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Arranged marriages were banned in 1950, but twenty years later, when the anthropologist Yan Yunxiang moved to a village in China’s northeast, local women had so little say regarding whom they married that they sobbed when they left home on their wedding day.
Elders continued to oversee the choice of spouses until a wave of modernization swept across the country in the early eighties.
Romance became political in 1919, when Chinese students mounted demonstrations for democracy, science, and an end to arranged marriage, on behalf of what they called “the freedom of love.” It was “a code word for individual autonomy,” Haiyan Lee, a literature professor at Stanford, writes in “Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950.” Mao outlawed arranged marriages and concubines, and enshrined a woman’s right to divorce, but he left no room for desire.
Dating that did not lead to the altar was “hooliganism,” he said, and under his system sexual privacy was nonexistent; local Party cadres kept track of household condom distribution.
Your customers, she told them, will be virtually indistinguishable from yourselves: strivers, alone in the city, separated from love by “three towering mountains”—no money, no time, and no connections.
I met Gong six years ago, after she received a master’s degree in journalism and entered the dating business.
If your mother-in-law sees you as “nothing but a baby-maker” and your husband won’t help, she told one new wife, forget the husband, “get some courage, and get out of that family.” In the case of a newly rich couple with the husband sleeping around, she applauded the wife for not becoming a “blubbering, feeble, pitiful creature,” and, instead, making him sign a contract that will cost him all his assets if he cheats again.
(“If anyone ever liked me, I have yet to hear about it.”) She spent her childhood at the foot of a mountain in the village of Waduangang, in Hunan, the home province of Chairman Mao. During the Cultural Revolution, they were paired because they had been branded as “well-off peasants,” one of the Five Black Categories.
When Gong was sixteen, her test scores got her into the top local high school, a transformative moment for a farming family.
“We’re not like you foreigners, who make friends easily in a bar or go travelling and chat up a stranger,” she once told me. Our membership has a very clear goal: to get married.”Of all the upheavals in Chinese life in the past three decades, there is perhaps none more intimate than the opportunity to choose one’s mate.
For years, village matchmakers and parents, factory bosses and Communist cadres efficiently paired off young people with minimum participation from the bride and groom.
“Gong’s class was on the fourth floor.” Her mother was undeterred: “School was her only way out.