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August 16, 2011

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Naked marriage

The prospect of a financial-killer wedding and ever-steeper pre-nuptial requirements for at least one house and car drive some bold love-birds to bow out - opting instead for a so-called naked or half-naked wedding. Zhang Qian lays bare the facts of free love and costly marriage.

Rather than starring on a red carpet, wearing a beautiful white gown and hearing the applause of family and friends who all must give "red envelope" money, a young engaged couple shocked everyone and outraged some traditionalists by going to the marriage registration office, paying a 9-yuan fee and becoming husband and wife. No frills.

Twenty-two-year-old Karen Li, a shop assistant, and 34-year-old Jack Chen, a driver for a car rental company, wore nice but simple clothes and tied the knot on what they called the "perfect day," October 10, 2010, or shi quan shi mei (complete and perfect), definitely an auspicious day for Chinese.

But in the eyes of most Chinese people, their marriage - and its shocking simplicity and lack of fanfare - are far from perfect.

Li and Chen were a completely "naked" bride and bridegroom, the current term for those who marry without the must-have trappings and prerequisites - owning an apartment, a car, throwing a banquet as big as the families can afford, several changes of wedding gowns, elaborate photos, costly wedding rings and much more.

"Naked marriage" became a buzzword among young people several years ago. And it became more popular after a 2010 TV series launched last May, "Age of Naked Marriage."

The increasing costs of marriage, rising materialism and a desire to flaunt wealth all contribute to considerable debate about the topic. And young people who go to a round of friends' weddings in a year and must shell out a lot of money in hong bao (red envelopes) each time find their resources seriously depleted.

Still, it must be said that very few go the naked route and those who might want a simpler wedding usually succumb to family uproar created by their temerity and common sense.

Without an apartment of their own, Li and Chen now live in a 10-square-meter room attached to Li's grandfather's old apartment.

"They all think I am insane, marrying a guy with nothing," says Li.

"But isn't love about relying on true hearts rather than money? I just knew I married the right guy and I still feel that way," she tells Shanghai Daily.

The family is still very unhappy, especially the grandparents, and there's quite a bit of quarreling over the issue. Now the couple is considering having a relatively cheap ceremony before they have a baby. Traditionally, even with a marriage certificate, couples are supposed to wait for the big celebration before having conjugal relations and certainly before getting married. (Of course, the reality is often different).

While bride and bridegroom may feel all right with the arrangements, their in-laws feel a great loss of face for themselves.

Almost everyone is familiar with the 30-episode TV series "Age of Naked Marriage" (based on a popular book and Internet term) in which a young Beijing couple gets married over the bride's well-off parents' protests - without the frills or an apartment. They struggle, quarrel and have to pinch pennies when the man loses his job and refuses to take a job from his wife's well-off father.

They finally get divorced because of a misunderstanding, but later realize they are still in love. The first season ends as the woman goes to the marriage registration office to marry a divorced man with a house and a child. Her ex-husband rushes to head off the marriage.

One of the famous, often-repeated lines from the series is "details kill love."

Naked nuptials are a sharp contradiction of traditional Chinese marriage customs, suspended as "feudal" during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) but now back and stronger than ever as China becomes more prosperous and affluent urbanites seek material security, especially for their daughters.

"My daughter has nothing to be ashamed of. She deserves to be the proud bride with a marriage declared in front of family and friends," says 58-year-old Luo Jun, who succeeded two years ago in making (through argument and making the couple feel guilty) the couple change their plans for a civil wedding and travel honeymoon. Some older people still feel that without a big wedding, a married woman is without status, somewhat like a concubine.

Most people want to celebrate their marriage with friends and family and would like an apartment of their own, but increasing costs, especially of real estate, have made them put off having a traditional marriage.

It's especially difficult for young men without property. Many young women and their parents won't look twice at a man without an apartment. Families traditionally buy an apartment outright for a couple or give them the down payment and financial assistance. Still, many become mortgage slaves and everyone is indebted for life to their in-laws.

"I would like to give my wife Lin Jie a perfect wedding if I could afford it, but I can't," says 32-year-old Chen Jianzhong, an IT professional who married his college classmate right after he got his master's degree and got his first job four years ago. Neither is Shanghainese.

Earning slightly more than 3,000 yuan a month, while his wife still studied for her PhD law degree with a small allowance, Chen could only afford a round-table dinner at that time with some close friends to share their moment.

