Chapter Five

Comrades in Love

Chinese, both men and women, go into marriage with more modest expectations in some respects than Westerners. The idea of marriage in China is far from the Western notion of marriage based on mere individual feelings of attraction. The role of an intermediary, for instance, is so much a part of any marriage contract that, in cases where the match happens to be fully spontaneous, an honorary `match-maker' will usually be called in for ceremonial purposes, to restore the proper symmetry. Simply falling in love, while it does happen, is not the way most Chinese, even today, expect to get married. The right duixiang (matching pair) should be found first by cool assessment of suitability, in which family and other opinions should be sought, after which love will follow naturally upon the commitment.

There are some proponents of Free Love, but in a society where accommodation is so dense, and privacy practically unobtainable for the majority, it makes undeniable sense to most young people to be sure in advance that their mate will be compatible with the family and with the work unit. If things don't work out in either of these respects, it can't simply be solved by moving to the other side of town or changing your job... you and your partner are locked in, right where you happen to be, in most cases for life.

Courtship is expected to be a serious business from the start. The casual, experimental relationships conducted by most Western teenagers are looked on as highly improper in China, where the very first invitation to a girl is taken as a definite overture to a potential marriage. Casual dating is growing among the faster-living types, such as the stage performers, musicians, and artists, but the social penalties for a reputation as `free', especially for a girl, are heavy.

Early on in my time in Beijing, I asked a local man what would happen if a young man asked a casual acquaintance to go to the movies with him. He looked shocked, then said the question would never arise. I soon learned that not everyone was as conservative as he, but the norms are, none the less, very strict.

As with many aspects of life in China, there are big differences here between life in the cities and life in the villages, where conservative values are stronger, but at the same time life is more spacious and temporary privacy is possible for the determined young peasant. City slickers tend to wink knowingly when asked about sex-life in the villages.

An absurd notion became current in the outside world during the Cultural Revolution, and persists in many places outside China today, that the Chinese people were somehow less interested in the opposite sex than other peoples. Learned explanations referred to dietary deficiencies, the discouraging effects of unisex clothing and female emancipation, or the sublimation of erotic drives into ideological passion. Of course all these factors were present, but the personal stories now being told of life during those years suggest that sexual passion, frustration, and joy were as important to every Chinese then as they ever had been. Perhaps more so, there being so few joys of any kind to be had in that period. Under the puritanical phase of Maoism, love was branded a bourgeois emotion - but there was an upswing, not a decline, in the national birth-rate.

Many foreigners even now are struck by the lack of sexual demonstrativeness among Chinese. Its not unusual to hear a foreigner in China describe Chinese men, in particular, as `sexless', or `like a piece of wood'. The frank Chinese reply to this, as offered by a local friend not long after I arrived, draws for its analogy on that number one symbol of modern living in China... the omnipresent vacuum flask: `Like the vacuum flask, Chinese men seem cool on the outside, but they're hot on the inside.'

Instances of that heat being revealed in public are still relatively rare, but the ethos has changed markedly in the few years since the fall of the Gang of Four. Under Maoist extremism, young men and women were exhorted to ignore `bourgeois affection or love', concentrating all their energies and attention on Revolution and production for as long as possible. It was even the fashion in some units for the Party committee to assign suitable couples to each other as `comrades in arms', short- circuiting premarital romance altogether. This practice still continues in individual cases and in some fields, such as the scientific professions and the military, with a degree of compliance astonishing to a child of Western liberal values. These days, though, such pairings are made more by suggestion than by coercion.

In the April dusk, Xiao Hong and Xiao Wei move cardboard cut-out figures around, trying to get them to stand up straight in the gusts of dusty wind that blow into the courtyard. The buildings are an institutional variant on the typical Beijing housing courtyard. But here, the side wings are of grey-fired brick with steel-framed windows, rather than the plastered rubble or redbrick of the older single- storied courtyards. The main building at the head of the courtyard is older, with extended red-painted eaves and a central double door between symmetrically placed wooden windows, suggesting it may once have been a small temple, designed for dignity. This faces the open end of the courtyard, where a tall wrought-iron double gate, emblazoned with big rusty red tin stars, leans half open. Outside this gate the usual small crowd of children, youths, and two or three old men are assembled to kan renao, `watch the stir', an apparently inalienable Chinese citizens' right. Gruff injunctions to disperse, from the white- jacketed policeman sallying forth from his nearby booth, affect them no more than those gritty puffs of wind that bring a momentary squint.

This is the Workers Club in Beijing's Chong Wen (Upholding Culture) district, named for the Chong Wen Gate in the old city wall, now demolished, in whose shadow the suburb used to lie. The animal cut-outs are games to help the guests, soon to arrive, to relax. All the guests have registered their urgent desire for marriage partners, and each will be hoping to find one at the party that evening.

In a room of the side wing, Meng Kunlung sits across the bare wooden table nursing his tea-mug. The Chong Wen marriage introduction service has been set up by co- operation of the district government, the local branches of the Communist Youth League and the Women's Federation, and a local knitting factory with a predominantly female workforce. It is one of four in Beijing Municipality, whose total enrolments are already in the many thousands, after only six months of operation.

`Young people who come here feel there is a lack of social opportunities to meet suitable partners', he says. `When we register them here, we can try to find a suitable match from our files and arrange a meeting, but sometimes, especially before a public holiday, we set up something like this where people can meet and arrange to see each other again during the holiday if they want to'.

Through his office's direct introduction, five hundred meetings have been arranged by this time, one hundred couples are still seeing each other, and three have already married. But for most candidates, the problems remain great.

Outside, it is past seven, darkness has come down on those parts of the courtyard not reached by the two naked electric light-bulbs hanging from a pole in the centre, and the guests are arriving. On some, especially the girls, the sheen of self-consciousness is almost palpable. They cluster defensively in dimmer corners of the courtyard. Music issues with a clang from the metallic loudspeaker horn, installed years ago to relay militant political harangues. Now it disgorges light music: selections from a braying local tenor and from the softer sounds of Teresa Teng, chief crooner of the much admired Hong Kong style of sentimental love songs, richly overlaid with swirling electronic organ and artificial echo effects.

The music bounces around the bare courtyard pavement, but nobody dances. Last year the six Beijing marriage bureaux organised a collective dance, but some of the male candidates became over-excited and turned over the supper tables. No more dances have been arranged.

