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61 years of getting to the altar

In the 1950s many Chinese marriages were still arranged and there was virtually no courtship. Today it's much freer but Tan Weiyun reports that marriage is still a duty.

Today Valentine's Day is associated with chocolates, flowers, sentimental cards, gifts and candle-lit dinners, but it's fun to look back at China's history of dating since 1950s and see how our grandparents and parents courted.

First, let's be clear: Valentine's Day is a Western and largely commercial import, celebrating romantic love, not practical love and responsible marriage to produce a child.

The Chinese lunar calendar has its own traditional "Lover's Day," or Qixi, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (usually in July or August).


Arranged marriage, considered a feudal tradition, was banned by China's Marriage Law in 1950, shortly after the founding of the People's Republic of China. But in the early 1950s arranged marriages were still common. Young men and women skipped the dating and went straight to the altar. Their parents decided.

"But strangely enough we could live in harmony and the marriages of our generation could last for the whole life," says 71-year-old Guo Tianying, who got married at the age of 18.

"My husband's parents were wine brewers and he sent rice wine to my family during the holidays. My parents found him hardworking and easygoing; his parents liked me too. So the adults pinned it down," says Guo, a Shanghai resident.

"We didn't have any say in the marriage. As a matter of fact, I was a kid then and never thought it that much."

During the early 1950s, patriotic passion was running high throughout the nation.

"To build a new future for China was everyone's purest wish," recalls Guo, "so marriage was also considered a way to continue on the revolutionary road and couples were 'revolutionary partners'," she says.

Guo and her husband dated only for a few times. They got married after they met several times. Their love tokens were a pen and a towel, popular keepsakes for lovers at that time because they would easily be carried about and were easily hidden.

"We got along very well after the marriage. Of course, there were disagreements and fights, but we handled them well," Guo says with a smile. The elderly couple now has an extended family: they had four sons, two grandsons and two granddaughters.


The 1970s was a period when China had shaken off some of the tradition and shackles of the past. Arranged marriage was considered one of the "four olds" - old things, old ideas, old habits and old customs - that should be eliminated.

Blind dates were common. Usually the first date was set up by a matchmaker, who could be the relative, friend or colleague of the parents.

"We didn't walk side-by-side, we walked one after the other on the road on our fist date because we were afraid to be spotted as a couple. It felt like something we should be ashamed of," says 60-year-old Wang Cuihua, a Shanghai resident. "Ridiculous, wasn't it?"

She remembers that her boyfriend Su Huayi (now her husband) ordered lots of fish in a roadside restaurant. "He guessed all girls would love fish, but he guessed wrong. I hate fish," Wang says. "But I was too shy to tell him. I was starving on my first date!"

Hardworking and honesty was the top two requirements for an eligible young man during the 1970s - not an apartment and a car that are required today.

"We believed that inner beauty matters," Wang says.

One good way to judge a man's "inner beauty" was whether he was good at house-cleaning, at least in Shanghai.

They met once or twice every week. Each time, Su pedaled his old Forever bike to Wang's home and offered to do all kinds of housework, including mopping the floor, cleaning the windows, cooking meals and carrying charcoal bricks to the kitchen for cooking. During the 1970s there was no cooking gas and Shanghai families cooked on stoves heated with charcoal.

Couples seldom kissed or embraced, even when they were left alone. "Holding hands was the limit," says Su, with a grin.

Chairman Mao Zedong was almost everyone's icon and to learn from him and recite his quotations was the first things couples did when they dated. "We learned and improved together, it was the fashion at the time," says Su.


Dating is much more diverse and individual since Chinese young people are more open about love and sex. But it seems to be the consensus, at least in materialistic Shanghai, that money is the basis for a good and happy marriage, whether one likes to admit this or not.

The requirements for a "good potential husband" have changed to "a good job, a decent apartment and a car" - these are the minimum requirements for a serious relationship leading to marriage. If he doesn't have an apartment, then he can't afford one and he is a waste of time, the thinking generally goes.

"My mother thinks women are always disadvantaged in a marriage and money is a kind of protection that can give women a sense of security," says Amanda Zhang, who is 26 years old and got married last year.

"Well, it sounds reasonable, but I am not sure."

Her mother set up quite a few blind dates for her. She also dated many men, including lawyers, civil servants and businessmen.

"All of them met my mother's requirements, but I refused them," she says, "because I didn't feel that I would be loved."

She remembers the first blind date she had with her husband, who is a clerk at Hongqiao International Airport, a stable job with a good income.

"I walked into the restaurant and saw a young man sitting there. I was attracted to his appearance and hoped he would be the one. I didn't know he was the date. I guess part of me believed in true love."

However, marriage is still required, whether young people want to wed or not. They are subjected to considerable pressure and numerous blind dates in which their family background, status, wealth, property ownership and income are scrutinized.

"The dates like me, or rather their mothers do," said a 27-year-old women, who asked to be anonymous. She has gone in 16 blind dates leading up Spring Festival. Family backgrounds were carefully weighed and matched before young people met each other.

Asked what they liked about her, she said, "They like my family background and that I studied overseas, but they don't really know me as a person or seem to care too much."


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