URC

BaiFaXiangQin: Why and How?

Wong Wei Mei

Central China Normal University

Key Words: Marriage Market, China, BaiFaXiangQin, Marital Selection Process, matchmaking, dating

Abstract

Since 2004, the proliferation of Marriage Markets has made BaiFaXiangQin an attractive alternative for parents that are anxious and eager to help their single children find a suitable match for marriage. This paper discusses the possible cultural and financial reasons behind the increasing popularity of BaiFaXiangQin in mainland China and identifies the 5 steps used in BaiFaXiangQin to complete the marital selection process.

What is (BaiFaXiangQin)?

According to Zhou (2009), meeting or dating between two individuals of the opposite sex under the recommendation of a third party such as parents, neighbors, co-workers, relatives, or even matchmakers is traditionally known as XiangQin 相亲. Dating arrangements in China predominantly lead to marriage or more serious relationships. Tang and Zuo (2000) reported that while only 14 percent of American students share this view, a distinct 42 percent of Chinese college students in Mainland China aim to find a marital partner through dating. BaiFa 白发 in the phrase, BaiFaXiangQin 白发相亲 is used to describe parents, especially ones in their 50s or 60s (Sun, 2012a). Combined, the phrase BaiFaXiangQin refers to parental matchmaking that is conducted through Marriage Markets, an interesting and modern concept among the plethora of dating platforms in China. 

Out of more than 8000 Chinese couples surveyed in 1991 across 7 provinces, 77 percent of the couples were married by parental involvement. This is largely due to the wide acceptance of parental help in the matters of marriage and the selection of a spouse. Parents are known to be more resourceful and experienced and are seen as individuals with better capabilities of evaluating the quality of marriage (Huang, Jin, & Xu, 2012). BaiFaXiangQin is simply another form of matchmaking in a controlled setting, driven primarily by the dwindling resources available to them (Sun, 2012b).

What are Marriage Markets?

Marriage Markets are common fixtures in many major parks around China today. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, ShenZhen, and Wuhan play host to this progressively popular free matchmaking platform, specifically catered to parents aid their children in their endeavors to find a suitable spouse. Sun (2012a) described parents born in the 50s or 60s playing the role of vendors trying to peddle their children. Typically, parents advertise their children by providing information regarding their unmarried children on advertisements; information may include age, height, job, income, education, Chinese zodiac sign, personality, family values, or even a picture of their single children (Winter, 2014; Yang, 2011). Some even detail the minimum requirements to apply for consideration. Advertisements are displayed around the park, some on designated notice boards. Parents also linger around the vicinity of their advertisement in case they spot an interested buyer.

The practice of matchmaking in this avenue is called BaiFaXiangQin and despite the wide acceptance of parental matchmaking in Chinese culture, parents often practice BaiFaXiangQin without informing their single children as some of them have expressed discomfort with their parents' involvement in the matter of their love lives (Tully, 2013; Hu, 2014).

Why does (BaiFaXiangQin) occur?

The lack of an established social security and pension system plays a crucial role in the urgency found among parents of unmarried children to find a suitable marital spouse for them (Sun, 2012a). Approximately 70 percent of elderly parents need to financially depend on their offspring (Sun, 1998). In China, this problem has been named the "4:2:1" phenomenon, this illustrates the problem where one child has to be responsible for the welfare of two parents and four grandparents (Pozen, 2013). Elderly parents would rely on their children and their children's marital spouse to provide for them in their retirement years. In Chinese culture, filial piety is a highly valued virtue that parents strive to cultivate. Filial piety can be shown when children provide care, respect, and financial support to their elderly parents. Children with this virtue can be a great source of happiness and pride (Yan, Chen, & Murphy, 2005; Hwang & Han, 2010). It is common in Chinese societies for parents to receive financial support from their children (Silverstein, Cong, & Li, 2006; Pei & Pillai, 1999). Receiving financial support leads to better psychological well-being among parents, thus not as susceptible to depressive symptoms (Chou, Chi, & Chou, 2004). The financial support of parents is a common act that reflects filial piety. Despite this fact, Sun (2012a) believed that parents feel that the responsibility of caring for them will be too much for their child and prefer to find a partner for their child to share this burden. 