There is no refreshment. Only shift-workers have not eaten by seven in Beijing. A group of young men playing noisily with the cardboard cut-outs are discovered to be interlopers and asked to leave. Children still hang around the open gateway, watching for some action in this strange adult game. Meng the organiser is himself only thirty, and has been put in charge of administering the marriage bureau only a few weeks after his own wedding.

`Of course, we do have older people to help with making the matches,' he tells me. `Mostly, the people who come to us are between twenty-five and thirty-five, but we do have quite a few women over fifty, and one man of seventy looking for a wife. I don't think he's coming tonight'.

`Just look at them,' says Lu Cai, her voice acid. `There's not one you could consider seriously'. She is a tall woman of thirty with perfunctorily curled hair, conservative drab trousers and a light grey jacket, neat and shapeless. Her face is intelligent but plain, half hidden by spectacles. It is not enhanced by the present expression of grim mortification. She stands close to the gate, along with a timid looking girl who does not leave her side all night and says nothing.

`There's no hope for people like me. We spent all of our youth serving the country as we were taught to, not thinking of our own future, and by the time we did get to thinking about marriage, nobody wanted us. Now everybody's on at family, my work unit.. to get married. They're making me believe there's something wrong with me. And I end up in a place like this!'

She casts a withering glance at a pathetic little man in his late twenties who has lacquered his hair up into preposterous spikes in a vain effort to look taller than his very meagre height.

`I'm quite happy to marry an ordinary worker. I'm not fussy. But he's got to have at least something going for him'.

She turns her back on a shy man who has been shuffling his feet nearby for several minutes, trying to get up courage for an approach.

Meng admit that educated women over thirty are the hardest cases.

`Men and women are pretty well in proportion over the whole age range, but generally the men want a wife a few years younger, and they often prefer a woman of slightly lower educational or work status. So there are always some women left over at the top of the range'.

In fact the party guests show a heavy majority of men, though a number of them, like Spiky-hair, were clearly going to have problems in any open competition for a mate. The organisers acknowledge that the less socially-confident girls simply stay at home, more sensitive to the potential humiliation of this marriage bazaar. Formal introductions are one thing, but introducing oneself is still thought scandalous for a girl in most average, conservative families.

Looking around the courtyard, I see a few groups where one or two of the youngest and prettiest girls are under siege from mobs of eight or ten young men at a time. All the men press tightly around the one who had successfully opened a conversation, showing a complete absence of sensitivity about personal space. Others' chins hang, literally, on a young man's two shoulders, as he attempts to initiate a courtship. After a few minutes the petrified girls inevitably break away from the mob, retreating to other girl-friends for moral support.

`I want to find a girl from an educated family', announces a young man with steel-rimmed spectacles and a nervy smile. Like so many, he is about thirty. He wears standard `labour' blue workclothes, the jacket swinging open over a rumpled white shirt.

A woman about the same age cocks her ears and asks him what his own education has been. The grin tightens over his gums and he speaks out his life's central bitterness.

`I have no education. My parents were intellectuals, and for that reason I was denied education by the state. I have read by myself. That's why I said I want someone from an educated family, not necessarily an educated person'.

The young woman turns on her heel. They could not be less compatible. She is a teacher of ideology in a Communist Party Training School, who could not possibly marry anyone but a committed Communist, probably a Party member. She admits frankly that, at over thirty, she has little hope of finding someone who will not be intimidated by her education and Party status.

By eight-thirty, the cut-outs and the other party games are completely ignored. Many of the no-hopers have already drifted off. None of the atmosphere a Westerner might regard as conducive to fruitful courtship can be found in that bare brick courtyard, still invaded by dusty gusts.

But couples have formed. The stakes are clear: everyone wants to get married. Here and there are urgent conversations, addresses being exchanged.. even some couples leaving together. By nine, even the ideology teacher has been buttonholed by an earnest-looking man of forty in a Mao-suit, and seems not wholly uninterested in him.

Lao Li from the District Government Liaison Office is well- dressed and expansive. He evidently enjoys his role as a `fixer', an organiser of deals between departments, with its occasional personal windfalls. He offers a premium brand of imported cigarettes.

`It's the old rule here. In partners, the girls look for career, the boys go for looks and a sweet nature. I've got two boys of my own, doing pretty well. College graduates. You wouldn't find them in a place like this.'

His expression shows clearly that to need to have recourse to one of the newly-organised marriage bureaux is seen as evidence of social failure, regardless of the factors which have gone into putting the lonely individual on the shelf, or in fear of ending on the shelf.

Marriage bureaux like the one in Chong Wen District mushroomed suddenly in 1980, as a collection of different factors precipitated a virtual marriage stampede in the bigger Chinese cities. The basic factor was the ripening, to marriageable age, of China's Mao-fostered baby boom of the late fifties and early sixties.. a ten year long official encouragement for all loyal Chinese to multiply to their hearts content. Mao believed that human beings under the guidance of Mao Zedong Thought could be nothing but an asset to the earth, and the more the merrier. Like others of his visions, that one has been discredited by those who have had to deal with the actual results, but meanwhile the demographic bulge produced by those ten years of abandon will be felt through at least two generations. Chinese newspapers note grimly that if present policies of restraint on population growth had been introduced twenty years earlier, China might today have an almost manageable population of 700 million, rather than the one billion it must now feed, clothe and shelter, before thinking of other things on which to spend national resources.

A second factor was the mass return to their home cities of millions of youth who had been sent down to the villages to `learn from the peasants'. The Maoist policy had intended that the majority of these rusticated youth would settle permanently in the villages and county towns where they were sent, absorbing the innately superior ideological values of their peasant hosts, while contributing the benefits of their secondary education to raise cultural and scientific levels in the villages. For many of those sent down from relatively fast-moving cities the boredom was intense, and marriage, either to local peasant offspring or to a fellow exile, was a strong temptation. Marriage to a local peasant also had a powerful political attraction in those days: it could convert a person, labelled as a member of one of the Enemy classes, into a member of the `politically advanced' worker-peasant-soldier superclass.

