Chinese millennials aren't getting married, but why is it a big deal?

Updated: Jan 31

In the last decade, fewer people in China are tying the knot – a trend that is alarming families and worrying the government. Gender inequality is at the heart of this phenomenon, but why is it a big deal?

The decline is partly due to decades of policies designed to limit China's population growth, which mean there are fewer young people in China available to be married, according to Chinese officials and sociologists.

China first witnessed a decline in the number of newly registered unions in 2015, with a 6.3% drop from 2014 and 9.1% from 2013. This was accompanied by a rise in the age of marriage, which has increased by about a year and a half in the first ten years of this century.

In 2019, China's marriage rate plunged for the sixth year in a row to 6.6 per 1,000 people -- a 33% drop from 2013 and the lowest level in 14 years, according to data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

The country appears to be going through a shift and there are changing attitudes to marriage, especially among young women, many of whom are growing disillusioned with the institution for its role in entrenching gender inequality, experts say.

Xiao Meili, a leading voice in China's feminist movement said that there are many people who have taken to social media in recent weeks to insult wives as being a "married donkey", a derogatory term used to describe submissive women who conform to patriarchal rules within marriage.

However, in many cases, rural women who are deprived of educational and social resources by patriarchal tradition and a capitalist economy, have little bargaining power compared to their urban counterparts against unwanted marriages, inequality between spouses, or even violence within or for the sake of marriage.

Couples having children is now high on the agenda

Getting young people to have children is central to its efforts to avert a looming population crisis that could severely distress its economic and social stability -- and potentially pose a risk to Chinese Communist Party rule.

Nevertheless, for more than 35 years, the government has enforced its one-child policy on most Chinese to curb population growth, and to spur the economy.

When the propaganda didn't work, local officials resorted to abortions, heavy fines, and forced sterilisation.But even as the party steadily relaxed the policy, allowing parents, who themselves were an only child, to have a second child -- many parents came to the realisation that having another child wasn't realistic.

Chinese government officials still maintain that it was necessary to keep population numbers down.

In a culture that puts great value on family, many parents are alarmed that there is the likelihood that their offspring will remain unmarried and childless. Therefore breaking the family lineage, or that there will be no one to look after their unmarried children when they’re gone.

Last year, Yang Zongtao, an official with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said that marriage and reproduction are closely related and that the decline in the marriage rate will affect the birth rate, which in turn affects economic and social developments.

The decline of marriage is not unique to China. Across the globe, marriage rates have fallen over the past few decades, especially in richer Western countries. Compared with other East Asian societies like Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, China still has the highest marriage rate.

Social economic changes

Women are becoming more educated, and economically more independent, it has been reported.

In the 1990s, the Chinese government accelerated the rollout of a nine-year compulsory education programme, with the aim of bringing girls in poverty-stricken areas into the classroom. In 1999, the government expanded higher education to boost university enrolments. By 2016, women started outnumbering men in higher education programmes, accounting for 52.5% of college students and 50.6% of postgraduate students.

While girls and women are getting educated, gender norms and patriarchal traditions have not caught up with these changes. In China, many men and parents-in-law still expect women to carry out most of the childcare and housework after marriage, even if they have full-time jobs.

Meanwhile, job discrimination against women is commonplace, making it difficult for women to have both a career and children. As a result a number of women are beginning to question why they should get married.

Furthermore, statistics show both genders are delaying marriage. From 1990 to 2016, the average age for first marriages rose from 22 to 25 for Chinese women, and from 24 to 27 for Chinese men, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The figures in big cities are even higher. For example, in Shanghai in 2015, the average age for first marriages was 30 for men and 28 for women.

The increased social and economic status of women has also made it more difficult to find a suitable partner for two groups at the opposite ends of the marriage market: highly educated, high-earning women and low-educated, low-income men.

There has also been a shift in values towards love and marriage -- changes that have come a long way since the founding of modern China. Furthermore, increasing social acceptance of cohabitation and premarital sex, as well as the wide availability of contraception and abortion, has enabled young people to enjoy romantic relationships outside the legal institution of marriage. They see marriage as an expression of their emotional connection, not just a means of reproduction.

Young people have more freedom to choose their partner

At the same time, young people have greater freedom to choose a partner — and to leave them if things don’t work out. China’s divorce rate has risen for 14 consecutive years. Nearly 4.2 million couples divorced in 2016, an increase of 8.3 percent from the previous year and more than 14 times the number in 1980. And while many still meet their spouse through matchmaking, more and more people — young and old — are connecting online and dating or cohabiting.

Young people in China today expect more from marriage than people did in the past. According to

Shanghai academic Li Xuan, people want “emotional support, intimacy, intellectual enrichment and to share the pressures of life". As millennials continue to pursue more than the 'proverbial' nuptials, the likelihood of marriage numbers rising is unlikely, at least for now.

Supporting sources: CNN, BBC, Sixthtone