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China: Where Young Men Are Looking for Brides

A cultural bias towards male heirs is creating a vast gender divide in China.

April 5, 2015

Credit: Ken Douglas -

China’s family planning policy of the 1970s, an urgent and necessary measure to limit the growth of its huge population, prevented an estimated 400 million additional births in the world’s most populous country.

Although the “one child policy” was particularly effective in urban areas, in rural areas many families continued to have two or more children, even when all the children are boys.

A male dominated society

Traditionally, Chinese families, particularly rural ones, have a strong preference for their male heirs, who will continue to carry the family name and, it was believed, would also take better care of their parents.

In rural areas, families still hide the birth of daughters and do not register them with the authorities, so that they can legally try for a son.

With the prevalence of sonograms in recent years, parents can learn the gender of their fetus after 20 weeks of pregnancy. This has led to a sharp increase in abortions, now widely available in the country.

Although the Chinese government still bans the use of tests to determine the fetus’ gender for non-medical reasons, these tests are still widely done, mainly in private clinics in the countryside.

While many countries ban abortion after 12 or sometimes 24 weeks of pregnancy – unless the mother’s life is at risk — China’s laws do not clearly prohibit or even define late-term abortion.

Demographics imbalanced and getting worse

This situation has had serious demographic repercussions in recent times: There is a dwindling number of marriageable women and a large number of elderly born after the post-World War II baby boom.

A study by Therese Hesketh, a lecturer at the Centre for International Health and Development at University College in London found that China now has 119 male births for every 100 girls, compared with 107 to 100 for industrialized countries. This imbalance is expected to worsen over the next two decades and provoke a host of social problems.

According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, China presents a unique situation. In an article for Foreign Affairs magazine, Eberstadt writes, “… China will face a growing number of young men who will never marry due to the country’s one-child policy, which has resulted in a reported birth ratio of almost 120 boys for every 100 girls.

By 2030, projections suggest that more than 25% of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. The coming marriage squeeze will likely be even more acute in the Chinese countryside, since the poor, uneducated and rural population will be more likely to lose out in the competition for brides.”

The peril of too many unmarried men

China is already experiencing the effects of a surplus of unmarried young men. Unmarried men, who some experts call “bare branches,” can be a danger to social stability. Some experts on population problems believe that those men who have a limited social life because of the lack of a female companion are more prone to commit violent acts.

In areas of China with the most male-biased sex ratios, there are social consequences such as increased gambling and drug abuse as well as increased kidnapping and trafficking of women. In addition, some experts warn that these young men are perfect candidates for political agitation and fundamentalism.

One of the reasons that parents prefer sons over daughters is the belief that sons will be better able to protect them in old age. However, the more assertive role that Chinese women now hold in society, combined with their having equal or higher salaries than men, can shatter this belief.

Single women and economic power

In addition, some single women have greater spending power than their unmarried counterparts, which allows them a much more active social life. In some cases, assertive women accept getting married on condition that the offspring will carry their family name, not their husband’s name.

The demographic and social problems posed by unmarried men can be considerable. As Nicholas Eberstadt explains, “I have to wonder how people in the American intelligence community or in the international financial world or in China’s economic planning units can think that China is going to be growing at 7% a year for the next 20 years.”

More education, particularly of the young, on the value of women and the positive role they play in the family and in society is one of the necessary strategies to overcome this situation.

This measure, complemented by enforcing the ban on sex-selective abortions, could lead to the normalization of the ratios between boys and girls in the country.


Due to the one-child policy and cultural beliefs, Chinese families prefer male heirs, causing demographic imbalance.

China’s laws do not clearly prohibit or even define late-term abortion.

China now has 119 male births for every 100 girls, compared with 107 to 100 for industrialized countries.

Some single Chinese women have greater spending power than single men, which allows them a more active social life.