,” he says. The rugged 30-year-old works at a plastic-toy factory in Shenzhen, China’s manufacturing hub. Even though he met the love of his life there—“an unforgettable true love”—their fairy tale quickly came undone when she told her parents.

After their 10-month whirlwind romance, the woman, whom he met on the factory floor, returned to her home in Guanxi Province over the Lunar New Year to deliver the news. Her parents told her she was too young for marriage. Her work in the factories was still an important source of revenue for their family. And when they discovered Chen Hongyuan’s social status, they balked. He’s from a village? He works in an assembly line? They locked her in the house for months. When she returned to Shenzhen and tried to rekindle the romance, it was too late. “I couldn’t trust her,” he says, his deep voice cracking.

Since then Chen Hongyuan has had two insignificant relationships. Desperate to re-create the magic of his first love, he’s turned to Chinese takes on Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and books from the women’s psychology section at the local library. “It’s going to be difficult for me to find a wife,” he says. “I’m broke, and I’m aging. I’m really worried.” Chen can’t help but scoff when he thinks about how his 28-year-old sister found a spouse within a year of moving to Shenzhen. “For Chinese women who want to date or marry, it’s easy. Riduculosly easy.”

There’s a nickname in his village for young women like his sister and ex-girlfriend: golden turtles. Unlike their brothers, these women send almost all of their earnings back home. With demographics so heavily in their favor, they will likely “marry up,” scoring older, wealthier husbands who can further bolster the cash flow back home. “These days, our village hails these girls as a kind of treasure,” Chen says.

But the female supply-demand analogy doesn’t hang together for Lena Edlund. “Yes, the value of women goes up, but it doesn’t benefit the women,” she says, noting that it’s mainly the parents who gain from the rising bride price. And as the gender imbalance grows, it increasingly affects poor women in even darker ways, contributing to a rise in forced marriages, prostitution, and human trafficking.

Chen Hongchang’s aunt, a 39-year-old, bright-eyed Vietnamese woman named Du An Lan, fell victim to this trend when she was just 19. One of eight children, Du grew up in an impoverished village in the rural county of Haixing, Vietnam. When a businessman promised her a lucrative job in China, she leapt at the opportunity and boarded a boat to her new home. But when she arrived, she discovered he had trafficked her as a bride. The businessman disposed of her Vietnamese-style clothing and dressed her in a new pant and shirt set with a traditional Chinese collar. As a ferry carried her from the mainland to Hainan, she looked at the expanse of the emerald-green sea and contemplated jumping.

On the other end, Chen Hongchang’s uncle, a leathery-faced teacher 40 years her senior, purchased Du for 5,000 renminbi, a little more than $780 today. “We’ll live together,” Du remembers him saying; she understood his words though she didn’t yet know his language.

“If you get pregnant, we will treat each other as husband and wife. If we don’t have a child, you can live with me as my daughter.” She cried for days.

Worried that she would flee, her new husband brought Du to his schoolhouse and forced her to sit outside on a bench while he taught. At night, they ate meals she considered lavish. In Vietnam, she rarely consumed meat. Now she was eating pork daily. She was touched by the way he took care of her. Within months, she adjusted to speaking the Hainanese dialect, which shares similar vocabulary with her native Vietnamese.

She was clueless about sex. Months into their marriage, when her husband told her to spread her legs and taught her how to have intercourse, she didn’t know it would lead to a baby. Her daughter was born in 1993, a year after their marriage. Her arrival cemented their relationship. “It completely transformed our marriage,” she said. “I began feeling attached to him.” She returned to Vietnam twice to visit her family and siblings, bringing back 2,000 RMB each time. Her family tried to convince her to stay back with them, but her life in China was far more comfortable than her poor Vietnamese village.

While poor women bear much of the burden of the gender imbalance, women at the top rungs of Chinese society are affected by a marriage squeeze of their own. The expectation to “marry up” creates a tough environment for highly educated women looking for acceptable partners. “In the old days, for females, it was almost always expected that they will marry someone,” says Cai. “But now, if you look around and read the newspapers, the one important issue that people are talking about are these so-called ‘sheng nu.’” Literal translation: leftover women. Thriving in their careers, these ladies struggle to find men who can top their success. “They’ve been left out in this process,” says Cai. “But it’s by choice, not by design.”

