China’s recent crackdown on luxury goods may be overlooking a wildly popular big-ticket item: brides.
Shanghai grooms typically have to pay their would-be wives a “bride price,” which starts at 100,000 yuan ($16,300). That’s according to a national map (registration required) of bride prices—a kind of reverse-dowry in which men pay a woman and her family in order to marry her. The map, which was created by the Chongqing divisions of Vanke, a real estate company, and Sina’s real estate channel, has sparked debate around the nation about how the bride price tradition reflects an obsession with materialism and makes it hard for young Chinese couples to start families.
Because it’s difficult for men of normal means to meet the expected bride prices, many of them simply cannot afford wives. Though Shanghai had the highest bride price, in most provinces it fell in the range of $9,780 to $13,000 range, and many online commenters said the map underestimated the standard bride price (link in Chinese). The average annual income, by contrast, is about $9,300.
The tradition was originally conceived to provide for the bride’s aging parents, since she would presumably be caring for her husband’s parents as they aged. But though that’s no longer a worry, many brides and their families still expect suitors to shell out, viewing male income as a barometer of marriageability.
Even beyond stated bride prices, to be considered eligible for marriage, men are usually expected to buy a house—”build a nest to attract a phoenix,” as the saying goes. China’s skyrocketing real estate prices make that an increasingly burdensome requirement: a 100 square-meter apartment in Shanghai costs around $400,000 these days.
China’s worsening gender gap may be perpetuating the tradition. In theory, the scarcity of young women (link in Chinese) means that potential brides can be choosier. But, in fact, some of the highest bride prices are actually found in areas where the gender gap is less acute than the national average—Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces—and in relatively poor areas like Qinghai. That’s because local customs typically outweigh economics.
Custom also explains the variation in items on the bride price list. Take Shaanxi province, where the going bride rate starts at $5,000, plus five quilts, three pieces of gold jewelry, and three of silver. Numerology, meanwhile, accounts the prevalence of Inner Mongolia’s livestock given in multiples of nine and all the 8′s in the bride prices of Guangxi.
Many online commentators complain that the tradition’s utility is now obsolete and that it puts undue strain on young men. One man told Xinhua that he had to save for five years and take out loans from relatives to pay the $13,000 his fiancee’s parents demanded (link in Chinese). But he and his bride are luckier than some: Pressure to meet parents’ bride-price have often drives couples apart (link in Chinese).