Sampson Lee Blair (The State University of New York, USA)
Timothy J. Madigan (Mansfield University, USA)
Fang Fang (University of Pittsburgh, USA)

Mate Selection in China: Causes and Consequences in the Search for a Spouse

ISBN: 978-1-78769-332-6, eISBN: 978-1-78769-331-9

Publication date: 21 April 2022


Blair, S.L., Madigan, T.J. and Fang, F. (2022), "Prelims", Mate Selection in China: Causes and Consequences in the Search for a Spouse, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. i-xvi.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022 Sampson Lee Blair, Timothy J. Madigan and Fang Fang

Half Title Page

Mate Selection in China

Title Page

Mate Selection in China: Causes and Consequences in the Search for a Spouse



The State University of New York, USA


Mansfield University, USA



University of Pittsburgh, USA

United Kingdom – North America – Japan – India – Malaysia – China

Copyright Page

Emerald Publishing Limited

Howard House, Wagon Lane, Bingley BD16 1WA, UK

First edition 2022

Copyright © 2022 Sampson Lee Blair, Timothy J. Madigan and Fang Fang. Published under exclusive licence by Emerald Publishing Limited.

Reprints and permissions service


No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without either the prior written permission of the publisher or a licence permitting restricted copying issued in the UK by The Copyright Licensing Agency and in the USA by The Copyright Clearance Center. Any opinions expressed in the chapters are those of the authors. Whilst Emerald makes every effort to ensure the quality and accuracy of its content, Emerald makes no representation implied or otherwise, as to the chapters’ suitability and application and disclaims any warranties, express or implied, to their use.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978-1-78769-332-6 (Print)

ISBN: 978-1-78769-331-9 (Online)

ISBN: 978-1-78769-333-3 (Epub)


List of Figures vii
List of Tables ix
About the Authors xi
Foreword xiii
Chapter 1: History of Family Dynamics and Mate Selection in China 1
Chapter 2: Economic, Political, and Social Change in China 23
Chapter 3: The One-Child Policy and Demographic Transitions 41
Chapter 4: Contemporary Dating and Mate Selection: Parents, Peers, and Sexual Intimacy 61
Chapter 5: Cohabitation and Divorce 83
Chapter 6: Fertility and Mate Selection 103
Chapter 7: Shengnü – The “Leftover Women” 121
Chapter 8: “Bare Branches”: Involuntary Bachelorhood in China in the 21st Century 135
Chapter 9: Aging Parents and Familial Support 149
Chapter 10: Criminal Consequences: Prostitution and Human Trafficking 165
Chapter 11: The Future of Mate Selection 183
Index 195

List of Figures

Fig. 3.1. Sex Ratio at Birth in China, 1950–2015 56
Fig. 3.2. Total Fertility Rate in China, 1950–2020 56
Fig. 5.1. Crude Divorce Rate (Per 1,000 Population), 1990–2019 95
Fig. 7.1. Mean Age at First Marriage by Gender in China, 1945–2010 124
Fig. 8.1. Mechanisms of Male Marriage Squeeze 137
Fig. 8.2. Projected effects of graduate interactions in the SRB, fertility, and age gap on the percentage of single men aged 25–39. 146
Fig. 9.1. Proportion of children, adults, and seniors in the population, by year. 150
Fig. 9.2. Dependency ratios for children and seniors, by year. 151

List of Tables

Table 3.1. China’s Population over Time 44
Table 3.2. Sex Ratio by Province in 1986 51
Table 3.3. Contraceptive Use among Married Women, Ages 15–49 53
Table 4.1. Mean Levels of Dating and Marriage Desires among Young Chinese Adults, by Sex 64
Table 4.2. Mean Levels of Dating Attitudes and Experience among Young Chinese Adults, by Sex 66
Table 4.3. Mean Levels of Desired Partner Characteristics among Young Chinese Adults, by Sex 68
Table 4.4. Mean Levels of Peer and Parental Influences among Young Chinese Adults, by Sex 72
Table 4.5. Mean Levels of Sexual Intimacy Initiation among Young Chinese Adults, by Sex 77
Table 5.1. Mean Levels of Perceptions of Cohabitation among Young Chinese Adults, by Sex 87
Table 5.2. Mean Levels of Mate Selection Preferences among Young Chinese Adults, by Willingness to Cohabit and Sex 88
Table 6.1. Mean Levels of Pro-natalist Attitudes and Birth Intentions Among Young Chinese Adults, by Sex 110
Table 6.2. Mean Levels of Marriage and Birth Intentions Among Young Chinese Women, by Year 113
Table 6.3. Mean Levels of Marriage and Birth Intentions Among Young Chinese Men, by Year 114
Table 8.1. The Size of Unmarried Men and Women Aged Older than 30 Years between 1982 and 2010 139
Table 8.2. Proportions of Never Married and Corresponding Sex Ratios (men per 100 women) by Residence, 2010 140
Table 8.3. Proportion (%) of Never-married Men by Age Group and Educational Attainment in 2010 141