In the West, parents tend not to exert any control in their children's lives when they reach adulthood. In China, Chinese parents still feel a sense of responsibility for their children's life in adulthood. Parents were fully responsible for their children's marriages in previous centuries; their children had no say in choosing their marital spouse (Chan, Ng, & Chin, 2010). In fact, parents continue to play a significant role in marital choices in China today (To, 2013). Now, Marriage Markets are one of the ways that Chinese parents can feel that they are still upholding certain dating traditions, despite the declining popularity for arranged marriages (Bolsover, 2011). Non-relational factors, such as parental approval, still affect the choice of partners (Goodwin, 1999). The majority of children are still subject to opinions and expectations of parents regarding their marital endeavours (To, 2013). According to Liu (1988), 40 percent of the 4874 married women surveyed in 1988 were in an arranged marriage, while approximately 36 percent were introduced to their spouses by people they knew. This survey indicates that the concept behind Marriage Markets mirrors the dating practices that were popularly used to attain marriage.

There is an increasing prevalence of late marriages (Wong, 2003). Many young Chinese are encouraged to establish a financial foundation and to focus on their career before settling for marriage. This in turn becomes a source of concern for Chinese parents that are anxious for their children to enter a marriage (Wei, 1983; Hunt, 2013). According to Liu (2004), single Chinese women reaching middle adulthood will be pressured by parents and peers to settle down and get married. Single Chinese women are subjects for derision. There are a lack of positive concepts to describe independent successful women (To, 2013). Thus, marriage is seen as a necessity for Chinese women. The patriarchal culture spurs their parents' enthusiasm in finding potential partners for their daughters in Marriage Markets (Yang, 2011). In addition to finding potential spouses for their children, Marriage Markets also aid in satisfying the need for Chinese parents to shoulder the responsibility regarding their children's marriage prospect. For many Chinese, happiness is derived from family and children (Hwang & Han, 2010). Having many grandchildren and having children that practice filial piety are sources of great happiness for Chinese parents. To achieve this happiness, Chinese parents prefer to take a proactive role to ensure that their children will find a good partner (Sun, 2012a).

Therefore, many Chinese parents are willing to practice BaiFaXiangQin in Marriage Markets despite having to overcome the possibility of losing "face" or mianzi. According to Ho (1976), "face" can be defined as follows:

Face is the respectability and/or deference which a person can claim for himself from other, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in his social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in that position as well as acceptably in his general conduct; the face extended to a person by others is a function of the degree of congruence between judgments of his total condition in life, including his actions as well as those of people closely associated with him, and the social expectations that others have placed upon him. In terms of two interacting parties, face is the reciprocated compliance, respect, and/or deference that each party expects from, and extends to, the other party.

Face is an essential element in Chinese culture (Gilbert, 1927; Smith, 1894). Face is a social constraint that represents an internalised force of self-restriction and reflects public trust in the individual's morality (Hwang & Han, 2010). It is the evaluation of an individual's public image in a particular social situation (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Alexander & Knight, 1971; Alexander & Rudd, 1981), and for parents to depart from performing certain social roles to save face (Hu, 1944) shows the parents' urgency to help their single children to find a potential spouse.

Marital selection process in BaiFaXiangQin

In Marriage Markets, a complete matchmaking process is mainly made up of five steps: observations from afar, close-up observations, detailed discussions between parents, online dating, and meeting face-to-face. The first 3 steps are executed by the parents, relatives, or friends of the unmarried children. The last 2 steps involve the children of parents that conduct BaiFaXiangQin.

Step 1: Observations from afar

It is a common practice to meet the future in-laws. Many believe that the child is a reflection of the parents or parents' teachings. Thus parents generally observe other parents before deciding to proceed. Appearance provides the initial information and can shape the perceivers' ensuing behaviour (Efran, 1974; Todorov, Mandisodza, Goren, & Hall, 2005). Physical appearance can provide various information. Physical grooming such as clothes, hairstyle, and make-up affect whether these parents will take the next step in the marital selection process. Dynamic aspects related to nonverbal expressive behaviour such as posture, the way they converse, and their facial expressions (Riggio, Widaman, Tucker, & Salinas, 1991) will help parents determine their financial background, mannerisms, or their sincerity. Research has shown that personality traits can be linked to different physical appearances (Borkenau & Lieber, 1992).

