An assistant adjusts the brides wedding dress as the couple stand on a bridge and pose for their wedding photographs near Longjing village, Hangzhou province, China. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

Marriage in China Shouldn’t Break the Bank

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Getting married isn’t cheap in China. In Da’anliu, a small farming village outside Beijing, the local “bride price” — the fee that a groom’s family pays to a bride’s in advance of their nuptials — recently breached the $30,000 mark. That’s extreme for a village where incomes average $2,900 per year. So, this summer, local officials decreed that bride prices and associated wedding expenses shouldn’t exceed $2,900. Violators will be treated as human traffickers.

Da’anliu’s price controls went viral in China and have recently been picked up by media abroad. Out-of-control bride prices play to official and popular Chinese anxieties over the country’s plummeting marriage and birth rates. Nowhere are those fears stronger than in China’s countryside, home to millions of involuntary bachelors, often known as “bare branches.” High bride prices, and the women who command them, are an easy target to blame for this supposed marriage crisis.

The truth is more complex. Bride prices have existed in China as long as marriage has. Traditionally, more affluent families granted large sums as a mark of prestige; the money was often returned to the groom’s family, or to the married couple in the form of material items for the new household. For lower-income families, especially in rural areas, the bride price served as compensation for a wife’s future service to her husband’s family and wasn’t returned in any meaningful form. Because real value was being exchanged, rural bride prices were typically higher.

While decades of political, cultural and economic upheaval under Mao Zedong destroyed much of China’s traditional culture, bride prices have persisted. Rural Chinese were complaining about bride-price inflation as far back as the 1980s. In 2013, China Vanke Co. Ltd., a major Chinese real estate developer, and SINA Corp., developer of the Sina Weibo social network, created a national map of bride prices that quickly went viral online.

These days, news stories, blogs and social media posts about bride prices, the lengths that families go to pay them, and the broken engagements, family tensions and financial crises that sometimes follow, are staples of China’s internet. Bride prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars are not uncommon and — among the rich — they can reach even higher.

Yet, just as in the past, the most expensive bride prices on average continue to be charged in China’s less-affluent areas. Several factors are to blame. First, decades of coercive family-planning policies and centuries of traditional preferences for male children have skewed China’s gender balance. In China’s countryside, so-called “bachelor villages” are reportedly home to 150 boys for every 100 girls. Theoretically, at least, these shortages drive up the value of single women.

At the same time, economic reforms that began in the 1970s allowed millions of women to escape the countryside — and marriages in which they were expected to serve their husbands’ families. Some migrated for work to China’s booming coastal factories. Some even chose to migrate for marriage, usually to wealthier regions with better economic prospects and hard-to-obtain residence permits entitling their families to better schools and other urban services.

This social mobility came at an inopportune time for rural families. The dismantling of China’s social safety net began in the 1980s and left much of China’s rural population without livable pensions. In one sense, that was no big change. Traditional Chinese norms hold that a son should remain a member of his parents’ household and contribute to its upkeep. When he marries, his wife transfers her labor to the household.

That’s less of a problem in a society made up of big families. In a country where one-child population controls have shrunk family sizes, though, that traditional mindset has driven up bride prices as daughters are viewed, in essence, as pensions.

The price controls imposed in Da’anliu won’t have any influence on these entrenched social forces. Instead, they’ll likely drive bride-price transactions underground — and possibly to new heights as parents demand a risk premium for paying up.

For Da’anliu and other Chinese towns worried about how to address declining marriage rates, the better option is for China’s central government to address the underlying issues driving up costs. A good start would be a law that ensures a woman’s claim on marital property in the case of a divorce. Current Chinese law makes no such provision, and thus provides a strong disincentive to marry and a very powerful incentive to charge higher bride prices.

Next, China needs to reform its archaic household registration system so that rational economic incentives — not benefits obtained from marriage — promote social mobility. Finally, a concerted nationwide effort to close the wide gap between China’s rural and urban schools would help encourage more women to stay closer to home. If China wants to lower the cost of rural marriages, it needs to make more of them possible first.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.