In China, 7 Brides for 14 Brothers


Liu Haisheng went looking for a few good women last month. Not for himself, but for his 35-year-old uncle, who complained about not being able to find a mate.

After scouting around, Liu finally succeeded in narrowing the field to one. But he didn’t “find” his uncle a wife; he bought him one.

For about $600, Liu bought 23-year-old Yan Dongju from a fixer who had lured the young peasant woman to this hard-bitten city under false pretenses. Only quick action by police rescued Yan from being thrust into Liu’s family against her will and forced to submit to a “husband” she had never met and to bear him children.


“He told me he could get me a job,” Yan said of the man who tricked her into leaving her village in faraway Yunnan province and accompanying him to Taiyuan. “I never thought he would sell me.”

Yan escaped unharmed, but thousands of other kidnap victims are not so lucky. They are prey to a brisk traffic in women that plagues China.

A simple but stark reality underlies the phenomenon: This country suffers from a huge lack of marriageable women, forcing millions of men to hunt for brides out of a shrinking pool of possibilities.

And the dearth is set to become more severe, as the first wave of people born under China’s “one-child policy”--which has produced a disproportionate number of sons--hits the marriage market. In the near future, experts warn, countless young men may have little or no chance of landing a wife and starting a family of their own.

That would constitute a major social calamity here in a culture where getting married and having children is still considered a must--an act of filial duty.

And if modern Chinese history serves as a guide, the increasing lack of women could become a potential source of trouble for the government, although the prospect appears unlikely at the moment.


“You’ve had a chronic shortage of women throughout Chinese history, and it’s going to get worse,” said Judith Banister, a social science professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “And you don’t really have a solution.”

Demographic studies reveal an already severe gender imbalance in the world’s most populous nation. Other Asian countries, such as South Korea, also suffer from skewed gender ratios, but China’s sheer size amplifies the problem to a high pitch.

A mini-census conducted in 1995 showed that never-married men 20 to 44 years old outnumbered their female counterparts by nearly 2 to 1. (Between the ages of 25 and 39, the ratio was 4 to 1.) In raw figures, that translates into a surplus of 26 million single men age 20 to 44 in China--enough to displace the population of Texas and Arizona.

The outlook is even bleaker for the years ahead. Because of the steep drop in the proportion of daughters after China’s one-child policy took effect in 1979--through selective abortion, fatal neglect or outright killing of baby girls--increasingly lopsided numbers of young men are expected to compete for wives over the next few decades.

By 2020, Science magazine predicts, 1 million “excess” Chinese males will enter the matrimony market each year.

“If this imbalance is not corrected, the family and social problems created will be unimaginable,” declared Theory and Practice, one of the few Chinese publications to address what is still a sensitive issue in this nation. The magazine warned of an “army of bachelors” whose frustration could create “social perils and all sorts of factors of instability.”


The stubborn lack of women in this country traces its origins to the powerful preference for boys in Chinese culture, a bias stretching back centuries.

Sons were greeted as joyous and economically beneficial additions to a household, whereas daughters were seen as financial drains, since they wound up belonging to someone else’s clan after marriage. Infanticide and ill treatment of baby girls were all too common in imperial China, resulting in a constant overabundance of men.

Such sexist attitudes came under fire in the 20th century, particularly by a man known more in the West for being a champion of radical economic ideals than of women’s rights: Mao Tse-tung.

“Mao, for all his failings, did say that ‘women hold up half the sky,’ . . . and it did have an impact,” Banister said. “The attack on the patriarchal family was very strong and very effective. We Westerners tend to pooh-pooh this as window-dressing, but it wasn’t. It took a rather strong cultural campaign to try to change something so deep.”

Through education and propaganda, the skewed sex ratios improved after the Communist takeover of 1949 and through the 1970s.

But when the government imposed its one-child limit to rein in China’s spiraling population, the old ways came roaring back, aided by modern technology in the form of ultrasound machines, which allow expectant parents to learn the gender of the fetus and abort it if it turns out to be the “wrong” sex--female.


