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Dating in China: What’s Different?

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450px-Chinese_New_Year_Seattle_2009_-_couple_in_traditional_dress.jpg Joe Mabel

As you might imagine for a nation with a few thousand years of relatively continuous tradition, dating is a little bit different in China than it is in most Western countries. The basics are the same, of course -- people are people everywhere -- but there are still quite a few things that are different about Chinese dating in general. For example:

When it starts: Because of China’s rigorous college entrance examination, dating is rarely tolerated among high school students. They simply have too much work to do. That doesn’t mean that Chinese teens don’t have high school crushes or even relationships (mostly secret ones), but in general, Chinese students leave high school with a lot less romantic experience than their American counterparts. For a lot of Chinese people, serious dating starts after they’ve finished school.

Pragmatic purposes: More so than Westerners, many Chinese view dating as a pragmatic affair. It’s not always about finding love so much as it is about finding a potential marriage partner who fits with one’s own ideals. For example, although many men get married without any of these things, Chinese women will often say that they’re looking for a man who owns a house and a car, because that’s the sort of person who probably has a stable career and will be able to provide for her and for their future children in the long-term. It’s not always about love. As one contestant on China’s most popular dating show put it, ‘I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.’

Parental involvement: Every parent is different, of course, but in general Chinese parents expect to be more involved in their children’s relationships than you might expect -- and than their kids might want! It’s not uncommon for parents and grandparents to set their children up on blind dates with suitable matches they’ve found. And if their child’s significant other doesn’t meet with the parents’ approval, continuing the relationship may be very difficult. (That’s why if you’re dating someone Chinese, it’s very important you make a good first impression with the parents!)

Sex: In general, sex before marriage in China is less common and considered more serious than it is in many Western cultures. Attitudes toward sex are changing, especially in the more cosmopolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but in general many Chinese women see sex as a sign that a relationship is headed towards marriage, and many Chinese men say they would prefer to marry a woman who hasn’t had premarital sex.

Marriage: The ultimate goal of most relationships in China is marriage, and Chinese young adults are often under a lot of pressure from the elders in their family to find a good husband or wife and get married relatively early. This pressure is particularly acute for women, who can be called “left-over women” if they pass the age of 26 or 27 without finding a husband, but men can find themselves similarly left-over if they wait too long to get married. This is a big part of why dating is often taken so seriously; Chinese young people often feel like they don’t have the time to “play the field” that their Western counterparts are afforded by society.

Expectations: The actual experience of dating in China can also be somewhat different. For example, you’ll often see Chinese couples wearing matching outfits, which is almost unheard of in the West. Many Chinese couples do not share the Western expectation that two people dating will maintain their own separate social lives and friend circles. Chinese couples also sometimes refer to each other as “husband” (老公) and “wife” (老婆) even when they’re not actually married -- another indicator of the serious implications dating has for many Chinese.

Of course, these are all just generalizations, and they don’t apply to all Chinese people. More than tradition, society, or culture, dating in China is government by what the specific individuals in the relationship think and feel, and it’s not too hard to find Chinese couples that don’t fit all or even any of the general observations above.

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