Parents are aware of the fact that they actively try to increase their standing by altering their appearance in certain patterns to shape a favourable impression of themselves or establish their position in a particular social class. Some parents in Marriage Markets are seen adorning expensive jewelry or wearing light make-up. This behaviour encourages more enquiries regarding their single children (Sun, 2012a). Several forms of static physical appearances such as dressing or hairstyles are ductile (Albright, Kenny, & Malloy, 1988). Expressive aspect of appearance (for example facial expressions or polite nodding) can also be easily influenced (DePaulo, 1992; Ekman and Friesen, 1974). Most of the parents conducting BaiFaXiangQin take advantage of this knowledge to be as strategically positioned for maximum respected attention (Sun, 2012a). Despite best efforts, it is difficult to manipulate other more subtle information like posture (Ekman & Friesen, 1974).

It can be observed that the females pay more attention to their appearances compared to the males. This is due to gender norms where there is more emphasis on females to keep up their appearances as opposed to males (Naumann et al., 2009). Parents observe groups to scan for parents that fit their basic requirements before making the next move.

Step 2: Close-up observations

After observing groups from afar and shortlisting those that have acceptable appearance, parents will determine whether "yuan" exists between them and the other parent of an opposing sex before engaging in a detailed discussion. Chinese tend to associate the success of a relationship to a force called yuan (Chang & Chan, 2007; Goodwin & Findlay, 1997). Chang & Chan (2007) refer to yuan as the chief force that allows contextual factors to influence relationship development and processes. In order to understand the motivation for parents to observe the target in detail, one must understand the driving force behind it—yuan. According to Chang and Holt (1991), Chinese believe that yuan affects social and psychological interactions in social and romantic relationships. Relational development, or even the lack of it, are linked to yuan as it influences whether two individual are destined to cross paths. The absence of yuan is said to cause negativity to persist in a relationship or cause relationships to fail. Thus it is believed that their relationship is influenced by external forces rather than personal control (Chang & Chan, 2007). In East Asian culture, yuan is an important component in initiating, maintaining, and terminating the connection and relationship between two people. Yuan is a central factor in Japanese and Korean cultures (Kotajima, 1990, Ueno, 1987).

Yang (1988) identified four aspects of yuan found in a Chinese community; yuan is popular in modern life as a staple key metaphor in decoding interpersonal relationships (Chang & Holt, 2002). First, yuan exists long before two individuals meet, even if the encounter is scheduled or ephemeral. Second, yuan dictates the development of the nascent stage of a relationship. When they have established a good first impression, both individuals are said to have yuan; this can also be attributed to the attraction that both parties may have for each other. On the contrary, if they don't feel like they have a predestined relation, then both parties do not have yuan fen. Third, Chinese use yuan as a self- and social-defence mechanism. It is common for people to attribute the failure or success of a relationship to yuan (Stander, Hsiung, & MacDermid, 2001). Explaining the condition of the relationship using yuan helps both parties to avoid using internal attribution, reduces the blame game, and highlights each other's negative behaviour as the source of the termination of the relationship. All these can lead to one losing face or reputation. As such, yuan is a widely accepted and an unquestionable excuse to illustrate the condition of one's relationship without resorting to unnecessary or uncomfortable details. Fourth, when one feels the presence of yuan, one would make more effort to develop the relationship, increase interaction, and cultivate an amiable environment.

Relationship between the in-laws is crucial in Chinese communities. Thus, parents place a lot of importance on yuan with their target parent. This is a deciding factor for parents on whether or not to proceed to exchange details or to continue observing (Sun, 2012a).

Step 3: Detailed discussions between parents

Parents will approach other parents and engage in a detailed discussion if step 2 reveals satisfactory results. Despite the commotion, the process is actually quite straightforward. According to Sun (2012a), there are 4 steps involved in Detailed Discussions. Parents will briefly exchange basic information about their unmarried children, exchange pictures of their unmarried children, discuss their personal prerequisite for mate selection, and exchange contact details. They will also analyse the way each other converse to pick up small details that they have yet to reveal verbally.

To increase efficiency, some parents will put their single children's personal details on flyers and pass them out. Sun (2012b) likens the discussion to a double-sided sword. On one hand, Detailed Discussions can help parents to understand each other's single children and family condition, but it can also cause parents to accidentally reveal unflattering details about themselves and can be perceived as inappropriate and run the risk of losing face. If both parents are comfortable with each other or find their children to be compatible, they will convince their children to get to know each other online.

This is a crucial step as this is the process where parents can obtain information to convey to their single children to convince them to meet their potential partner. The parents looking for spouses for their adult children often practice BaiFaXiangQin without the knowledge of their single children (Tully, 2013), so having the most attractive information about the potential partner can encourage the child to acknowledge BaiFaXiangQin.