In the 1995 mini-census, China recorded 118 boys under the age of 5 for every 100 girls, far out of natural proportion.

The Communist regime has tried to eliminate sex-selective practices but has met with uneven results.

Here in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, officials are promoting “a new style of marriage and family planning” with an emphasis on equality in marriage and in rearing children of either sex.

Feng Yinghong, a watermelon farmer, is not impressed.

“If you have a boy, then yours is a good household,” said Feng, 38, who has two teenage sons and a preteen daughter. (He was fined under the one-child policy for having extra children.) “Without a son, who will inherit my property? Without a son, who will carry on my name?”

Like most Chinese fathers, Feng expects his sons to marry and sire children, preferably by their early 20s, even though he acknowledges that there will be fewer women available when they grow up.

It is in such rural areas that the shortage of marriageable women is most acute--and where the kidnapping and selling of women is most severe.


The problem is compounded by poverty, as poor men who are already at a disadvantage in making a good match discover that buying a wife for $1,000 or less is far cheaper than wooing one and paying for a big wedding and gifts for the bride’s family, which together can cost three to five times as much.

Shanxi “is a disaster area” for such activity, said Fan Peishi, a railway police officer in Taiyuan.

In the early mornings, Fan prowls the city’s train station on the lookout for simple village girls who he suspects might have been brought here either forcibly or under false pretenses.

The women are bound for households not just in Shanxi, but also in provinces such as Hebei, Guizhou and Guangdong, wherever kidnapping gangs find demand. Their clients often see nothing wrong with the transactions.

“I didn’t realize that what I did broke the law,” said Liu, the man who tried to buy his uncle a wife. “I’m a farmer--I don’t know the law.”

Over a five-year period, Fan and his colleagues saved 253 women from being sold into marriage against their will. In one instance, he traveled to a village to rescue a kidnap victim, only to be beaten by residents intent on protecting what they saw as the rightful property of one of their own.


“The villagers say: ‘To hell with the law. Shelling out money to buy a wife is just the way it goes. If a woman wants to leave, then tell her to pay her way out,’ ” Fan said.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, after the Cultural Revolution, the men who bought wives were generally in their 30s, sometimes disabled or unskilled,” Fan added. “Now the men who buy wives are younger than before, as young as 20 to 23.”

In 1999, according to government statistics, 6,800 women were reported abducted or missing and not recovered--a figure experts say is almost certainly too low. An additional 7,660 women were rescued. In the past, the shortage of women led not just to social instability but also political agitation, a fact the Communist Party is all too aware of.

In the late 1920s and early ‘30s, part of the appeal for poor young men to join Mao’s revolutionary band in Jiangxi province was his promise to help them find brides, which they could not afford under China’s old system of arranged marriages.

“If you have an area where men are up in the hills, on the periphery, growing old without women, these people have always become . . . the raw material of rebellion in China,” said William Lavely, a visiting sociology professor at UCLA.

But Lavely does not foresee the current gender imbalance causing “things to come apart.”

“China is a huge place that has a remarkable adaptability to things like this,” he said.

Alleviating the problem, however, will require some creativity.

Historically, said Li Nan, a Canada-based demographer, societies have found ways to remove surplus men from the marriage market--for example, by turning some into monks, as has happened before in places such as Tibet.


China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, helps pluck males out of the marriage derby, at least temporarily, by forbidding young recruits to have girlfriends or wives during their first few years of service.

Another option is to raise the legal marriage age for men, currently 22, while lowering it for women, now 20, which would instantly boost the supply of available women. Also, China’s rising divorce rate means that more women are returning to the marriage market and expanding the pool, Li said.

These measures would probably still leave a contingent of bachelors whose odds of ever landing a mate would be grim.

“Where are you going to get extra females? Import women from other countries?” Banister said. “Only the most radical things could solve it, and nobody’s suggesting those radical things, like women getting two husbands each. Nobody’s suggesting things that are so culturally alien.”

But staying single all your life remains culturally alien here as well--leaving the country in a bind as it tries to satisfy the future matrimonial demands of China’s men and boys.