This could have many advantages, not the least being some relief from the endless `re-education' administered by political activists to whomever they could identify as having bad class backgrounds. The catch was that marriage constituted a commitment to permanent settlement in the countryside, and finished all hope of gaining the coveted transfer papers back to the home city. A country furlough could become a life sentence, when one's papers described one as Commune Member, and one's home-town registration was lost for ever.

There were many, in this political climate, who avoided marriage for years, hoping against the day that good luck, a good political record, and good connections in the bureaucracy might drop a return ticket in their lap.

Xiao Tan and Xiao Lin were two such girls, who in the aftermath of the great Red Guard debacle in 1968 had been sent with the rest of their classmates from Beijing to join a railway construction corps in Inner Mongolia. They were neither of them particularly deep thinkers, their family backgrounds were simple and politically safe, and both would be judged plain by Chinese standards of female beauty. They had participated cautiously in the rallies, struggle meetings, and endless debates of the Cultural Revolution, avoiding the excesses that brought disgrace to other Red Guard activists, and generally following the majority in a sincere attempt to make contributions to China's progress. Both had initially welcomed the compulsory move to the remote countryside, enjoying the new experiences, the fresh air, the camaraderie of the construction camp, and seeing their feeble labour contributing, however minutely, to the national construction in which they strongly believed.

Winter followed that first summer. The novelty was forgotten, political slogans jaded, and camaraderie cracked as cliques and favouritism developed in the dispensation of such small privileges as were available in that remote district: allotment of lighter duties, leave passes, better accommodation, extra ration coupons. The two girls kept out of trouble. They took a moderately active part in local propaganda work (amateur political theatricals), and in the Communist Youth League when it was revived. They heeded the Party's call for politically advanced citizens to marry late. Ten years passed.

When the rustication policy began to crumble, in 1978, Tan and Lin were not in the first group to depart back to their home towns. People with better family connections were on the first trains back, jobs already arranged for them by obliging friends or relatives in positions of influence. Others who had married, of whom there were many, tried hard to find loopholes for them selves to return home. If couples were both originally from the same city, it might just be arranged if the right strings could be reached and pulled hard enough. If one partner in a marriage was a local, the best that could be hoped for would be a job in the city for the city-bred partner, and a life of separation as Cowherd and Spinning Maid.

In the end, Tan and Lin's patience and political caution paid off. They were transferred, together, to a unit where political credentials were carefully scrutinised - a unit dealing regularly with foreigners. But the game then changed. Staking their futures on a transfer back to the city, they had laid down the ten years during which most young Chinese meet and marry their partners. They were now back in the ring, but time was running out, and many of the eligible men were looking for one of the new generation of town girls, just growing up, who had not had to roughen their hands with labour, darken their skins with exposure, and suppress their feelings for ten hard years.

Of the two, Tan was the better looking. Slimmer, finer- featured, she looked trim and capable. An underlying diffidence showed through only when she spoke, in tenseness of the mouth and a habit of unnecessary shrill laughter. Lin was shorter, with a snub nose, spectacles, and a prominent, wide mouth which she often left open when regarding the foreigners she met in the course of her duties. She frequently claimed to be stupid, which was an exaggeration. But her comically naive countenance may have helped her in the smart capture of her man...a full-time organiser of the Communist Youth League. When I last saw them, Lin was married and showing off a fat new baby. Tan was two years older and still looking for a husband. She had not yet registered at a Marriage Bureau, but the bureaux lists are full of women in just her position.

The Philosophy Department at Beijing University undertook a survey of women between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-four registered at a Marriage Bureau near the campus. The survey found a consistent pattern of women whose late teens and early twenties had been spent in remote rural areas, but it also identified many who had been heavily influenced by the prevailing ideology of that period. A cult, promoted by and centred upon Jiang Qing, pushed for what is now regarded as an `excessive emancipation' of Chinese women, exhorting them to be `heroines who would supersede men, despise family life, and serve socialism while ignoring personal emotions'. Like Lu Cai at the Chong Wen Bureau, many came back to the cities with a low opinion of the men of their own age-group, who, in their turn, took the un-emancipated attitude of preferring less challenging female companions. In this land of female oil-riggers and locomotive drivers, there remains among men, on the personal level, strong adherence to the classical view that `without ability, women become virtuous'.

The third group of those suddenly swelling the marriageable ranks were those tens of thousands who were politically rehabilitated during 1978 and 1979. Official labels such as Rightist, Capitalist Roader, Revisionist, Anti-Party person and Bad Element had been applied to hundreds of thousands of ordinary law-abiding citizens during the campaigns of the Cultural Revolution. Sometimes the labels were accurate (at least in reflection of the political values then being applied), but very often they were applied out of spite, personal malice, or the simple need to fulfil local quotas of Class Enemies identified and neutralised. Chairman Mao had said that `ninety-five percent of the people are good, or capable of reform'. The corollary of this, seized upon by local activists, was that five percent, or one in twenty of the Chinese people, were bad and incapable of reform: the Class Enemies, lurking in the most innocent of guises. Stories abound of the selection of sacrificial lambs by groups of colleagues, to satisfy the hungry maw of Revolution.

As the mass revision of these cases proceeded, tens of thousands of political detainees were released from Labour Education and Labour Reform institutions, to try to pick up where life had been suspended years previously. Many times more this number, though, were released from the conditions of political labelling in which they had been suspended from many social and economic rights, without being actually imprisoned. Conditions such as `Under Investigation' or `Under the Supervision of the Masses' effectively made a person a social pariah, unable to get a job, and virtually unmarriageable.

In the country, children and grandchildren of long-buried former landlords were officially released from a similar pariah status which had barred them from full citizenship. Many of these political walking wounded, men and women, had been divorced by their spouses under political pressure during the campaigns, to avoid the shadow of political stigma falling on themselves and, most cruelly, their children. Official rehabilitation removed the formal obstacles to their seeking matrimony, but did not necessarily make them attractive as spouses.

With the great modern marriage wave rising, marriage became a hot topic in the press and political classes of 1979. Should marriage be completely free? What rights should families have in the decision? What should be the role of the work unit? What constitutes a legal marriage, and what recourse should there be for jilted lovers? Through it all ran one theme.. how much of China's traditional marriage customs should be branded `feudal' and cast aside.

