Offline romantic introductions in modern Beijing
Mawage, mawage, is what brings us together today. – The Princess Bride
On a Sunday in Peking, we came across a curious crowd of retired citizenry at Zhongshan Park. Across the outer moat of the Forbidden City, four rows of parents, a few hundred in all, mingled beneath ancient trees above sheets of paper, on these written the basic personal details of their child to catch the eye of a future in-law passing bay. This is the “marriage corner” (相亲角) or “marriage meeting” (相亲会), the modern Chinese parents’ answer to online dating, a kind of half-country-market, half- speed-dating to facilitate introductions between the respective children of parents living in fear of a grandchild-less future.
This is a true existential fear among many Chinese families to this day, especially for generations who lived through the era of One-Child Policy. There are, of course, the apocryphal stories of Chinese families, at the same time both tolerant and completely not, claiming to have no issue with son “liking men” as long as he still somehow produces a grandchild. Just about every Spring Festival among my own relatives there is the inevitable conversation in which a meddling relation will bring up the questions of marriage, and while on the subject why not find a girlfriend in Shanghai. Despite having only spent one-year total of my life in Shanghai, a woman from the ancestral hometown of my Chinese-side would obviously be an ideal match.
Matchmaking has a long tradition in East Asia and can be serious business. In China’s past, matchmaker (媒人) was a common profession, acting as a intermediary between suitable families. Matchmakers, usually a local old crone, often make an appearance in traditional Chinese stories and novels such as the erotic Golden Lotus and the heroic Water Margin. There are few community-based matchmakers anymore and many parents have taken matters into their own hands or outsource the work to a modern commercial professional.
To learn more about today’s marriage corner, we turned to Beijing-based historian, writer, and tour guide Jeremiah Jenne of Beijing By Foot to answer some of our questions:
What is the marriage corner all about?
My understanding is the marriage corners are places for parents, who have children of marriageable age, but somehow haven’t pulled the trigger themselves to come together to exchange information about their children to find a love connection for their children. A little bit like a low tech version of Tinder except that your parents are doing the swiping.
What kind of information do parents share?
One of the other kind of interesting things about most of the markets I’ve seen, or corners I’ve seen, is they don’t often have pictures, which I guess is a little bit different from Tinder. They usually have kind of CV style information including height, educational attainment, whether they’ve been married before, sometime salary, whether they have a resident permit for a particular city, and age. And often you’ll see things like blood type which is sometimes used to match people here in China.
Have you heard any interesting stories from the corner?
I can only imagine the conversations that go on. Mr. Liu and his daughter in Seattle, she’s and MBA, but she’s 26 and time is a wasting. He runs into Mrs. Wang whose son is also in Seattle. Mrs. Wang’s son has a really stable job. She impresses Mr. Liu with stories of her son’s stability: same job for ten years, same apartment for nine years, same roommate, Chad, for eight years. These two should totally go on a date. And then somewhere in Seattle Mrs. Wang’s son and Mr. Liu’s daughter get a phone call and we get two kids hooked up to see if there will be a love connection.
Have any of your tourists ever joined in?
I’ve had students somewhat jokingly try to join in or ask questions, but the parents, and I guess it is not only parents at some of the larger ones cause there may also be agents as well. People take it pretty seriously and prefer strongly that you not take pictures, especially since the sheet they have posted or on the ground contain personal information. It’s something that people aren’t totally psyched when tourists discover it, but their doing it in large public parks so it is pretty hard to avoid.
Do you think I would have a chance?
You might have a better chance than I would. I get the impression that obvious non-Chinese are not usually suitable for these kind of situations, although I really haven’t tested this hypothesis. [Editor’s note: Sorry ladies, Jeremiah is already taken! You still may visit the marriage corner with him on a Forbidden City Tour when it falls on a Sunday]
Other marriage corners take place at Ditan and Yuyuan Parks. Sunday afternoons between 2-4 PM are the busiest times. There are even sections devoted to families with children overseas. We have not yet seen an area for foreigners living in China.
Like China, Korea of the past had matchmakers (뚜쟁이). Chance encounters could also turn into matchmaking, facilitated by go-betweens such as servants, like in the story of Chun Hyang. Family connections and class were important considerations and going against these could result in considerable hardship for all parties involved.
An added complication in Korea was the relative paucity of surnames. In traditional times, marriages between people of the same surname were discouraged. Around 20% of Koreans have the surname Kim, while more than 50% have the surnames Kim, Pak, Lee (or Ri), Choi, or Chong. There was an outright ban on marriages between those with the same surname and ancestral home (Wudunn, 1996). This has now changed across the peninsula. There are Kims who marry Kims, and Lees who marry Lees, but Paks marrying Paks are very rare. It is said that mothers with the surname Pak are very fierce and strong. Joining two Pak families in matrimony is a recipe for disaster. Too many cooks, too many Paks.
In the DPRK today, introductions are still very common by parents, relatives, or friends. The matchmaker is known has a different name (증매군). It is said that one can tell the difference between a woman in an introduced-marriage and free-marriage, by the way she looks at her own hands when asked to do so. Those who look the backside have been introduced, those who look at the palm found a husband on their own. It is a science, of sorts.
The 1994 Korean film O Youth! (청춘이여!) gives insight into the plots and machinations that can go into making introductions in the DPRK in slightly exaggerated form. Parent’s recommendations hold a lot of weight, but children, of course, have a say in the process too. If a child finds loves elsewhere, parental approval are usually still extremely important.
Some families, however, are less traditional and times are a changing rapidly. When I asked an old friend if her farther would approve of her boyfriend, she replied: “What’s he got to do with it?” O youth these days!
'Sundays in Peking' introduces sights and activities in Beijing with even the slightest connection to Korea. Sometimes we just write about other stuff happening around Beijing.
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