China Initiative postdoctoral fellow Shanni Zhao examines love and marriage in contemporary China

China Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow Shanni Zhao is researching how rapid economic, political and societal changes have impacted dating practices and marriage in contemporary China.

China Initiative postdoctoral fellow Shanni Zhao comes to the Watson Institute from Harvard University, where she received a Ph.D. in anthropology. While at Watson, Zhao plans to investigate the topic of matchmaking at the intersection of marriage-making and state-building in contemporary China from a social and cultural anthropological perspective. 

Watson Institute and China Initiative Director Edward Steinfeld praised Zhao's research for the way she is exploring the effects of China's economic and cultural transformation on the everyday lives of its citizens. "What I love about Shanni's work," said Steinfeld, "is that she's not looking directly at issues of legitimacy of the system or directly at people's political views. She's looking at something that is critical to human existence but is not normally seen as political."

Zhao explained that through China's socialist reforms during the 20th century, matchmaking came to be frowned upon, viewed as "symbolic of family repression, feudal authoritarianism and corrupt pre-modern customs." However, she noted that over the last decade, matchmaking has experienced a resurgence among urban millennials through reality shows that prominently feature matchmaking and commercial matchmaking ventures.

When young people try to find a partner in China today, what they look for is less about compatibility in terms of personality or the potential for mutual personal growth. Instead, they look for a partner as if looking for a perfect commodity...

Shanni Zhao China Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow
Shanni Zhao

Zhao has already done extensive fieldwork while conducting her research, participating in over 200 matchmaking events sponsored by municipal governments in Shanghai and Beijing. She noted that commercial matchmaking is very popular in those cities, a reflection of the fact that one of the effects of China's ongoing economic transformation has been the "commodification" of marriage. Municipal governments have only recently stepped into the breach to try to counterbalance these commercial enterprises, which can sometimes be crass and exclude urbanites of lesser means. 

"When young people try to find a partner in China today, what they look for is less about compatibility in terms of personality or the potential for mutual personal growth," she said. "Instead, they look for a partner as if looking for a perfect commodity — someone who has a good education, comes from a good family and either already has personal wealth or has high earning potential." This is exactly what commercial matchmaking services promise but rarely deliver.

"This is something that really concerns the Chinese state," Zhao said, "because this utilitarian view on relationships and marriage deviates from the nature of socialist society where social relations should be prioritized over commodity relations."

Zhao notes that despite the popularity of both commercial and state-sponsored matchmaking services, neither has been particularly successful in generating marriages. As noted in a recent story in the New York Times, the number of marriages in China has declined steadily over the past nine years, falling by half in less than a decade. At the same time, divorce rates have also risen. As a result, Zhao said, "both urban marriage and social solidarity in China are perceived to be in crisis."

Zhao noted that commercial matchmaking services often fail at their purpose by design. "Sometimes commercial services intentionally create failures because, for a business to grow, it's really important to keep clients," she said. "When I talked with some young people — especially men — they told me they were recruited by a commercial matchmaker to 'perform' dating. One man told me he was paid to go on six dates with six different women in one weekend but to make sure he didn't actually develop a relationship with any of them." 

While the state-sponsored events have not been any more successful at producing marriages than the commercial ventures, Zhao notes they meet the needs of citizens in other ways. "It's a big failure in the sense that it rarely creates marriages in practice," she said. "However, the [state-sponsored] matchmaking service keeps growing because state officials and their civil partners have found this can be a place to perform care." "So there has been a lot of instability and a lot of changes," Zhao said, "but this kind of failure and anxiety has somehow energized this practice because it has allowed the state to intervene in the private lives of urban young people."

Zhao said that "State investment in matchmaking has higher social and political stakes than just marriage." She explains, "The state's aim — beyond matchmaking — is to reconnect young citizens with local state representatives and to rechannel their market-based desires into love and belonging of a civic nature. Rather than approaching society via authoritarian control, the state now seeks to conjure up citizens' feelings of multilayered attraction — romantic love, social belonging and state care — in urban publics."

Zhao plans to continue her research into matchmaking and its relevance to social governance and state-building in contemporary China while at Watson and turn the project into a book while also producing journal articles as well as stories aimed at the popular press.