In China, a single woman is getting harder to find

August 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

BEIJHING — BEIJING -- In the free markets of the new China, young men are coming to realize that there is something even more precious than a new car, an electronic pager or a Swiss-made watch.

And that rare commodity -- an unmarried woman -- is becoming harder and harder to find.

There are not nearly enough of them, a situation that is creating anguish for millions of Chinese men and has at least the potential of revolutionizing the status of women in this traditionally sexist society.

"What sort of woman do I want?" said Xu Wenyuan, a lonely 30-year-old who agreed to dress up in a sky-blue satin suit and warble a few bars of "Song for the Motherland" on a television matchmaking show in Beijing. "It doesn't matter."

If he had hoped to prove his desperation in the search for a wife, Mr. Xu succeeded in those two minutes in front of the cameras. "Women are so hard to find now," he explained. "And I just want one."

For Mr. Xu and other Chinese men in search of love, the offerings of the Chinese State Statistical Bureau are downright heartbreaking. The 1990 census showed that of a total population of 1.2 billion, about 205 million Chinese over the age of 15 are single. And of them, there are nearly three men for every two women.

A three-to-two ratio might seem bad enough to most men. But the numbers suggest that the situation becomes far, far bleaker for a Chinese man the longer he stays unmarried.

The government's figures show that while the vast majority of Chinese adults marry by the time they turn 30, 8 million people in their 30s were still single in 1990. And in that age group, the men outnumbered the women by nearly 10 to 1.

There is an ugly explanation for the relative scarcity of unmarried women: the desire among many Chinese couples for boys at almost any cost.

The preference for boys has meant that millions of Chinese girls have not survived to adulthood because of poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, desertion and even murder at the hands of their parents.

China's strict rule of one child per family, imposed in the late 1970s and meant to defuse a population time bomb, has only worsened the insistence on having male heirs. Ultrasound machines and ready access to abortion have made it relatively simple for parents to guarantee that their one child is a boy.

But after generations of tampering with nature, nature has begun to exact its revenge. And this time, the victims are Chinese men. The numbers suggest that tens of millions of men alive at the turn of the century will be lifelong bachelors because there will simply not be enough women available as wives.

"Of the young people who come into this office, at least 70 percent are men," said Li Xiao Tong, a Beijing social worker whose government-sponsored computer-dating service is swamped by eager men searching for a mate.

"The girls are very happy with this service because they can set their standards very high for a prospective husband -- intelligence, education, money -- and then have a good chance of finding a man who meets their standards," she said with a grin that suggested that there was some justice in all of this.

"The men always ask for beautiful girls, and I tell them that they must be realistic," she said. "The goals they set must not be too high because there are not enough women."

Apart from having their pick of prospective husbands, Chinese women may find another silver lining in the numbers churned out by the government's demographers.

In newly capitalist China, people are being reminded that in the free market, scarcity equals value. And so it could be for Chinese women after centuries in which the supply of potential brides equaled demand, and they could be -- and were -- treated as chattel.

"I do think that to some extent this shortage of women will play a positive role in improving the status of all women," said Guo Daofu, a senior economist with the State Statistical Bureau. "I think this will lead to changes in society. Men will have to become more open-minded."

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