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China has baby marriages?!

The strange new trend with China’s young parents is arranging marriages for their toddlers. These virtual vows are being promoted by Babytree.com as well as a few other sites, which allow parents to create social network profiles for their infants and then review possible matches. While these online betrothals seem to be little more than sensational play-dates, it does beg the question, what kind of society comes up with baby marriages?

When you actually look at the underlying social factors, the practice becomes somewhat unsurprising, and that makes the factors all the more interesting. We’ll work backwards on this phenomena:

What is the purpose of marriage from the perspective of the parent?

In modern China, marriage fulfills several important social functions. For families with sons, a marriage means that the parents will be supported in old age, the family name will be carried on, and that they have successfully completed their role in society. For families with a daughter, it means that she leaves the nest and is supported by someone else’s family (this is a rather traditional view). The more modern view of a married daughter, is another source of support for her parents.

The most important of these functions in a practical sense, is the caring for elderly parents. If a child never marries, the parents may not be taken care of in old age. Given the lack of social insurance for the elderly in China, families do not simply want children, but they need children. The idea of a baby marriage is that the child learns how to make friends with the opposite sex which gives them an advantage in future relationships. Although one woman did say, “Even if my boy only finds puppy love and they don’t end up living happily ever after, at least I found him a friend,” which implies that she thinks there is a tiny chance the pairing could be permanent.

Why do children need an advantage in relationships?

In China there is growing concern about the gap between male and female birth rates (this is tied to the one-child policy and traditional preferences for males as discussed above). This issue becomes more pressing as the policy carries on. As the article points out:

Cong is seriously worried about China’s growing gender imbalance and with so many more men than women, she’s concerned her son might not easily find a mate when he grows up.

“I just want to prepare for my son’s future, so that he can live easier and happier,” said Cong, “I don’t take the online ‘child marriage’ seriously.”

A number of the mothers of sons told the Global Times that giving their boys an early hands-up with courtship can’t hurt as they too worry about society’s growing gender imbalance.

The gender imbalance is also showing up on the sites themselves, with far more boys than girls. “I felt lucky to have a daughter. I didn’t have to wait for days for a reply nor face the prospect of being turned down when proposing to a girl.” Phew, she almost had to wait days to fake marry her 4-month old baby girl.

While the trend may seem crazy, if not psychologically traumatic for the children, it does highlight a number of very real concerns facing families in modern China. This concern about finding a good spouse for a son shows that traditional values are still very much alive in China despite thirty years of propaganda, and that the social safety net is showing no signs of improving.


5 Comments

  1. Alia says:

    Baby marriage is fairly common before 1949. Interesting to see a comeback.

  2. Lorin Yochim says:

    To put a finer point on things, there is an articulation of market incentives (introduced by economic reform), technology, and cultural traditions. In other words, this practice arises because someone can make easy money by probing and promoting “traditional” concerns. Where there is cash to be earned by inciting new forms of insecurity, other types of business spring up. The example of Gymboree and other creators and exploiters of parental anxiety comes to mind.

    • James says:

      Please detail the Gymboree example.

      They sell clothing and organize playdates and parties, and a search of Google news turns up nothing related to exploiting parental anxiety.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I haven’t seen the Gymboree clothing line in China, but no doubt it is there or on the way. In addition to the other activities you mention, my experience is that Gymboree is somewhat unique in that it offers classes for children with their parents, classes in which parents learn how to play with/educate their children “properly.” I have no particular problem with this idea; more education programs ought to involve parents. But where I mention “new forms of insecurity” and “creators…of parental anxiety,” I am referring to the kind of “education” that precedes the handing over of money for these classes. Specifically, parents learn through such companies that their present state of knowledge/practice or other forms of knowing how to raise children are inadequate and even dangerous to their children. They learn to distinguish between inadequate old (i.e., what your parents did and what they say you should do) and desirable new (i.e., modern “scientific,” child-centred, creative education). In using the word “exploiters,” I’m simply pointing out that the purpose of these companies is to make money.

        Of course Gymboree is not the only such company, and it’s methods are, on the whole, softer than most in that they are not a cram school by any stretch of the imagination. Public schools also engage in this kind of parental training, a practice I haven’t (yet) investigated very deeply, but on the surface, offering parents the tools they need to help their children succeed in school seems the least the school can do.

        As to what Google news has on file, I’m not sure what one would expect to find on this topic now, but give it a year or two and perhaps I’ll publish something.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Just for giggles, I googled “gymboree exploiters.” Not what I was talking about, of course, but no shortage of hits.

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