China Prioritises Ending “Bride Money” Practice as Weddings Stall

Desperate to encourage its married citizens to have more children to prop up the fast-declining population rate, China has an unenviable challenge at hand in the form of discouraging would-be brides from charging exorbitant “bride prices” unable to pay which prospective grooms are backing out of marriage.

Suddenly bride money has emerged as a social ill and the communist government has launched campaigns, for example, in several cities and prefectures in east China’s Jiangxi province, famous for bridal money, to make young women refuse the local custom. Videos that have gone viral show dozens of women, possibly in their 20s and 30s, making vows that they do not ask for cars, houses, or plenty of cash when they get married. The move is aimed at eliminating obstacles to marriages for higher birth rates.

Simultaneously, China unveiled its key policy document or No. 1 central document for 2023 recently, vowing to launch a special campaign against problems including exorbitant “bride prices” and extravagant wedding ceremonies as part of nationwide efforts to strengthen the construction of public cultural-ethical standards in the country’s rural areas.

The document encouraged local governments to formulate norms for changing outdated customs in light of local conditions, strengthen the role of village rules and conventions in restraining bad behavior, and Party members and officials to take the lead in setting examples.

The “Bride Price”

The “bride price” is a traditional Chinese prerequisite for marriage. Giving a “bride price” as a betrothal gift has a long history in China as a goodwill gesture between the couple and their two families. However, the “bride price” has risen from a token amount to very high levels, particularly in poorer areas, and the nature of the traditional custom has changed a lot over the years.

Some families in rural areas or low-income families are forced to exhaust their entire savings to get their sons married. Some young couples, once in a good relationship, have fallen out over high betrothal prices, and some have broken up.

Last September, eight national departments of the Chinese government issued a joint notice to address the problems of excessive “bride prices” and extravagant wedding ceremonies in rural areas, rolling out a special work plan for a nationwide campaign.

Many cities in East China’s Jiangxi Province, which have long been known for exorbitant “bride prices”, are also stepping up campaigns to address the problem. Global Times reported that on September 28, 2022, Guangchang county in Jiangxi held a group wedding for 10 couples with a “zero bride price,” vigorously promoting this newly-wed fashion.

The paper quoted an official from Shangrao, another city in Jiangxi, who requested anonymity, revealed a surprising but typical situation: in some urban areas, the “bride price” is usually in the range of 100,000 to 150,000 yuan ($14,700 to $22,000), while in some rural areas, it’s even higher. For example, prices of 188,000 and 288,000 yuan are common in less economically developed areas.

A few years ago, with the improvement of incomes and living standards, people started to ask for higher “bride prices”, the same official said, adding that binding the lifelong happiness of young men and women to material conditions went against traditional virtues.

The official also told the paper that it is unrealistic and unnecessary to completely stop or forcibly curb the “bride price” tradition, but excessive and unaffordable “bride prices” should be restricted.

The government’s response

Social scientists have jumped into the debate trying to explaining the whys of its sudden burst. Some say it is difficult to root out the problem because it is an ancient custom, deep rooted in particularly the rural areas. Changing the mindsets of people will take time.

Some other argue that if it is not possible to phase out “bride money”, then Chinese society should experiment with “a more rational range for ‘bride prices’, but how effective it will be largely depends on local economic development and people’s thinking”.

These scientists feel growing “over materialism” in an otherwise socialist-cultural society is the main cause. Also, fast-increasing living costs are making parents of would-be brides to ensure that their daughters have some financial security in the future.

Another factor is the imbalance of the male to female ratio, especially in rural areas, partially due to the concept of families preferring sons over daughters. Over time, as families found it difficult to find brides, they were ready to pay the “bride money” to get their sons marries. The families of the girls smelled an opportunity and so began the escalation of the money grooms would need to shell out to marry.

The problem is so highly manifest in China now that the government is worried if it is allowed to continue and males do not have the financial capacity to marry, that may negatively impact the already declining population.

In the context of declining marriage registrations in recent years, by encouraging reasonable “bride prices”, young people might be more willing to get married, and the country could see higher marriage registrations, more stable marriages and fewer divorced couples due to money troubles, some families believe.

But women’s groups strike a different note. They say the concept of “bride money” make the women look independent, self-content and as this mindset becomes popular, there may come a time when these modern girls may not want to unnecessarily tax their would-bes. But who knows when that will happen, the men counter.

Still, some small pockets of change are being reported from some quarters in China. Some groups of unmarried women are taking pledges not to force the grooms’ families to give hefty or impossible amounts of money. That, they say, is the beginning. The Chinese government has its fingers crossed.