About the Authors

Dr. Sampson Lee Blair is a Family Sociologist and Demographer at The State University of New York (Buffalo). Much of his research focuses upon parent–child relationships, with particular emphasis on child and adolescent development. In 2010, he received the Fulbright Scholar Award from the US Department of State, wherein he studied parental involvement and children’s educational attainment in the Philippines. He has examined a wide variety of relationship dynamics within families. His recent research has focused upon marriage and fertility patterns in China. He has served as Chair of the Children and Youth research section of the American Sociological Association, as Senior Editor of Sociological Inquiry, Guest Editor of Sociological Studies of Children and Youth, and on the editorial boards of Asian Women, Journal of Applied Youth Studies, Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, Journal of Family Issues, Marriage and Family Review, Social Justice Research, Sociological Inquiry, International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, and Sociological Viewpoints. He also serves on the international advisory board of Tambara, at Ateneo de Davao University, in the Philippines. In 2018, he was elected as Vice-President (North America) of the Research Committee on Youth (RC34) in the International Sociological Association. He is a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and has taught abroad as a Visiting Professor at Xavier University (Ateneo de Cagayan) in the Philippines, along with Qingdao University (青岛大学), Shanghai International Studies University (上海外国语大学), Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (上海财经大学), and East China Normal University (华东师范大学) in China. In 2021, he received the Distinguished Career Service Award from the American Sociological Association for his work with children and youth. Since 2011, he has served as the Editor of Contemporary Perspectives in Family Research.

Timothy J. Madigan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. He has taught a variety of courses at Mansfield over a 21-year span, including the Sociology of China. During his upcoming sabbatical he plans to write a textbook on the sociology of China. He has worked as a Researcher in various settings including the US Census Bureau, the National Center for Education Statistics, Shippensburg University, and the Department of Health in Taiwan. He specializes in the sociology of education and quantitative research and has fielded a series of state-wide social policy surveys over the years. He studied mandarin Chinese at Pennsylvania State University and abroad. He has taught, researched, and traveled extensively across China and Taiwan. He serves on several editorial boards and has published in a handful of sociology journals. His latest research focuses on the attitudes and behaviors of Chinese and American college students toward dating, marriage, the environment, and race.

Fang Fang received a Ph.D. in Sociology and a Master’s degree in Data Analysis and Applied Statistics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Her research interests include cultural differences in marriage and family relationships and their implications for gender relations and aging, and social relationships and health among older adults. Currently, she is a Post-doctoral Associate at University of Pittsburgh, studying psychosocial risk factors and mental health of older adults.


This project began from the observations that the three of us had made while spending time in China. The past several decades have been witnessed to dramatic transformations within the nation, as its pace of modernization has continued to accelerate. A casual stroll through Shanghai, with its futuristic skyline of Pudong, allowed us to see young couples, walking together, taking selfies, and doing most of the things which young people in love do. However, we noticed that only a scant few of the couples would hold hands in public, and even fewer dared to perform the scandalous act of kissing in public (gasp!). The peculiarity of intimate relationships, through our Western eyes, was fascinating and prompted us to delve deeper into the subject. Subsequent visits to rural areas in central and western China revealed a dramatically different approach to intimate relationships, as young people there typically deferred to the wishes of their parents, who could both initiate and stop such relationships with a simple directive to their daughters and sons. Indeed, in many areas of the country, the norms and practices concerning intimate relationships among young people were more reflective of the traditions dating back thousands of years. Finding a partner in contemporary China, then, represents a challenge to many young women and men, as they live in a society that is not only modernizing and evolving but also built upon a long-standing culture whose traditions are still held sacred by many in the larger society.

As is typically the case, the younger generation tends to be more progressive than their predecessors. This is most certainly true in China, where adolescents and young adults are constantly pushing the normative boundaries of traditional culture. Many of the signs of such progressive natures are readily visible in the young people, themselves. Their preferences for clothing, music, and hairstyles are quite similar to those of their counterparts in other modernized countries. Young men with visible tattoos and young women with blonde hair would have drawn considerable condemnation in the previous generation but are now regarded as normative, at least among young people. Obviously, with internet access and greater exposure to the worlds of young people outside of China, adolescents and young adults in China can readily assess what they deem to be popular, and then adjust their appearance, accordingly. In the realm of intimate relationships, though, young people have few, if any, reliable sources of information. Contemporary youth cannot easily ask their parents how to ask someone out on a date and, more importantly, how to go about holding hands, kissing, or having sexual intercourse. Not only would such conversations be incredibly awkward for both the young people and their parents, but there is also a substantial likelihood that the parents literally had no experience when they were young, themselves! This is what makes mate selection in contemporary China so intriguing, as the younger generation is, to a great extent, creating their own contexts, standards, and norms for intimate relationships. It is an evolving landscape being painted by the very actors who live within it.

