a chinese bride receiving a bride gift of jewelry

‘Bride Prices’ Continue to Soar in the Chinese Countryside

Men in China’s rural countryside must shell out enormous sums of money to secure a wife — an antiquated practice called ‘bride price’

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1:21 PM HKT, Thu February 23, 2023 3 mins read

A man from Jiangxi province, going by the pseudonym Xia Jun, recently told China’s state-backed Xinhua News Agency that he would need at least 700,000 RMB (101,000 USD) to afford marriage.

In his calculations, he included a car, the down payment for a home, and cai li (彩礼), which directly translates to ‘colorful gift,’ referring to a mutually agreed-upon and usually one-time payment from the groom’s family to the bride or her parents before marriage.

This figure is out of reach for Xia, who earns 6,000 RMB (869 USD) a month. The cai li, also known as ‘bride gift’ or ‘bride price,’ commonly costs 200,000 to 300,000 RMB (29,900 to 43,500 USD), a figure that has steadily increased over the years.

Xinhua also reported that these high bride prices have caused a new phenomenon — families negotiating the bride price before a potential couple has even gone on a date.

Economic Daily, a Chinese state-run newspaper, has come out to condemn the antiquated custom, calling these exorbitant costs a “financial burden,” a “[pollutant] to the social atmosphere,” and a “restrictive factor for rural development.”

Many people, however, see bride prices as a necessary guarantee of future economic stability and compensation for their financial loss during pregnancy, as many women miss promotion opportunities or even lose jobs as gender discrimination persists in workplaces.

So how did this practice come about, and why are costs continuing to soar?

What is a Bride Price, Exactly?

Also known as a betrothal gift, this transaction has been an important marriage custom for almost 3,000 years. Traditionally, men pay this reverse dowry with money, jewelry, clothing, furniture, animals, or food.

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Li Yongping, a professor at Nankai University, told a Chinese media outlet that in North China, the bride price is typically transferred back to the newlyweds. In contrast, in the South, bride prices are ‘compensation’ for the bride’s parents, and the amount given is generally lower.

Li explained, “If the man’s economic conditions are poorer, [the bride’s family] will ask for more. The woman may feel that if she can’t get a large betrothal gift when getting married, she will have no guarantee for the future.”

Why the Rising Costs?

The gender imbalance in China’s countryside is among the most significant factors in the rising bride prices. According to official government data from 2021, there are nearly 108 men for every 100 women in rural areas.

This imbalance — primarily due to China’s now-defunct one-child policy — has led to increasing bride prices, beginning in the 1990s.

The hukou, China’s household registration system, is also an important factor. Urban hukous generally allow citizens access to more opportunities — particularly for people registered in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and the easiest route to a hukou change is marriage.

Social comparison, the practice of evaluating one’s own success in relation to others, as well as women’s growing autonomy, have also increased marriage costs.

Li said, “There is not necessarily a correlation between the promotion of women and high bride prices. [But,] for example, in northern rural areas, the bride price is ultimately given to the daughter. When a woman’s status improves, she will also fight for a high betrothal gift for herself.”

In 2017, the average bride price was as much as 16 times rural residents’ annual per capita income. So, for men like Xia, marriage is a near impossibility.

Are Limits on Bride Price Futile?

In 2021, marriage registrations — and the birth rate — hit a historic low in China. Some regional governments have tried to limit high bride prices in an effort to increase marriage rates.

Marriage is crucial to reversing or slowing China’s population decline, especially given the difficulties single mothers and illegitimate children face in the country. But interventions into high bride prices haven’t seemed to work thus far.

Towns like Dingxi in North China’s Gansu province and Guixi in Jiangxi province in the southern part of the country have created local councils whose role is to intervene in marriage negotiations; other places are using grassroots movements to encourage doing away with the tradition.

Zhengning, a county in Gansu, set a limit of 80,000 RMB for bride prices last year. However, according to the South China Morning Post, the county government clarified in a website post that “it’s quite difficult for [bride prices] to be changed by any hard and fast rule.”

Because of the various forms in which bride gifts can be given, the price is hard to regulate — and may well continue to rise due to the rural gender imbalance. High bride prices are likely here to stay, at least until China’s greater demographic issues can be solved.

All images via Depositphotos

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