Even when both sets of parents pooled their savings, they could not afford an apartment for them in Shanghai. But the couple believed that everything would be fine. They rented an apartment for around 3,000 yuan a month and gradually acquired what they needed as their careers advanced.

Though an apartment is still beyond reach, they bought a car last year since Chen earned more than 8,000 yuan a month and made some profitable investments.

"Renting an apartment is not that inconvenient for us now," says Lin Jie, the wife. "We can move easily whenever my husband goes to work for another company."

But their situation may become more difficult after they have a baby. Many urban families buy houses in the locations that feed into the districts with the best public schools, starting at kindergarten. Even small flats are purchased to enable the child to enroll in a good public school.

A China Youth Daily poll about "naked marriage" taken before the Qixi Festival (Chinese Valentine's Day) on August 6, found that almost half (48 percent) of the 3,214 respondents approved of naked marriage, while 23 percent opposed it. The balance of respondents were neutral, undecided or had no opinion.

The poll also showed that around 55 percent of the respondents viewed courage and the ability to stand up to social pressure and hardship as essential for a naked marriage; 43 percent said a couple with a naked marriage would have a much more difficult wedded life than those with better financial status.

"I will vote with both my hands for naked marriage for young people," says Yu Hai, a sociology professor at Fudan University. "Who says that you cannot get married without owning an apartment or having an expensive wedding ceremony? Many parents didn't have any of it when they got married, why should they push later generations to have those things?"

The large and expensive wedding ceremony and banquet - the bigger the better - is a party where people are supposed to give money. Every guest brings a red envelope of cash, which is dutifully opened with the amount recorded against their name at the wedding. That way the young couple knows how generous to be when they attend friends' weddings or the wedding of the one who gave them a fat envelop of cash.

"The money spent on a big wedding could be better spent by the couple on things that really give them a better life after marriage," Yu says.

Some young people have said they would rather take the money for a big party and spend it on meaningful travel. At one wedding, a male guest did not give cash but a certificate, saying he wished them great joy in love and assuring them that when they attend his own wedding, they need not bring him any money. Their presence alone would be enough.

Renting an apartment today is a wiser choice for most young people than undertaken heavy mortgages, says Yu, adding that financial burdens and anxiety can ruin love.

"Compared with my sisters and friends, my marriage may seem a bit shabby, but I believe that we can make our lives better as long as we love each other," says 27-year-old Vivien Zhao who plans to marry in October without a big ceremony and banquet, since all the money has been spent for the down payment on an apartment.

"I believe we will have bread, and we will have clothes. The most joyful part of marriage is for the couple to march diligently together to the same goal," Zhao says.

Many people are against young people setting off on married life without a huge send-off and what today are considered bare necessities for married life.

It's common to hear sayings like "everything goes wrong for poor people," as they do for the couple in "Age of Naked Marriage."

"Any fantasy about love will be torn out if they have to struggle to make ends meet every day," says 53-year-old Lu Meiyue. "You may not know it now, but you will understand in years to come."

Psychologist Wu Di, who specializes in marriage counseling, advises young people to think twice before rushing into a naked marriage. It's not all about the material foundation, but whether young people, many of them quite sheltered by their parents, are ready to live independently in a long-term relationship with another person.

"Ask yourself whether you are ready to be with him or her for the rest of your life? And whether you have discussed financial plans and reached an agreement? Is your quality of life after marriage guaranteed? If not, do not get married to urgently," says Wu.

How much a wedding costs

A widely quoted Internet survey (based on reports and experience from Internet users) ranked the 10 most expensive Chinese cities for wedlock in 2011, which included a wedding celebration, an apartment and furnishing, car, wedding trip and so on.

Shenzhen in Guangdong Province came in first with an average cost of 2.08 million yuan, while Beijing was No. 2 at 2.03 million yuan and Shanghai No. 3 at 2.01 million.

Take Shanghai for example.

? An 80-square-meter apartment costs about 1.6 million yuan (20,100 yuan per square meter on average), with another 150,000 yuan on the decoration.

? Home appliances and furnishings cost about 100,000 yuan.

? An average car is around 100,000 yuan.

? For a wedding banquet of 25 tables, the average cost is 4,000 yuan each table, then the total cost reaches 100,000 yuan.

That may represent the life-savings of a family. And it can't buy a downtown Shanghai apartment with a nice address.


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