In 2010, Sandra Bao, a Shanghai-based magazine editor, reclaimed the derogatory term by co-founding a sheng nu club, which boasts more than 1,000 members. Bao, who says she’s “around 30,” wants women to know that there is happiness to be found in single living.

“Sheng nu are not those left behind by others, it’s those who leave others behind,” she says, flicking her sleek-straight hair over a shoulder. “We are leaving old values behind.”

* * *

For the past 20 years, eternal bachelorhood has become an increasingly likely fate for Chinese men, particularly for those in remote areas without access to jobs. As this group of desperate, sexually frustrated men grows, the situation could become even more grim. Years of scientific research shows that the hormones that help men compete tend to drop when guys take on nurturing roles as husbands and fathers. And high levels of testosterone have long been associated with aggression and an elevated likelihood of committing violent crimes. In 2007, Edlund published a study that showed that a 1 percent increase in sex ratio could lead to a 5 percent increase in crime rate. Dudley Poston, a Texas A&M demographer, says that countries with an excess of men have historically been more violent. “Dangerous is probably an exaggerated word,” Cai says. “But in those villages, when better-off people move to urban areas, what’s left behind is a bunch of bachelors. I just can’t imagine what life would be like.”

The shortage of girls could lead to a warped reversal of the imbalance. Shang-Jin Wei, a Columbia University economist, says that China’s ballooning savings rate, unparalleled in the world, could be a result of families’ pressure to accumulate cash to attract wives for their sons. “If you’re a dirt-poor peasant somewhere,” Edlund says, “maybe your optimal choice would be a daughter, who can get married.” This trend could create a new marriage economy, she says, encouraging lower-class parents to sex-select for daughters while the wealthy continue to have sons. Relegated to the underclass, women’s growing financial value could prime them for exploitation by their impoverished parents who could sell them to wealthier families for ever-increasing bride prices. South Korea has been credited with eliminating its widespread gender imbalance in the 1990s, but it is actually an example of this exact scenario—the rich choosing sons and the poor choosing daughters, Edlund says. “They have not been able to eliminate sex selection.”

Gender-imbalance experts and Chinese policy planners are bracing for what might happen as prenatal testing improves. So far, China’s effort to stamp out sex-selective abortions hasn’t worked. It is illegal for ultrasound providers to tell parents the sex of their child, but there has been little enforcement, Cai says. The government even lowered the resolution of these machines to crack down on the practice, but most doctors are experienced enough that they can still read the blurry images. In some regions, the state has financially rewarded couples with daughters. State-sponsored billboards try to reverse old prejudices with sayings like, “A girl is worth as much as a boy.” “What’s needed is a very vigorous public debate about the values underlying this,” Edlund says. “What kind of cultural values are we condoning?”

* * *

Chen is back on the hunt. Ever since his friends from the karaoke bar urged him to join their new group “The Happiness Station” on the social networking site QQ—he created a profile under the name “Stop by for Love”—Chen’s cell has been buzzing every few seconds. QQ has become his obsession, prompting him to spend hours chatting with multiple women online. His go-to move is fortune telling; it’s an easy way to get women to open up. One recently offered her phone number, but Chen is hesitant to call right away. It’s too soon, he says. He doesn’t want to come off as a creep.

He doesn’t want to overreach, either. All he asks is for someone gentle and nurturing, with a good personality.

“Based on my age and my poor living conditions in the village, when it comes to finding a wife, I’m not in a position to ask for too much,” he says.

Chen finds a woman whose profile notes that she likes beer. He doesn’t drink much, and he asks her if she has any tips.

“Open your mouth wider,” she responds. He laughs, but it’s unclear if he’s aware of the sexual innuendo.

“I don’t know how to drink,” he replies. “If I chase you, maybe you’ll make me drunk.”

She sends him an emoticon of a cup of coffee, an affectionate gesture. He smirks and types a response.

“Have you eaten?” he asks. She’s just about to.

“Eat more,” he says.

“If I eat more I’ll get fat.”

“No problem,” he types. Chen has rejected a woman for her size before. Not this time. “I like girls to be fat.”

Project

By 2020, China is expected to have 24 million more men than women, leaving the countryside filled with aging bachelors, the consequence of a gender imbalance caused by sex-selective abortions.

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