Its safe to say that among all the Chinese I have known of all classes, from adolescents to grandparents, the essentiality of marriage as a basic element of any person's life has been questioned only by the wildest eccentrics. Amongst the great stewpot of social ideas plastered across the Democracy Wall in its heyday, I do remember one libertarian charter questioning monogamous marriage, on the grounds that such marriages created too great a pressure on each couple to produce many children, to secure their own future support. It suggested that abolition of marriage and substitution of free sex would go a long way to solving China's population problem. Comments pencilled on the margins of this particular poster were numerous, ranging from the scatological to the morally outraged, but none more positive than one neat note thanking the author for `stimulating theoretical discussion'.

But with the post-Gang moves towards emancipation of minds, Romantic Love, as a value, made a big comeback, sweeping a new generation of `vacuum flasks' off their shelves with a clatter and a cloud of steam. By late 1980, no movie, novel, or magazine seemed to be complete without a romantic love theme. On tens of thousands of cinema screens, impassioned pledges of devotion would be exchanged by couples of all ages, often leaping high barriers of class distinction or political history, with a joint commitment to advancing the Four Modernisations. Many such inspired celluloid couples would be seen running in slow motion towards each other, through woodlands, across golden sands or flowery meadows, finally to meet and grasp each other climactically... at arms length.

The first screen kisses, in 1981, (though coyly hidden by umbrellas, silk scarves, or tree trunks) provoked storms of correspondence in the press and anxious reconsideration in the halls of the Ministry of Culture. Eventually, the loudest voices cried for relief from this often gratuitous intrusion of romantic themes into otherwise orthodox films, and the wave of screen passion subsided. But millions of `vacuum flasks' had by then already had their stoppers popped, and were not about to be corked up again. Romance had been rehabilitated as a legitimate part of life, and had been seized upon with enthusiasm.

China does not lag behind other cultures in its own traditions of romance, and indeed lechery, though some contemporary propagandists would have us attribute all the renewed active interest in romance by Chinese youth to `the corrupting influence of foreign bourgeois culture seeping into China'. China's great heritage of lyrical love poetry, romantic novels, and frankly erotic literature, attest to as full an appreciation of sexual relations, in all their dimensions, as could be found in any other culture.

The great eighteenth century novel Hung Lo Meng (A Dream of Red Mansions ), and many others up to the present time, chronicle intense romantic love affairs, set against demanding family or social obligations, with the most common outcome of all such novels being final tragedy. Frequently, the tragedy is precipitated by a marriage arranged by the family without the consent of the son or daughter concerned.

In a social climate of bureaucratic feudalism, marriage became an instrument for securing stability and aggrandisement of property or influence, too important in family survival to be left to youth, whim, or the excitement of unpredictable hormones. In this system it was the women who came off worst, being traded off, bought and sold without any legal protection, and frequently to men forty years their senior or twenty years their junior, if it suited family transactions. This system applied across all class lines. Rich men had recourse to concubines or sing-song girls if unsatisfied with their arranged wives, while the poorest men could not afford a wife at all. A majority of the scholarly love poems of the past two thousand years were in fact addressed to such secondary love-objects, while the True Wife was expected merely to bear sons, manage the household, and behave decorously.

Just how a proper courtship should be conducted is still a live issue for the town-dwellers. The long process of experimental pairing that most Western youth experience, before ever seriously considering marriage, is still strongly discouraged in China. What society expects, and most people follow, is that young people will preoccupy themselves with study, work, and `healthy' group recreational activities until they reach at least twenty, when they may legitimately begin looking for a mate. Even at that point, there is no real intermediate status of `girlfriend' or `boyfriend' in which pairs of young people can court, experimentally, with any degree of freedom.

The parental ideal is that two young people are introduced by mutual friends or relatives, or meet in the course of 'healthy' organised youth activities. After formal `introductions', they may meet several times in the company of others, or may get straight down to business with an appointment for a chaste walk in a park, during which the first tentative assessments of compatibility can be made. Shilly-shallying is viewed sternly. If the first appointment leads to further walks in the park, the couple are very soon regarded as being in the state of tan lien ai (discussing love), which amounts to a serious intention to marry, and is quite difficult to withdraw from. Any girl, especially, who will tan lien ai with more than one partner in her life is thought `fast', regardless of her physical chastity, and will be viewed with suspicion by the mothers and fathers of any future prospective husbands.

This social and family pressure is very strong, and has been a source of anguish to a number of my own acquaintances. A typical case is that of a student who had earlier established a tan lien ai relationship in his own home town, approved by both families. Later, transferred alone to study in another city, he fell in love with a fellow student, but was afraid to break off with the original `intended' for fear of what people would say.

Many of the university students of 1977-82 were people who had spent long years rusticated in communes or other remote postings. Their adolescence took place under the shadow of extraordinary social stress, even violence, and their first loves seem often to have had the character of wartime romances. Individuals cut adrift from their normal sphere of life and family support developed close, dependent attachments to fellow- passengers on their flimsy, perilous craft. Away from the traditional family supervision, these relationships often progressed to a degree of intimacy not previously experienced. Its not difficult to understand how such people, returning to the relative affluence and sophistication of the major cities and universities, or to the suffocating ambit of their family's plans and ambitions, could find themselves drifting away again from these former soul-mates. Traditional and official China, however, do not look on it this way. Comments on such cases in the press invariably come down on the side of loyalty to the first love.

It is usually assumed that the reason for the switch in affections is a change in status - for instance, the student from a country town who finds a college girlfriend more appropriate a partner to his future status as an `intellectual', and throws over the simple down-home girl. The rejected one is described as having been `cheated', and with some reason, because her earlier declared loyalty to the fickle lover will certainly damage her chances for finding another husband. Not that it's by any means a one-way male chauvinist street. There are just as many cases where the girl does the throwing-over, as for instance one cry of 'foul' from a soldier, writing to the Youth Daily, who said he had scrimped his tiny wages and neglected supporting his own parents in order to help his girlfriend get to college, only to have her jilt him for a fellow student.

It's not unusual for young people caught between family and social pressures, on the one hand, and their own changing affections on the other, to suffer breakdowns, dropping out of college or work, and sometimes contracting double suicides. That's not to say that the tragedies of the love-lorn are restricted to students and intellectuals. The literary folk tradition of lovers driven to suicide by parental opposition is tragically re-enacted in the villages of China to today all too frequently, to judge solely from the reports of Party-controlled newspapers which are not inclined to exaggerate what the Party loftily calls `negative phenomena'.

