- A culture of dating came late to Chinese society. For much of its history, marriages were arranged to suit parental interest. Individual preferences were seldom considered. In this milieu, children learned through cautionary tales of the disasters that befall people who ignore their parents in favour of their own desires. The moral was clear: obey your parents and live a more proper and satisfying life. By the 1980s, however, the ideas of arranged marriage had, especially in China’s larger cities, gradually given way to individual choice. Urban parents continued to voice their preference, which children usually ignored. Without formal sanctions, parents could plead but could do little else. As one young woman noted: ‘They have only one child, they cannot reject you for ever’.In classic socialist China (1949–85) there was no true dating culture. Individuals seldom sought out the opposite sex for the exclusive purpose of fun and private enjoyment. In this era, it was deemed improper for unmarried individuals to be seen holding hands, much less kissing in public. Virginity was considered an ideal state for women and men. For most, pre-marital sexual play was considered obscene. Individuals, including those who were unofficially engaged, continued to adhere to the conventional ethos that required the denial of any involvement.In this milieu, two forms or styles of association or ‘dating’ emerged. The formal style was organized around the idea of propriety in which people met with the aid of a go-between (e.g. a friend, a teacher or a dating service) to discuss family background and common interests and observe personality styles. If they agreed to meet again, they were considered all but engaged. The other dating style was informal. It was characterized by secrecy, denial and pragmatic considerations. In general, informal dating was conducted by individuals who were constrained by other factors (e.g. a prior marriage, avoiding local gossip). Intensely romantic entanglements often characterized informal dating, whereas the more formal dating was usually devoid of romantic excitement or aspirations. However, even the formal arrangements were not completely devoid of romantic fantasy. Unlike the Western ideal of romantic love, where individuals fall in love prior to marriage, Chinese couples appear to fall in love in reverse: Romantic anticipation followed rather than preceded marriage. Romantic infatuation may arise in either form of courtship and is characterized by emotional intensity, by a kind of anxiety, and expressions of romantic endearment. In short, the idealization of the other. The two styles differ only in the domain of public expression but not necessarily in the intensity of involvement. In the countryside, the two forms of dating continue to this day.By the 1990s, informal dating, in China’s large and mid-size cities, had moved away from secrecy to a new ethos of openness. Today, the urban youth regard dating as an opportunity to play, to seek pleasure and to delay assuming the responsibilities of marriage. A fully developed dating culture has arrived. The shift in public acceptance has been rapid. In the recent past the relationship between men and women was characterized by the expression ‘the wall between us’; now it is distinguished by the expression the ‘wall around us’. Young people use the public arena as a site in which to flaunt their exclusiveness and mutual involvement. In effect, they are proclaiming they are a couple. In the 1990s, China’s single-child generation has completely embraced an orientation typically found in Western European countries: to associate with the opposite (or, in some cases, the same) sex for validation and erotic pleasure. In this milieu, virginity is no longer as important as it once was. Women talk about spontaneous affection, sexual enjoyment and the desire for erotic fulfilment. For example, young women often admit that they would not want a boyfriend to have a condom as it would suggest that he had anticipated and thus planned something that should be based in spontaneous expression. For most singletons, it is given that people should marry for love.The shift in dating styles has impacted the senior generation’s dating style as well. Although those in their forties and fifties often met their spouse through a go-between, now divorced they often pursue a dating style characteristic of the junior generation. Clearly, there has been an enormous shift in the value placed on romance and personal expression. Today, China is characterized by several paths to finding a mate: use of a go-between, an informal or secretive style, and, in the 1990s, a more demonstrative, highly public, playful style. The later style is embraced primarily, but not exclusively, by China’s singleton generation.Farrer, J. (2002). Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Jankowiak, W. (1993). Sex, Death and Hierarchy in a Chinese City. New York: Columbia University Press.WILLIAM JANKOWIAK
Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. Compiled by EdwART. 2011.