Why wealthy Chinese families recruit poor graduates as sons-in-law

T HE LINGYIN temple in Hangzhou, a lovely, tree-shaded place, has long drawn those seeking the blessings of a good marriage or children. Pilgrims may still be glimpsed today. On a recent afternoon Chaguan watched a mother and daughter leave a tour group to pray, incense sticks held aloft, to a statue of Guanyin, a Buddhist immortal, before hurrying back to their guide.

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In centuries past, praying was all that many Chinese, especially women, could do, for they were powerless about much in their lives. Marriage was a transaction between families, not a love match. It led, almost invariably, to a woman moving into her husband’s home. There, her role was to give birth to heirs, meaning sons, and to care for his parents in their dotage. A woman could not own property and, once bridal payments and dowries had been exchanged, brought so few benefits to her birth family that married daughters were likened to “sprinkled water”. In cruel consequence, girls were often killed at birth.

A few marriages were different. Since the Qin dynasty in the third century, a family without adult sons might recruit a poor but healthy man to “lend his strength” to their household as a live-in son-in-law. Some signed contracts agreeing to give their children their wife’s surname and to look after their parents-in-law before their own father and mother. Shocked by such breaches of filial piety, officials in the Yuan and Ming dynasties (between the 13th and the 17th centuries) banned men who were only sons from entering into such unions. Men who did faced widespread scorn. They were called zhuixu, or “mortgaged sons-in-law”, or, more politely, shangmen nuxu—“gate-entering sons-in-law”.

Modern China is becoming more open-minded about what constitutes a good family, and with good reason. A national census unveiled on May 11th showed that China is ageing fast and has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates, so its population will soon be shrinking. Though the one-child policy became a two-child policy for most urban residents in 2016 and is set to loosen further, its malign effects will endure. Lone children must care for elderly parents without any help from siblings, which is one reason why many of them do not want offspring of their own. Because China is missing millions of women, lots of young men will never marry. Years of illegal, sex-selective abortions skewed China’s birth ratio. The census finds that 111 boys are born for every 100 girls.

With fewer women, an optimist might imagine they would gain more power over whom they marry. There are other reasons why chauvinist traditions may fade. China is an increasingly urban, mobile country. Some 376m people live in a different city or town from the place named on their hukou, the household registration papers that limit where Chinese may live, work and obtain public health care or schooling. China is better educated, with over 200m university graduates. What is more, women students have outnumbered men on college campuses since 2009. In another change, families that own homes in larger cities have become wealthy after a decades-long property boom, especially if they bought apartments 20 or more years ago. Lots of those newly rich families have one child, a daughter, and—quite properly—are ambitious for her. The Beijing College Students Panel Survey, a big study, found that women students are more likely than men to come from affluent big-city families (and to study liberal arts). Male students are more likely to hail from poorer, provincial families and to study sciences or engineering, reflecting family hopes that they will land well-paid technical jobs.

Predictably, it is not hard to find educated, urban women demanding more say over their lives. At the Hangzhou temple, Chaguan meets a fresh-faced couple emerging from the Guanyin shrine, and asks what they wished for. “I prayed we’ll endure the test of time, I don’t know about him,” replies Chen Jiajia, shyly scrutinising her boyfriend, Chen Jingsheng. Now 25, they met at high school in the southern province of Guangdong and have been together for seven years. Most women expect a man to own an apartment before marrying, Mr Chen said. That is a big pressure in a city as expensive as Guangzhou, where he works in information technology. A native of a small city, Meizhou, he lacks a Guangzhou hukou, another obstacle to buying property. Ms Chen has Guangzhou papers, and her family helped the couple to buy a flat. “They see potential in him, they think he is driven. If he weren’t, our parents would not support us in this way,” explains Ms Chen, who works in e-commerce.

Less predictably, such social trends are bringing new attention to an old tradition, that of zhuixu. Li Jiyan, a matchmaker from Xiaoshan, a district of Hangzhou, specialises in finding graduates from poorer provinces to marry property-owning women from his city. His file-choked office is lined with framed photographs of him being interviewed by Chinese television stations and newspapers about the 1,000 marriages he has brokered since 1999. Men on his books must be graduates of vocational college or university, earn 100,000 yuan ($15,540) a year and be taller than 1.70m. Crucially, they do not need to own property in Hangzhou.

Never mind love, let’s talk apartments

Mr Li is busy, fielding telephone calls from potential clients and turning away a young man who walks in but lacks a college degree. “Don’t give up,” he calls after the crestfallen youth. By taking in a poor outsider, families gain a biddable son-in-law and children bearing their mother’s name, he enthuses. He adds approvingly that “non-local boys” will take humble jobs, like riding delivery scooters, if graduate work dries up. Though he praises self-made men, Mr Li’s business model is really founded on inequality, a scourge of ancient and modern China alike. In a moment of candour, his wife once remarked that no home-owner would become a gate-entering son-in-law. The couple charge 15,000 yuan for two years’ matchmaking. If that fails, there is always prayer.■