I was travelling in the provinces with an official from Beijing when the conversation, after many hours on other topics, drifted towards sex. He was keen to understand contemporary Western attitudes to sex, and I attempted to explain simply the common view that sex and love could be separated. The conversation petered out, but after a few minutes gazing thoughtfully out the train window, he turned to me and said conspiratorially: `You know, before we get married, we Chinese make love, secretly.'

His blunt confession was surprising, and I suspect motivated by the desire to correct any impression that Chinese men might be lacking in manhood (which had not been my impression anyway). But the `secrecy' he acknowledged was not surprising. The intense social pressures on most young Chinese, living in crowded, tightly supervised neighbourhoods or industrial dormitories, ensure that what we would regard as normal privacy is enjoyable only by subterfuge. To preserve at least some freedom to withdraw from the early stages of a new courtship before it becomes a social fait accompli, most couples will elect to make their first rendezvous in some park or other public place far away from their own home and work neighbourhoods, hoping to avoid the local busybodies.

To the world-wide vocabulary of courtship body-languages, Chinese lovers add the unspoken Bicycle Code. Two bicycles leaning together before a bush warn that the spot is occupied. On early meetings, a couple, standing may lean towards each other with a bicycle frame firmly between them, while hands creep cautiously along the handlebars towards their first physical contacts. Later moves will be to stand together on the same side of the bicycle, and then abandon it (with its unspoken `I was just leaving'), for park bench or the bushes. As matters progress, couples can be seen cycling home side by side, the girl coasting in the saddle, propelled by her boyfriend's chivalrous hand in the small of her back, as he navigates his own machine one-handed. This is China's `lift home', in a society where only chauffeurs drive cars.

Love in China is not for adolescents. The romantic movie boom of 1980 sent its shockwaves down through the high-schools, and for a time bold school-age couples could be spied holding hands. The reaction from on high was outrage, and the national Youth Daily made clear in replies to readers' letters that love between school-pupils or trade apprentices (who can be up to twenty years old) is definitely banned. Advice is offered to young girls on how to repel inappropriate or precocious advances without either being too insulting, or making the boys even more excited. Some new books offering rudimentary sexual education (a number of them translations from Western books, with significant amendments by Chinese doctors) have been published, aiming to redress the legacy of almost universal ignorance on this delicate subject among the unmarried.

I was once at a zoo with an unmarried woman of thirty, a Party member with a good job, who had earned her proletarian credentials by working five years on a farm in Manchuria. We were looking at a pair of handsome Manchurian tigers (the world's largest and most magnificent species of tiger), and I made some chance remark about the male.

`How do you know its the male?', she asked me.

The beast in question was proportioned like a half-ton tomcat, and the relevant details loomed large enough on his furry hindquarters to seem more than obvious to me, but I pointed them out to her none the less. She seemed struck with wonder, and after a pause said thoughtfully:

`I see! Just like the pigs on the farm!'

I restrained myself from pursuing the analogy further, as she clearly was not capable of doing so herself. It happened that I met her again after a year, during which time she had herself got married, in the approved way, to a young cadre. She had changed visibly, which was not surprising, and I guessed she remembered our earlier conversation, as she blushed when I mentioned the tigers.

Standard educational procedure has been to present couples with a slim volume on `marital hygiene' as they register their marriage - a marxified variant of the `pillow-books' traditionally offered to Chinese brides by their mothers, but with the stress, today, firmly on avoidance of unplanned pregnancy. `Restraint' is highly recommended, and the perils to health and sanity of over-indulgence are luridly described.

There is also public debate as to whether or not it is necessary to report your love-affairs to the commissars of your work-unit. It's not a `legal' obligation, but the Youth Daily acknowledges that many work units demand such reporting `for your own good', and the Youth League recommends young lovers to comply. Doing so will enable the unit to investigate your lover's background for potential unsuitable factors, such as a family with a bad political record, previous liaisons (indicating an immoral character), congenital disease in the family, or unsuitable residence registration. In any case, no marriage can proceed without the signed agreement of the work units of both parties, so early compliance may be easier than risking last- minute disappointment. `Dubious' couples are often kept waiting for months, as papers shuffle up and down party hierarchies and in and out of five different `security' offices.

Housing is another crucial problem. Some units will not agree to a marriage until the couple can prove they have somewhere to live.. at least a single room to themselves. But other units will not allocate an apartment from their own blocks before the marriage has been registered. As a result, many urban marriages split into two episodes, registration and cohabitation, which can be months or even years apart. To overcome this bureaucratic contradiction some would-be bridegrooms obtain false marriage certificates, sometimes legally `marrying' a person they claim is `too busy' to come to the registration office, and then using the certificate so obtained to apply for housing from their unit. Once suitable married-quarters housing has been allocated, they throw over their original brides (who in some cases have not even been aware they had been `married' for two years) by a legal annulment, and are able to get a genuine marriage licence for their real fiancée. The physical form of marriage certificates was changed in mid-1982 to include photographs and embossed seals, in an effort to eliminate these marriages of convenience.

It's a curious phenomenon, that taken for granted in urban China today, that, in finding a duixiang, it is the female who takes the initiative. Popular literature and the movies, almost without exception, show the young woman coyly or brashly pursuing her chosen man, while he appears initially oblivious to her interest. His ultimate surrender is usually bashful and fumbling, while she radiates glee.

Small cameos from this general scene can be observed in quiet corners of Beijing's parks, mostly former Imperial gardens whose wooden benches and grassy banks afford the nearest thing to privacy that most couples can expect. The tableaux in which the more advanced couples arrange themselves across the benches generally suggest the triumph of female initiative over male reticence. In the popular fiction, the young man who actively pursues a girl is usually of questionable morals, if not fully a liumang (delinquent). On the other hand, it is accepted in families of all classes that the good daughter's priority in life, once she reaches twenty or so, is to `find' a husband, in a very active sense of the word. The methods and stratagems adopted by the daughters of China, of course, reflect all the diversity of class, culture, and personality to be expected in a nation of such size and complexity.

