In China as a whole, demographics mean that women tend to be in a strong position in the marriage stakes, as a preference for male children means there may be as many as 100 million men in China who will not be able to find wives. This is predominantly a rural phenomenon (in cities, where women are not needed for physical labor and society is changing fast, the girl/boy birth rate has essentially equalised), but spills over into the cities with migration.
The women of Beijing come from all over the country, drawn for professional opportunity and a more exciting life, and the city is full of sophisticated, successful women with high standards. Men are usually expected to buy an apartment before marriage – this tends to be a cost for the man’s family as a whole to bear, another reason male births are no longer seen as the be all and end all.
Dating is traditional in the Western sense – the man is supposed to pay, bring a small gift, and perhaps take the woman home before heading home himself. He’d better buy flowers and spring for a classy dinner on Valentine’s Day (as well as on the traditional Chinese equivalent, Qixi (in August; the date varies year-to-year based on the lunar calendar), but in Beijing the Western version is considered more important by most people). You could argue that women in Beijing want it both ways – to be considered equal in work and socially, and still get the benefit of traditional gender roles when it suits them. But remember that Beijing is full of Chinese men and women from elsewhere in China, and relying on stereotypes for your information is a dangerous game. There are all kinds of people here as in any other city in the world.
There is massive family and societal pressure to marry and have children, and for the modern Beijing inhabitant living otherwise a more relaxed and socially free life than in years past, this can mean huge family strife. Contrary to what you may have heard, Chinese people do go on dates, and asking a woman out is not an implicit intention to marry. However, it’s true that a relationship that has moved steadily along for a few months carries an implicit goal of marriage along with it, and that even the most modern woman probably frowns on the idea of dating ‘just for fun’, even if she is liberal-minded in most ways.
It’s generally accepted that the man should be more accomplished or educated than his wife – have the better job, be more educated. This leads to two types of people having the most problems finding a partner: highly accomplished and educated women (well-paid professionals with graduate degrees), and men who are short of both money and education. The phrase sheng nu (left-over woman) is used for unmarried women over 30, an age at which parents despair.
Divorce also no longer carries the stigma it once did, and in urban China the rate is rising fast. The time when people who married young with the encouragement of their families felt they had no choice but to suffer through a disappointing marriage is drawing to a close. It’s still not that common to meet young children whose parents are living apart, but plenty of parents seem to divorce when their children are old enough to take care of themselves. This is particularly the case when both partners are financially independent in their own right.
So what of dating foreigners? It both complicates and simplifies issues. Given that the vast majority of inter-cultural relationships here are between foreign men and Chinese women, the classic problem is of men here for the short-term with no intention of committing, and women who may not realise or believe this. Beijing has a big party scene and is perceived as a place where white men in particular punch above their weight – the man who considers himself of average looks and charm in his home country may find himself more in demand. And since sexual mores are quite liberal among under-40s here, with Western influence, financial independence and no religious hindrance, the cliché of the obnoxious Western playboy has some truth to it; as does the cliché of the family man who is tempted to stray from his partner after relocating to Beijing.
But while intentions may be harder to decipher and cultural confusion may cause hurtful misunderstanding, the foreign partner can also circumvent social expectations. He or she will not be expected to observe all the family niceties and can blunder along saying the wrong thing to a future parent-in-law without being held responsible. It’s an extension of the general laowai get-out clause.
Anecdotally, Western women also report difficulty finding partners here – Western men tend to date Chinese women, and Chinese men show little interest in them as well. It’s also worth remembering that most local women are not particularly interested in meeting Western men – however, English-speaking Chinese women who enjoy the company of foreigners and go to Western-style bars, restaurants and clubs are much more likely to have an open mind. In other words, in the normal run of things foreigners are more likely to encounter locals who might date them simply because of the places they frequent.
In general, a relationship between a Chinese person and a foreigner rests on the same principles of respect, care for another’s feelings and open discussion as any other kind of relationship. With cross-cultural dating, though, it may be important to clarify things from time to time – to make clear that you don’t find pouting very interesting, or that you have the right to know what the future holds. Linguistic difficulty can get in the way too.
Of course, there are plenty of sincere marriages between local women and foreign men (and the other way around). Foreign spouses have the same rights as Chinese do in terms of property ownership, divorce law and so on. Beijing is an international city, and in many areas this is no longer something to raise an eyebrow at. Given good intentions and a strong relationship, parental approval will generally be found in time. Note, however, that there is a big difference between perception of a white spouse versus a black, Asian or Middle Eastern spouse. The older generation can be racist, often perceiving whites as culturally superior to other non-Chinese races, and this can be an unpleasant extra layer of difficulty to work through.