Changes in union formation patterns in a context of male marriage-squeeze: an exploratory survey in rural Shaanxi, China

Abstract

Starting from the postulate that formation of heterosexual unions is necessarily affected by a numerical imbalance between the sexes in the marriage market, this paper uses data from a survey conducted in 2014–2015 in three rural counties of Shaanxi, China, to analyse the mechanisms to cope with this rather particular socio-demographic situation and with the poverty that is endemic in the survey area, in order to achieve marriage by any means. This empirical study based on individual quantitative data analyses the consequences of the male marriage-squeeze from the point of view of married men. The difficulty of getting married is identified and taken into account to analyse three specific adaptation mechanisms: demographic adaptations, changes in social norms regarding mate selection criteria, and economic adaptations. Findings demonstrate that marriage timing and age gap between spouses are levers that enable men to enlarge their pool of potential mates. But monetization of marriage is one of the most immediate consequences of the competition between the men seeking to marry. In sum, the men who reported difficulties getting married did so later than the other men, have greater age-gap with their spouse, and are in a disadvantaged position when negotiating the terms of their marriage. We conclude that the male marriage-squeeze has to be understood not only in relation to how marriage is constructed as a family and social institution, but also as a catalyst for other inequalities, especially in terms of social and economic capital.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In 2015, nationwide, there were 153 never-married men aged 20–59 for every 100 never-married women in that age group (NBS 2016).

  2. 2.

    The ratio of boys to girls at birth reached 120:100 in 2009 and was still 112:100 in 2017—7% above the expected level.

  3. 3.

    The survey was jointly conducted by INED (France) and the IPDS, Xi’an Jiaotong University (Shaanxi, China).

  4. 4.

    Lu and Wang (2014) give slightly different values for the mean age at first marriage, that would have raised from 23.9 years for men and 22.4 for women in 1990 to respectively 26.2 and 24.4 in urban areas in 2010, and from 23.2 years for men and 21.6 for women in 1990 to respectively 24.8 and 22.8 in rural areas in 2010.

  5. 5.

    Because our survey sample is not representative of the total population of China, and the mean ages at marriage here are calculated not among first unions but among current unions (that can be a first or a subsequent union).

  6. 6.

    As the survey did not ask the married men what their income level had been at the time of their marriage, we cannot explore this issue more thoroughly.

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Correspondence to Isabelle Attané.

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Attané, I. Changes in union formation patterns in a context of male marriage-squeeze: an exploratory survey in rural Shaanxi, China. China popul. dev. stud. 4, 384–404 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42379-020-00060-8

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Keywords

  • China
  • Mate selection
  • Competitive marriage market
  • Marriage timing
  • Monetization of marriage