The marginalized single men of rural China

While the socio-economic determinants of well-being in China have been studied, there has been little research into individuals’ ability to attain the conjugal and family-life goals they have set for themselves.

Getting married and founding a family are still key stages in the transition to adulthood in contemporary Chinese society. Different-sex marriage remains the norm and gives people access to a number of social and family prerogatives. It is difficult, however, to reconcile the society’s attachment to marriage with the selective nature of the marriage market in rural China, where the number of women likely to be seeking a husband is significantly lower than the number of men looking for a wife.

Drawing on data from a study conducted in 2014-2015 in three rural districts in the province of Shaanxi, Isabelle Attané and Xueyan Yang have analyzed the link between undesired singlehood and men’s assessment of the quality of their lives in China.

The three districts were chosen due to the sharply skewed sex ratio (respectively 158, 183, and 185 men for 100 women in 2010 in the never-married population aged 15 or over) and because they are poor, for we know the economic criterion is determinant in the probability of getting married in rural China.

Men cite economic factors above all

The single men who answered the survey impute their difficulty getting married to their economic situation above all: 85% mention their low income (which 80% identify as poverty); 51% cite the fact that they do not own their home. In addition to these economic reasons, two-thirds note how few women there are on the “marriage market.”

The impact of undesired singlehood on quality of life and health

A much greater proportion of single men report poor quality of life than married men (58% and 28% respectively), and the proportions for older and poorer men are even higher.
Moreover, among such men a positive association was found between quality of life and sexual satisfaction. While having sex before marriage is becoming increasingly acceptable in Chinese society as a whole, that change occurs more slowly in rural contexts; there, marriage continues to be the only socially recognized framework for sexual relations. Over one in three single men has never had sex.
In addition, 38% of single men have a negative assessment of their state of health and three out of four (70%) have at some time, or for most of the week prior to the interview, thought of their life as failure, as against under half of married men (48%).

The weight of social norms

The quality of single men’s lives is also impacted by the social pressure they endure precisely because they are single. 81% of them say they suffer from family pressure while 68% complain that people gossip about them because they are single. 45% say they have suffered rejection.

Share of single men who consider the given situations, all due to their being single, among the hardest to bear (multiple choice, %).

81.4% Family pressure
79.1% Lack of affection
76.2% No children
70.8% No sex
68.1% Gossiping in personal circle

The sample was made up of 655 men either married, remarried, or in a couple and 526 never-been-married men.

Source: Isabelle Attané, Xueyan Yang, 2018, Between poverty and normative pressure : the quality of life of never married men in rural Shaanxi, China Perspectives.

Contact: Isabelle Attané

Online: February 2020