Adolescents in China are not different from their counterparts around the globe and often desire a boyfriend or girlfriend. However, their teachers and school administrators will actively prohibit such relationships (at least on the school grounds). Among many young people, then, a “relationship” may involve merely walking to and from school, together. College students, who often revel in the newfound freedoms they have, now removed from their parents’ mindful eyes, want to have relationships, as well, but often simply do not have any clear notions as to how to go about doing so. Frequently, their “relationships” are largely comprised of sharing their thoughts and feelings over WeChat or other cellphone apps. These sorts of approaches to intimate relationships may seem quaint, and even a bit naïve, to many observers. At the same time, though, many young people also want to engage in sexual intercourse, which would seemingly require building a love relationship with a partner over an extended period of time. Once, again, young people in China are forging their own paths concerning intimacy. Many college students, for example, will again turn to online websites and cellphone apps, searching not for a love partner but merely a sex partner. The physical act of sexual intercourse is often regarded in a more pragmatic manner by many young people, who do not always associate love with sex.

As we began to consider the various approaches to love and romance among young people in China, we also became increasingly aware of the evolving context of love and romance. The nation has, of course, undergone tremendous economic advancement over the past several decades. As a consequence, there is a growing middle-class population whose preferences for larger homes, cars, and comfortable lifestyles are reflective of the increasing materialism in the society. Change in one social institution typically impacts every other social institution, and this is most certainly the case in China. The very notion of dating, spending time together, apart from others, for the purpose of sharing some leisurely activity, has become swept up in the culture shift toward materialism. Young couples now need to have meals in nice (and, typically, expensive) restaurants. Gifts, such as flowers, candy, and jewelry, have become almost essential elements within dating relationships. These materialistic shifts, though, are not only occurring in the real world but also in the virtual realm. Contemporary young women and men go to great lengths to photograph themselves having fun, being in love, and embodying the very essence of romance, and then share the images online. Once they post images online, young couples eagerly await the comments of their friends, who will typically give “likes” and positive affirmations concerning the love shared by the young couple. Such behaviors have a cyclical pattern, wherein the more others believe a young couple to be in love, the more the young couple feels compelled to validate those beliefs by sharing even more images. Of course, the irony is that most of the photos are staged and do not necessarily represent the real nature of the young couple’s relationship.

Mate selection in China is made even more complicated by the characteristics of the youth population. Specifically, the skewed sex ratio, resulting from the family planning policies instituted decades earlier (which, in turn, became associated with selective abortion and female infanticide), has created an environment wherein there are millions more young males than young females. The demographics of mate selection are not lost upon young people, themselves, as many young men openly express their distress, realizing that the odds of finding a spouse are not in their favor. Many young women, on the other hand, are well aware of the fact that they have, in effect, become a scarce commodity. In conjunction with the increasing rates of female college degree attainment, there is an empowerment among women, as they feel that they have control over their life trajectories. In the context of a culture, which has been fiercely patriarchal for thousands of years, the elevation of women’s status, and particularly their desire for control over matters concerning intimate relationships and fertility, is nothing short of astounding. Despite this, many young women (especially those who are well educated and successful in their careers) continue to deal with the stigmatization of their single, unmarried status. The label of “shengnü” continues to be applied, even today, yet their prospects for finding a suitable spouse (equally well educated, and preferably with egalitarian attitudes) are slim.

Understandably, an exclusive focus on love and romance would completely overlook both the complexity and outcomes of mate selection in contemporary China. Like many advanced nations, China’s population is rapidly aging. The expansion of the elderly population is creating a greater need for support, which, traditionally, has come from adult children and their spouses. With a decrease in the marriage rate, the needs of the elderly are rapidly becoming a huge societal dilemma. The demand for wives has not gone unnoticed by criminals, as human trafficking, kidnapping, and prostitution have all increased over recent years. Along its southern borders, in particular, human trafficking has become a tremendous problem. Problems such as the needs of the aging population and the increases in various crimes are all directly related to mate selection, and these problems are not going to simply go away.

Simply put, we wanted to obtain a better understanding of this evolving landscape of dating and mate selection. Rather than focusing simply upon one dimension, we hoped to thoroughly consider both the causes and the consequences, therein. While some dimensions were quite pleasant to examine, such as young people’s notions of love and romance, other dimensions, such as human trafficking, were decidedly distasteful. Nonetheless, in order to fully comprehend the nature of mate selection in China, today, we needed to provide as complete a picture as possible. Although we provide a variety of data, throughout the following chapters, we also include survey data and interviews that we collected, along the way. Our samples are comprised of college students, drawn from a variety of urban universities, from across several different provinces, and were collected from 2015 through 2019. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the overwhelming majority welcomed the opportunity to discuss matters pertaining to dating and mate selection, particularly as these were topics that they largely never discussed with their parents! We wish to extend our most sincere thanks to all of those who participated, along with our hopes that their relationship aspirations are fulfilled. Special thanks are given to our sociology colleagues in China and to Zhuzhu Cheng, Yiren Yang, and Shi Dong (Lesley), all of whom were very helpful in the collection of data. Extra special thanks go to Sha Luo, who not only assisted in the collection of data but also whose loveliness graces the cover of this book. Finally, we wish to extend our most heartfelt appreciation to our respective families, without whose love, support, and patience, this project would not have been possible. 谢谢大家 (Xièxiè dàjiā)!...

Sampson Lee Blair

Timothy J. Madigan

Fang Fang