One of the more unusual practices, flowing from the difficulties many people have in finding a suitable spouse, is the large numbers of girls who volunteer, in groups, to marry young men in unpopular categories. Coal-miners, because of China's poor safety conditions for miners, are regarded as very short on tiaozhen... but every year there are well-publicised reports of groups of girls shipping out from an industrial city somewhere to `marry a miner' in a brief blaze of glory. In the Manchurian industrial city of Shenyang, 470 low-status street- sweepers achieved marriage in the year 1981, following `political education' in the ranks of the city's other workers who had snubbed them as inferior. Girls write in to newspapers offering to marry legless soldiers or other wounded heroes who would have little chance of marrying on the open market. These blind marriage offers illustrate the radically different attitude towards marriage among Chinese. Love happens, sometimes with overwhelming passion, but not necessarily before the commitment to a joint life in marriage. Chinese girls believe they can `love' whomever they commit themselves to, though love may not be the origin of that commitment. I heard one Chinese girl say at her wedding, of the man she had decided, cautiously, to marry:

`He has been a good and sincere friend who has taken good care of me. I believe he is a good man and ideal partner with whom to share the rest of my days. I pledge to be loyal, loving, considerate, and to work hard to make the marriage a long and happy one.'

She did not say she loved him already, and felt under no obligation to say so, as a Western bride would probably feel. In the more conservative rural villages, marriage must indeed be a carefully calculated transaction, with the bride evaluated as an economic acquisition by the groom's family. If the girl is a good worker with a proven ability to bring in plenty of collective work-points to her husband's family, or has special skills that will enable her to earn well in private sideline work, a substantial cash compensation may be expected by the family that have bred and raised her, only to lose her productive return.

The exaction of `bride price' is officially frowned on by Beijing, and is in fact illegal, but it makes such unarguable economic sense to peasants, who have to count every kilo of their annual grain ration, and who will have to depend on their children in old age, that rural authorities are extremely reluctant to clamp down. In fact, they predict that as the population control drive to limit the size of families to one child gains momentum, the `bride price' compensation will loom ever more important as there are more and more families for whom an only daughter is the sole prop for the future.

Well-founded worries about lack of a son pose a serious challenge to the One-child Family policy in the villages. The propaganda authorities therefore try hard to promote a break from the tradition that only a son can be relied on for old-age support. The result has been much positive publicity for young men who, upon their marriage, have undertaken to become part of their bride's family, instead of taking her away, as is traditional, to join their own. The Peoples Daily reported on a remote mountain commune in Shandong where a large number of families had produced only daughters. `Following long, patient educational work by commune leaders' some seventy bridegrooms had agreed to move in with their bride's parents and support them. The confidence this had induced had helped reduce the local birth rate by half, according to the official report. True or not, it illustrates the point.

It was evident in newspaper reports from all over the country, that the peasants were not heeding official directives on mercenary marriage. Frustrated young men like Chen Bosung wrote bitterly that they could not meet the financial demands of their prospective in-laws. Before consenting to the match, his girlfriend's family had demanded the following: ten yuan in `rearing costs' for each year of the girl's age, six large jars of expensive preserved wine to `show respect to the parents', eight sets of clothing for the girl, of which at least three must be expensive wool or rayon, a gold ring and a pair of gold ear- pendants, a house, furnished to parental specifications, all expenses of a large wedding feast for two hundred guests, and last but not least a large sum of money as a present to the girl's grandmother, whom he suspected of masterminding the whole deal.

Other impoverished swains told of even more devious impositions demanded by parents of desirable daughters: an `introduction fee', a supplementary fee for `good looks', a `milk fee' and a `labour pains compensation fee' for the girl's mother.

The Peoples Daily commented that this marriage market had been a heavy financial and emotional burden on the nation's bachelors, leading many in despair to marry someone they did not love, but could afford, resulting in unhappy marriages and social disruption. Some Chinese writers have acknowledged the problem, but defended the necessity, in delicately balanced rural family economies, for some fair compensation to be arrived at, though not necessarily as a lump sum `bride price' which can leave a young man and his family deep in debt for years. It has also been pointed out that while free choice of partners may be ideal, in many Chinese villages with static populations it is in the interests of genetic health that marriages be arranged over as long a distance as possible. Most villages in China, anyway, share only a handful of surnames among several hundred people, and inbreeding is a very real factor to consider. Even in traditional China, marriage between people sharing the same surname was taboo. But where few men have the mobility or leisure to seek brides far afield, a network of enthusiastic village matchmakers (usually older women) can serve a perfectly honourable function, so long as the matchmaker's own mercenary considerations are restricted. Marriage has always been a customary, rather than religious or legal matter in China. There was not even such a thing as a marriage law until the Peoples Republic introduced one in 1950 to give women some legal rights.

The bride is no longer borne to her husband's house in a sedan chair, weeping ostentatiously (and often sincerely), but new rituals have taken the place of the old. A good friend described attending a relative's wedding in the country. The family were middle-class by village standards, some members holding local government posts and thus having cash salaries as well as their share of collective farm produce. In keeping with their status, they entertained 300 guests over three days: bride's family on the first day, groom's family on the second, and non-family friends and acquaintances the third day. They borrowed five hundred yuan for the catering, confident that they would get back all or most of it in the `Red Packet' wedding gifts of the guests. Money is the normal wedding gift, and by a disarming Chinese custom, each guest registers in a large book at the door just how much money he is giving an effective spur to generosity.

All the women in the family went to the nearest town and had their hair waved in the current style derived from dimly- remembered Hollywood movies of the 1940s. In place of a sedan chair, two taxis were hired and decorated with silk rosettes, and a jeep was borrowed from a government office in repayment of several outstanding favours of an equally informal nature. Bride and groom both wore Western-style suits made by a local tailor, and were looking forward to the large hand-tinted wedding portrait photograph they had sat for in the county town studio, the bride wearing, for the portrait only, a rented Western-style bridal gown belonging to the photographer. It happened that the couple had known each other all their lives, and had fallen discreetly in love some years previously, before they had reached the approved age for marriage. Though the marriage law up to September 1980 said women could wed at age eighteen and men at twenty, this had long been superseded, as is so common in China, by `policy directives' to local Party authorities not to approve marriages until couples were considerably older: twenty five for women and often twenty-eight for men. The couple's tacit understanding could only become acknowledged after they had reached the currently approved age and had been `introduced' by a respected senior member of the village Production Team.

