The 30 women sat on wooden chairs, facing each other in a rectangular formation.
At the front of the room was the hammer and sickle logo of the ruling Communist Party, with a banner stating the purpose of the meeting:
" Age-Right Single Young Women
Taking wedding photos near the Forbidden City in Beijing last year.
Photo Wang Zhao/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images
Officials in Daijiapu, a city in southeast China, had gathered the women to sign a public commitment to
the high "bride prices", referring to a wedding custom in which the man gives money to the family. of his future wife as a condition of engagement.
The local government, which described the act earlier this year in an announcement on its website, said it hoped people would abandon such
and do their part to "start a new civilized trend."
At a time when China grapples with population decline, authorities are cracking down on a long-standing tradition of betrothal gifts to try to
, which have been on the decline.
Known in Mandarin as
the payments have skyrocketed across the country in recent years - an average of
in some provinces - making marriage increasingly unaffordable.
Payments are usually made by the groom's parents.
To curb this practice, local governments have launched propaganda campaigns, such as the Daijiapu event, in which single women are instructed not to
with each other by demanding the highest prices.
"This has broken many families," says a sociology professor.
"Parents spend all their money and go bankrupt just to find a wife for their son."
Photo Qilai Shen for The New York Times
Some municipal officials have imposed caps on caili or even intervened directly in private negotiations between families.
The tradition has met with increasing public resistance as attitudes have changed.
Among the more educated Chinese, especially in the cities, she is likely to be seen by many as a
who treats women as property to be sold to another family.
In rural areas, where the custom tends to be more common, it has also fallen out of favor among poor peasants who must save several years of income or go into debt to get married.
Still, the government campaign has drawn criticism for reinforcing sexist stereotypes of women.
Chinese media, in describing the problem of rising marriage payments, have often portrayed women seeking large sums as
After Daijiapu's act went viral on social media, a surge of commentators questioned why the burden of solving the problem fell on women.
Some urged the authorities to hold similar meetings for
in order to teach them to be more equal in marriage.
In China, "as in most state policies on marriage, women are the central target," said Gonçalo Santos, an anthropology professor who studies rural China at the University of Coimbra in Portugal.
"It is a paternalistic appeal to women to maintain order and social harmony, to fulfill their role as wives and mothers."
By targeting women, official campaigns like Daijiapu's evade the fact that the problem is partly the work of the government itself.
During the four decades of the one-child policy, fathers tended to prefer sons, leading to an
sex ratio that has intensified competition for wives.
The imbalance is most pronounced in rural areas, where there are now 19 million more men than women.
Many rural women prefer to marry men from the cities in order to obtain an urban family registration permit, or hukou, which gives them access to better schools, housing and health care.
Poorer men in rural areas must pay more to get married because the women's families want greater assurance that they can support their daughters, a move that could, in turn, push them deeper into poverty.
"This has broken up a lot of families," says Yuying Tong, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"Fathers spend all their money and go bankrupt just to find a wife for their son."
Officials have acknowledged their limited ability to stamp out a custom that many families view as a marker of social status.
In rural areas, neighbors may gossip about women getting low prices, wondering if something is wrong with them, according to researchers studying the custom.
The tradition is also linked to entrenched attitudes about the role of women as caretakers in families.
In some rural areas of China, the payment is still seen as a purchase of the bride's labor and fertility from her parents, the researchers say.
Once married, a woman must move in with her husband's family, become pregnant, and take responsibility for household chores, raising children, and caring for her in-laws.
However, the skyrocketing cost of living has exposed gaps in China's social safety net, so low-income families with daughters can save for unforeseen medical expenses or other emergencies.
And because fathers are living longer, some women demand higher prices as compensation for being the
for the older generation, the researchers say.
Sociologists say that a more effective way to curb this tradition would be to allocate more funds to childcare and health care for the elderly.
According to Liu Guoying, 58, a matchmaker in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province, famous for bride prices that can exceed $50,000
young Chinese delay or avoid marriage, the expectations of their Parents regarding wedding payments are changing.
Parents, wanting a smooth start to the marriage, are increasingly passing the payment on to the newlyweds as a gift.
Some parents want their daughters to marry so badly that they are willing to settle for less money as long as future sons-in-law treat their daughters well.
"Take pity on the hearts of the parents of the world," Liu said.
A new generation of women, more educated than their parents, may also be influencing the change in attitudes around this issue.
A 2020 survey of some 2,000 people in China found that highly educated couples were
to pay the bride price, believing mutual love was enough.
But even for women like 27-year-old Luki Chan, who went to college, an opportunity her mother never had, escaping the pressure of her hometown traditions can be difficult.
Chan grew up in a mountainous region of Fujian, a province in southeast China where marriage fees are often high.
His mother expects to receive at least $14,000 from the groom when Chan gets married, as payment for the money he spent on his studies.
Now, Chan is building her own career in Shanghai as a theater producer and is in the process of registering marriage documents with her Taiwanese boyfriend.
Chan fears that when his parents find out, their demands for a bride price will prevail.
Chan rejects the tradition, which he considers tantamount to
"When I see the patriarchal system that exploits women and the misogynistic marriage customs, it makes me very afraid to talk about marriage with my family," she says.
The authorities consider luxury payments an urgent problem that could hinder economic development and trigger social instability.
Across the country, cities are trying to popularize the idea of getting engaged without exchanging money.
This month, the Nanchang local authorities organized a free mass wedding for 100 couples to get married simultaneously inside a huge sports stadium, under the slogan:
"We want happiness, not bride price."
The couples wore red and gold traditional Chinese wedding attire, and performed the ceremony in synchronized choreography.
Their relatives watched the ceremony from the stands, with local government officials taking the best seats.
However, in a sign of the persistence of this custom, in the past year dozens of residents across China have complained to local authorities via Internet message boards about the exorbitant prices of marriages.
In a message last summer, a resident said he was "begging" his local government to regulate marriage payments in his rural village of Baixiang in southwest China, where many farmers live in poverty.
Three weeks later, county officials responded that they had sent a team of investigators to question the resident's girlfriend at his home.
The young woman told investigators that her parents had agreed to marry her off for about
and had refused her pleas to lower the price.
So far, the groom's family had only paid half.
After "great efforts by all parties," according to authorities, the bride's father accepted a payment of about $9,000 and returned the rest to the groom's family.
The return took place at the local Communist Party office, with party officials as witnesses.
The officials concluded their report with a message to the couple: "I wish you a happy life!"
c.2023 The New York Times Company
c.2023 The New York Times Company
They invested their savings in houses that were never built
China offers incentives to women who have children, but single mothers are not included