Love is in the park: parents' marital preferences in China

Wedding market in Shanghai, © Reinhold Möller / Wikimedia Commons

Wedding market in Shanghai, © Reinhold Möller / Wikimedia Commons

In China, parents continue to play a leading role in their children's choice of partners. Researchers Eva Raiber, Weiwei Ren, Jeanne Bovet, Paul Seabright and Charlotte Wang looked at their preferences and how they match up with their children's wishes.

By Eva Raiber

Eva Raiber

Auteur scientifique, Aix-Marseille Université, Faculté d'économie et de gestion, AMSE

Timothée Vinchon

Timothée Vinchon

Journaliste scientifique

Every Saturday in the Green Lake Park in Kunming, China, a "marriage market" takes place. Parents meet here to talk and look for a partner for their unmarried children. Sheets of paper on the walls of the park show their age, employment status and property they own. It’s also possible to consult the information of other participants or contact the marriage agencies on site. If this kind of practice is multiplying in the cities of the world's most populous country, with 1.4 billion inhabitants, it's because China is facing a social problem that was unheard of just a few years ago: the increase in celibacy and the decline in the age of marriage.

The formation of couples is one of the subjects explored by the economists[1], particularly through the study of dating sites1 . Researchers Eva Raiber, Weiwei Ren, Jeanne Bovet, Paul Seabright and Charlotte Wang highlight the importance of parental preferences in the process of selecting a spouse, while almost a third of couples married between 1980 and 2014 in China were introduced to each other by parents or relatives.  They asked parents in a public park in Kunming (Yunnan Province) about their preferences for characteristics such as age, education level, income, ethnicity and real estate ownership that they look for in potential partners by showing hypothetical profiles. They then compared these preferences with actual marriage outcomes in the general population and with the preferences of a group of students collected in the same way.

  • 1Belot M., Francesconi, M., 2006, « Can Anyone Be “The” One? Evidence on Mate Selection from Speed Dating ». IZA Discussion Paper Series No. 2377; Hitsch, G., Hortaçsu, A., Ariely, D., 2010, « What Makes You Click? Mate Preferences in Online Dating ». Quantitative Marketing and Economics, 8, 393 427.

Social norms and the State carry a lot of weight

Marriage is traditionally considered extremely important in Chinese society2  and is still seen by parents as an essential step in adult life. Derived from the precepts of Confucianism, it is largely conceived as an agreement between families rather than between individuals3 . Until the mid-twentieth century, arranged marriages were commonplace. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, it declared the equality of the sexes and the need for marriage to be based on the mutual consent of both spouses. It was no longer the family but the party that laid down the rules for marriage. Until 2003, for example, couples wishing to marry had to obtain permission from their workplace. In the 1980s, the CCP wanted to reduce the country's birth rate. The one-child policy, implemented in the 1980,  enshrined in law in 2001 and rigorously applied for over 30 years, limited most urban couples to one child (often two in rural areas if the first child is a girl).. As many couples prefer to have a son, this policy contributed to a significant imbalance between men and women. With almost 105 men for every 100 women in 2010, China has, after India, the highest sex ratio  in the world3 .

Today in China, 240 million people live alone, or one person in six, according to the latest census in 2018. In 2022, the mariage rate reached its lowest level since 1986, with just 6.8 million ceremonies, according to official figures, 800,000 fewer than in 2021. In addition to the shortage of women, part of the new generation, contrary to their elders, no longer sees marriage as the ultimate family, social and economic achievement. Yet, single people, both men and women, are sometimes stigmatised. In 2007, the Chinese government officially introduced the term Sheng-nu into its lexicon. (剩女; shèngnǚ, lit. « left-over women » ) a popular derogatory term for single women over the age of 27.

  • 2Piquet H., 2018, « Le mariage en Chine depuis 1978 : Entre les normes sociales et l’État ». Les Cahiers de droit, 59(4), 997 1031.
  • 3 a b Jianfy Chen, 2015, Chinese Law : Context and Transformation: Revised and Expanded Edition. Brill Nijhoff Publishers, 2015.
couple from behind in the middle of a wedding

Picture by Jenny on Adobe Stock

Similar criteria for children

Despite the CCP efforts, parents continue to play a significant role in their children's marriages. While they do not all go out to the parks to meet their offspring’s significant other, it is not unusual for them to be involved in the search, often with the approval of their children. According to the study, parents prefer their child's potential spouse to have a similar or higher level of education than their child. This is particularly true for the parents of women. Income and property ownership are important criteria for parents looking for a spouse for their daughter, but not for those looking for a spouse for their son. Age preferences vary according to the child's gender. If they have a daughter, parents prefer profiles with a small age gap. On the other hand, parents looking for a partner for their son generally prefer younger women.

The researchers also used a simulation approach compared the parents' preferences with the actual marriages observed in the general population. They used an algorithm to simulate marriages based on the preferences of parents and the characteristics of individuals who had recently married in the China Family Panel Study (CFPS).   They find that parental preferences show strong similarities with the trends observed in the general population. Educational homogamy, i.e. the desire to marry someone with the same level of education, is found in the general population. There is, however, a difference when it comes to age. Parents show a preference for younger partners for their sons, which is not the case in the general population, where most couples have partners of the same age.

Ceramics on the theme of natality

Picture by Cipro2 by Wikimedia Commons

Parents to the rescue of the birth rate

The laws and standards governing the birth rate have profoundly changed marriage, a pillar of Chinese society, and put parents back at the heart of the equation. The authorities are also getting to grips with the subject. Under Xi Jinping, the government, which is primarily concerned with curbing the ageing of the population, has put forward a more conservative social programme that encourages women to marry earlier and raise more children. In 2016, China abandoned its decades-old one-child policy and now encourages women to have up to three babies. Some local governments have introduced pro-birth measures, such as free IVF and subsidies for second and third children. Marriages are seen as a crucial piece to the demographic problem. As the study shows, understanding marriage in China cannot be done without the parents.


Raiber E., Ren W., Bovet,J., Seabright, P., Wang C., 2023, « What Do Parents Want? Parental Spousal Preferences in China ». Economic Development and Cultural Change, 71(3), 903 939.