These two were luckier than others whose love affairs ran into parental interference. Many peasant parents draw no clear line between their rights to advise their children, as supported by the Communist Party, and the absolute authority of the Confucian tradition. Newspapers still report suicides, beatings, and even forced marriage by kidnapping and rape, resulting from parental interference in marriages. Sometimes these incidents are with the connivance of the local Party authorities, who at village level do not always distinguish between Party policies and Confucian notions of filial obedience.

Today's marriage registration ceremonies remain minimal, as I know from personal experience. Handled by the District Civil Affairs Bureau, the marriage requires simple presentation of documents of identity, accompanied by the permissions to marry from respective work units, or, in the case of foreigners, from our respective embassies. Chinese couples are offered a brief homily on morality and family planning by the officer in charge. As foreigners, we were offered a mug of hot water and no sermon, while the clerk carefully brushed the Chinese versions of our names onto the large pink certificates (one for each partner) and sealed them with a smudgy red rubber stamp. We were married.

Chinese, however, still tend to view this registration procedure as something like the exchange of contracts under the old system: it seals the legal side, but does not make you socially married. For that, there are still proper forms to be observed. Very few modern Chinese go through the traditional wedding rituals of bowing, tying the pair together with a red silk ribbon, and walking round in circles. But parents and neighbours of all classes still regard it as highly improper for a young couple to set up house together without a full round of `paying respects' to the family elders, and a formal entertainment to `warm the house'. Traditionally, family and friends would often invade the bridal chamber and tease the bashful couple to distraction. These days the `chamber' is likely to be all there is to the residence, or it may often be a room just borrowed for the occasion before bride and groom return to separate dormitories. Even so, some entertainment must be offered before married life can begin.

There are stories of some unit leaders criticising publicly, as `immoral', legally married couples, who have commenced their married life without first inviting the Party Secretary and other appropriate dignitaries to a house-warming. Beyond this minimal level, most families still expect to give large-scale hospitality to the extent of their financial resources, and beyond. Guests are numbered by `tables' of ten, and there is much neighbourhood rivalry as to which family invited twenty `tables' of guests while another invited only fifteen.

For reasons which seem more derived from principle than from real economics, the Party press has railed against elaborate weddings ever louder at each of the four favoured wedding seasons: New Year, Spring Festival (Lunar New Year), May 1st (Labour Day) and October 1st (National Day). As an antidote to 'feudal' extravagant wedding spending, all appropriate front organisations such as the Youth League, the Trade Unions, and the Women's Federation organise `mass weddings'.

Of the 40,000 couples who married in Beijing during the Spring Festival of 1982, only 5,000 opted for the mass weddings. Their motives ranged from practical cash savings, through dislike of family crowds, to a desire to demonstrate political progressiveness. The biggest reception brought together seventy couples at the Beijing Labouring Peoples Cultural Palace, formerly the Imperial Hall of Ancestral Worship attached to the Forbidden City. A deputy mayor of Beijing presided. Couples each paid twenty yuan for a table seating twelve guests. Refreshments were limited to tea and candies. Professional entertainers and Party politicians offered uplifting songs and speeches on the benefits of the one-child family. Most couples blushed modestly.

`It's more meaningful this way in front of our leaders than if we got married separately', said one bridegroom, his uniform blue tunic embellished with a small red silk flower.

Social notes in the Chinese press, for mass weddings as for other occasions, have a flavour distinct from their Western counterparts. Brides and grooms picked out for note included orphans, Youth League activists, and `Shi Yuhua, daughter of the late National Model Nightsoil Remover Shi Chuanxiang (persecuted to death by the Gang of Four)'.

Honeymoons were previously only for the rich and Westernised, but, as modern prosperity grows, mass weddings can now be followed by mass honeymoons. Twenty-one couples from the staff of the Beijing Hotel took such a mass honeymoon to the seaside resort of Beidaihe, where the hotel rooms had been specially redecorated with `double happiness' posters and `fresh plastic flowers'. Hotel staff have an advantage anyway when it comes to access to privacy. A young Shanghai worker reported after his mass honeymoon trip to the southern lake resort of Hangzhou: `I was delighted to find on arrival that couples each had a room of their own, so brides and grooms did not have to sleep in segregated dormitories', as he apparently had expected.

But many more serious hurdles must be survived before a young bridegroom need worry about his honeymoon. Men and women alike, often with firm parental insistence, put a certain price on themselves, which potential suitors must match before the relationship can get very far. For the lists of conditions of acceptability, a word is borrowed from political jargon: tiaozhen, meaning broadly `pre-conditions'. The blatant materialism of these lists of tiaozhen can seem quite shocking to those who hold a idealistic candle for romantic love. They are the modern form of the traditional mercenary marriage contracts, but, once again, they make more sense to today's Chinese, scrounging what they can from a reluctant social system, than to Westerners with more diverse opportunities to better themselves materially.

Tiaozhen cover the whole spectrum of significant factors in a Chinese livelihood: family political status, connections, work situation, personal wealth, and appearance. Few girls from a well-connected military family, for instance, would throw themselves away on a mere college professor if his family had political records as `rightists'.. the stain would cloud the entire future.. unless of course the professor in question had plenty of overseas relatives . Class stratifications are carefully noted in marriage tiaozhen, though, as elsewhere, an attractive woman has better chances of `marrying upwards' than an ordinary working man. The reason Class remains so important is not purely a question of snobbery (though that does come into it), but rather an acknowledgement that modern Chinese society runs on a system which insists on classifying people by ideological criteria that, once established, are very hard to shake off.

Among people of the same class, various work-units offer greatly varying attractions to a potential spouse. A man who works in a state-owned bicycle factory or an electrical repair workshop may find it much easier to get a mate than his equivalent in a steel mill or a coal mine. The potential to trade work-related favours with other people in the future may be weighed against the `fixed assets' of another unit which has a well-developed housing and child-care set up. The small benefits of marrying an `intellectual' would certainly be counted against the strong possibility of being assigned for life to teach school in a remote township where one's own children will be permanently classified as `peasants' and denied urban careers.