Step 4: Online dating

The online dating step is where the single children are finally involved in the BaiFaXiangQin process. The potential partners are briefed by their parents about the qualities of the opposite sex and are encouraged to get to know each other online (Sun, 2012b). They usually prefer to make each others' acquaintance behind the safety of online platforms. The potential partners usually attempt to present themselves in a strategic and favourable light to make a good first impression. This fosters greater attraction and intimacy that would not have been as profound as potential partners that interact face-to-face without communicating online beforehand (McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2002; Jiang, Bazarova, & Hancock, 2011). Online communication is distance-independent in terms of both use and cost. The potential partners might not be in close proximity, and conversing online is a natural, convenient solution (Boase & Wellman, 2004). Potential partners will be able to save on money during this introductory period when they opt to run it online and only invest on actual outings after confirming that both of them have chemistry.

Due to the internet's asynchronous nature, the potential partners are not required to be online and engage in the communication process simultaneously (Boase & Wellman, 2004). This arrangement is less time-consuming and demands minimal commitment to maintain a relationship between the two individuals who are still uncertain about each other. The fast-paced nature of online interactions also inadvertently encourages intimate disclosures. The lack of a non-verbal element in online dating leads to people compensating by indulging in a more intimate interpersonal exchange (Reiss & Shaver, 1988).

The potential partners are often anxious about embarking on the introductory phase. Online platforms help reduce anxiety in the sensitive nascent stage of the communication process. It also helps potential partners manoeuvre difficult conversations that are otherwise embarrassing or might cause them to lose face (Hertlein & Ancheta, 2014). Online Dating has a lower break-up cost. It is relatively easier to end the relationship online as opposed to a face-to-face situation (Boase & Wellman, 2004; Shun, 2012; Tong & Walther, 2011). Users can ignore messages, delete, and block contacts to avoid unnecessary confrontations, all at a minimal to non-existent cost.

With the help of the Online Dating phase, the experience provides a different level of access to these potential partners and allows them to interact prior to deciding whether to form an offline relationship. Through online platforms, potential partners are able to save time and reduce emotional and financial investment. Ultimately, CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) is effective at helping potential partners to get an overview of their potential partners and to determine the compatibility between them (Finkel et al, 2012).

Step 5: Meeting face-to-face

According to Stanley Milgram (1984), online relationships eventually have to move beyond the computer and have a face-to-face meeting to accept each others' full complexity as a human being. If the potential partners find each other compatible online, they will meet face-to-face on a date. The date's location is pre-determined online and the location reveals the man's financial situation and sincerity. Usually, men with more financial means will pick high-end Western restaurants, while those with regular financial means will pick quiet coffee joints, teashops, or fast-food restaurants like McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken (Sun, 2012a). The women generally prefer crowded locations as they are frequently anxious about safety issues when meeting with the man for the first time (Gibbs, Ellison, & Lai, 2011). Once both of them meet face-to-face, online communication becomes progressively extraneous (Whitty & Carr, 2006).

Potential matches treat the first date as a screening process and use it as a test to see whether they should continue with the relationship (Long, 2010, Whitty, 2008). Both the potential partners are highly critical on this date and observe each other meticulously to try to discern whether they are suited for a serious relationship that might lead to marriage. In certain cases, the parents will accompany the potential partners to help break the ice (Sun, 2012a).

Conclusion

Despite the rising popularity of Marriage Markets in mainland China, especially in Shanghai, the rate of success is very low (Bolsover, 2011; Warner, 2010) due to various variables. Many singles today do not approve of BaiFaXiangQin and prefer to engage in voluntary dating relationships, viewing them as acceptable options in finding a marital partner. Since the new Marriage Law was passed in 1950, the custom of arranged marriages is slowly giving way to common dating behaviours (Xu, 1994). Many women in cities now want more independence and personal freedom (Fincher, 2014; Lee & Subramanian, 2011), and BaiFaXiangQin goes against those principles. Despite this trend, according to Fincher (2014), the message of "leftover women" driven by China's state media (Fong & Fincher, 2014) has been so effective that it has led to a domino effect of negative consequences, one of the key reasons that has driven Marriage Markets today despite its low success rate. As long as the patriarchal culture in China persists (To, 2013; Fincher, 2014), Marriage Markets and BaiFaXiangQin will remain a permanent fixture in mainland China.

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