At the crudest level, tiaozhen come down to a simple list of household furnishings and appliances which must be presented (to the bride) before the marriage can proceed. These listed items are generally so predictable that they are referred to in common speech by numerical slang: `The Seventy-two Legs' ( a full set of bedroom and livingroom furniture), `The Four Wheels' (bicycle, sewing machine, wristwatch and electric fan), and, for high- fliers, `The Four Modernisations' (television set, radio-cassette recorder, washing machine, and refrigerator), a play on the economic slogan. After all these demands have been met, the suitor will still have to find the cash for a wedding feast of appropriate extravagance, one thousand yuan being the respectable minimum. Considering the average wage of fifty yuan per month, the strain on the budget is heavy.

Many tales are told of the comic or tragic situations that develop when swains of small resources seek to meet the demands of their beloved. A wedding reception in Shanghai that followed a six-year courtship turned into a clan brawl when the bride's party complained that the groom had not turned on a car for the bride to parade in, and the noodles were not up to standard. The two sides were at each other with bamboo sticks when the militia made a timely intervention.

On the eve of the Spring Festival one year, China's national television carried several true-life cautionary tales on the theme `Gaoled at the Bridal Threshold'. Hai Yuli, a 24 year-old technician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, received a 13- year sentence for his `three-point plan' of shop burglaries to satisfy the demand of his girlfriend for modern appliances. Ying Fang, a university student from poverty-stricken Anhwei province studying in Shanghai had contracted a mercenary marriage with a Shanghai girl so that he could achieve Shanghai resident status rather than returning to his provincial home-town. To satisfy her tiaozhen, Ying got deeply into debt and later robbed a railway booking office, killing a cashier with a sharpened three-cornered file. He was sentenced to immediate execution.

The final case report showed a repentant father sitting in a bare prison cell after he had broken up his daughter's engagement because the groom could not afford a lavish wedding. Technically, this is an offence under the new Marriage Law, but the father, a prosperous peasant, seemed lugubriously aware he had been set up as an example to millions more of his generation throughout the country.

Parental control over marriage has been officially outlawed since 1950, when China's first ever formal Marriage Law was promulgated. It gave Chinese women, for the first time, the legal right to resist arranged marriage, to obtain divorce, and to re- marry if widowed. It even had to specify that they could continue to use their own personal name after marriage. Under the old custom a woman's name `lapsed' entirely when she was married, and she would be known henceforth only by her husband's name and family title, e.g. `Third Son Hu's wife'. Prostitution, concubinage, forced marriage and bride price payments were all formally outlawed, to the outrage of traditionalists who saw the law, correctly, as an attack on the whole system of Confucian male-oriented morality.

An argument of sorts, though, could well be put for forms of polygamy (such as concubinage) in the old China where war, famine and disease ensured that life for the majority was nasty, brutish and short. Impoverished families were often more than happy to see their daughters taken into more prosperous houses as maids or concubines, with the possibility of some spin-off benefits for the family. Few Chinese today, however, would dispute that abuses of women far outweighed these considerations. The change in women's rights was great, though customary attitudes still persist strongly.

Chinese custom brought forth, and still commends, a judiciously practical approach to marriage. But Communist social planners are now very worried that, with the new freedoms of the Marriage Law, this practicality is spreading rapidly to a light attitude to divorce, as well as marriage.

In the past divorce was practically impossible to obtain for a woman, but easy for a man, who could either simply send an unwanted wife back to her family (a great loss of family Face for which she would likely suffer the rest of her life), or if low in the social ladder he could sell her to someone else as concubine, wife or maidservant. Divorces figured often in traditional literature and ballads, but seldom with anything but a tragic outcome for the woman concerned.

The first Marriage Law of the Peoples Republic released a brief flood of female-initiated divorces from women married off by their parents against their will, or forced to endure the humiliation of their husband's entirely legal indulgence in younger concubines. Once the Communist administration was well established, however, the policy on divorce tightened. The law itself was not changed (that has seldom been necessary in modern China), but the Party-appointed judges were instructed to allow divorce only when both parties were determined not to live together, and all avenues of mediation had failed.

The Mediation Committees were often composed of neighbours, as part of the Neighbourhood Committee's general social responsibility, so patchy results were only to be expected. One ground for divorce discouraged, from the beginning, was the ground of separation, in those cases where separation was due to government work assignments. The Revised Marriage Law of 1980 even contained a special provision banning divorce upon the unilateral request of a spouse of a serving member of the armed forces. Members of the various arms of the PLA can be away from home for years at a time without home leave, so the importance of this clause for PLA morale apparently warranted its inclusion in the law.

The new law established the basic grounds for divorce as being `complete alienation of mutual affection', apparently opening the way to a far freer approach to divorce generally. For the first time, it seemed that a Chinese marriage could be ended on the request of just one of the partners. Other questions poured in to the newspapers: `My marriage was arranged by my parents. Is that in itself grounds for a divorce?'

`Will the partner who applies for the divorce be discriminated against in the settlement of property and children?'

`My marriage was a customary village one and has never been registered. Do I need a divorce or can I just leave?'

`During the Cultural Revolution I lived together with a fellow-exile in a village for seven years. We have a child. Can he just leave me now, without a divorce?'

The law remains the law, but the policies for interpreting it were very soon clarified, after a wave of conservative social protest against the `easy' divorces. Articles in youth and women's magazines made it clear that divorces `caused by third parties' would be viewed with a stern eye, and the courts would have the power to order such a third party to stay away if the court decided the original marriage should be preserved. A person who establishes a relation with a third party after his or her marriage has already lost its meaning will be `criticised and educated', but the divorce normally will be granted. If the third party is judged to be the actual initiator of the trouble in the marriage, the matter will be treated much more seriously, and the courts will insist at least upon long-term `trial reunion' of the married party before reluctantly conceding to a triumph of immorality. The new couple will probably have to guarantee support for the abandoned partner and children if any, and pay a cash compensation as well for the `emotional injury' caused. There is a school of opinion which has agitated for `interference in a marriage' to be entered as an offence under the national criminal code.

The joint family system, in which both children and grand- parents are often dependent on a single working couple, makes family stability an important economic factor for the government, aside from all purely moral considerations. A divorce will not be considered purely on the relationship of the couple... the potential effect of a divorce on the children and grandparents may also need to be assessed.

The divorce court judges say, though, that they do not intend to refuse someone a divorce simply in order to punish him for his profligacy. It was, after all, Confucius himself who said:

`I have never yet seen a man whose love of virtue exceeded his love of woman'.