Changing priorities in love and marriage reflect each historical epoch. From having no other option but passively to accept arranged marriages, Chinese women have gained their right to decide for themselves on their own life partners, been in "DINK" no-children partnerships, tried speed-dating and, as mistresses of their own lives, decided not to marry at all if it does not suit them.
The first Marriage Law of New China freed women from their obligatory passive acceptance of arranged marriages. Until then, parents and matchmakers had picked their marriage partners. Child brides and polygamy were the norm for millennia. Within marriage they were regarded as little more than incubators for sons to carry on their husbands' family line.
The first Marriage Law, which came into effect in April 1950, saw the abolition of arranged and forced marriages and the law stipulating freedom of marriage and monogamy.
The dream of free love thus became reality. The character Xiao Qin in Xiao Erhei's Marriage, a popular movie at that time adapted from Zhao Shuli's novel, boldly refuses to marry other than for love. She became a role model for young men and women. That her mother, He Xiangu, was portrayed as a villain signifies the passage of Chinese women into a new age where they were free to pick their own mates.
"I dreamed last night that you were named a model, that everyone praised your shooting skills and called you as a hero in fighting the Japanese enemy," Xiao Qin sings to her lover Erhei in the movie. "Model" and "hero" were key concepts in women's marital choices.
In the TV series Years of Burning Passion the heroic regimental commander Shi Guangrong has a crush on Chu Qin, a young dancer in a yangko (rural folk dance) team. They marry through the unit matchmaker.
Matchmaking was a common marriage mode in the early years of New China. Many of couples who so met and married became truly loving couples.
Divorce was originally considered as signifying women's liberation. After promulgation of the new marriage law, the break-up of many feudal marriage modes such as child brides and polygamy triggered China's first tide of divorce.
Between 1951 and 1956, about six million couples divorced, according to statistics. This generated a huge number of single women. Sociologists refer to it as China's first wave of singledom.
The consequences of divorce were often tragic amid the historical conditions at that time. It might be said that, on the whole, Chinese women paid a heavy price for their own liberation.
Chinese women nonetheless regard freedom of love and marriage as their right as human beings.
Just as marriage in China was adjusting to its new freedoms, the 'cultural revolution' turned everything on its head. What followed in people's lives now seems unbelievable to the point of absurdity.
Wearing colorful clothes at that time could be interpreted as decadent capitalist leanings. Love relationships were strictly clandestine, and letters were signed Comrade XXX with the words "Salute to the revolution."
Political beliefs and class status were paramount in marriage choices. Army men with an unblemished political background topped the list of most sought-after husbands. The function of marriage at that time was solely as a means to survive and live a stable life.
Urban educated women sent to the country to learn from rural life also learned cruel lessons in love and marriage. An educated youth recalled one of the girls in the same group as him that had been sent to the Great Northern Wilderness in northeast China. "Full of enthusiasm, this pretty girl responded the national call and went to rural Inner Mongolia. But she was too fragile to adapt to pastoral life. On the advice of a herdsman she married into a local family in expectations that her husband would perform her physical work tasks. But her fate was totally different."
Many educated women sent to rural areas married local residents to survive or, like her, gain a political talisman.
More women than men returned to the city after going through physical and mental suffering, but by then they were considered past marriageable age. The late 1970s and early 1980s thus marked the second wave of singledom in China.
It was common for educated men to marry local girls in rural areas. It was often difficult, however, for urban-raised women to accept rural men residents as husbands, and many decided to remain single. Women hence accounted for the majority of singletons.
Society returned to normal when the 'cultural revolution' finally ended, and marriage was no longer a test of political correctness.
A watershed in divorce conventions occurred in 1980, when Beijing writer Yu Luojin filed for divorce on the grounds that she and her husband were incompatible. Under the existing Marriage Law, however, incompatibility did not constitute legal grounds for divorce. The very term was so alien that Yu's appeal triggered a considerable social controversy.
Newspapers and the public accused her of being indecent and degenerate. But the court eventually granted her divorce, thus signifying respect for personal will.
Yu Luojin's case made clear that the 30-year-old Marriage Law no longer met the needs of the contemporary social landscape.
The year 1980 saw the first amendment to the Marriage Law, and inclusion of incompatibility into its articles.
Feelings, personalities and knowledge soon superseded political factors in marital requirements. Restoration of the national college entrance examination system in 1977 greatly enhanced the social status of intellectuals, and by the early 1980s, college graduates topped the league of ideal potential husbands.
Having a relationship based on love finally became accepted. Previously lovers had rushed to meet at the Lovers' Wall on Shanghai's Bund, but not dared to hold hands. The kissing scene in the movie Love on Lushan Mountain was widely interpreted as permission to be romantic and in love.
Chinese women nonetheless remained traditional and conservative in their attitudes to love and marriage.
Reform and opening up, the influx of Western culture since the 1980s and the collision of various trends of thought subliminally influenced Chinese people's values.
By the 1990s, the basic needs for food, clothing and shelter had been solved, but psychological needs expanded rapidly. The institution of marriage went through a further wave of change.
The impact of the economic tide was most evident in marriage, as career, income, housing, and registered permanent residence became foremost in women's choices of mate.
The mid-1990s saw a surge in marriages where only one partner was Chinese. Women accounted for the majority who married foreign spouses with the aim of living abroad.
TV matchmaking programs such as Men and Women, Meet on Saturday, Rose Date turned love into a fast-food game.
Sex stopped being a taboo topic. Although unmarried cohabitation remains illegal, growing numbers of Chinese youth tried this forbidden fruit. The exotic phenomenon of trial marriage also appeared in China.
Xiao Lin is one of the small social group who tried trial marriage. She came from a distant border town in 1990 to study at a university in Shanghai and settled there. Naïve and romantic, believing in love and afraid of being let down, loneliness drove her to a trial marriage.
"No one can be sure whether the person they pair up with will be the one with whom they spend the rest of their life. So many things can change," Xiao Lin said. "A stable family should be built on mutual understanding. I should have known more about my partner's competence at work and whether we could live happily under the same roof."
After a two-year trial marriage, Xiao Lin and her spouse broke up.
The DINK (Double Income No Kids) marriage mode appeared in China's big cities in the early 1990s.
According to a questionnaire survey on DINK families at the time, the reasons why couples did not want children included worries about China's population, wanting an easy life and achieving their own self-value.
Trial marriages and DINK families may have been a phenomenon among a minority, but it was the third tide of singledom that had major impact on the marriage concept.
It also occurred in the 1990s. Unlike the previous two waves, this one comprised young men and women who had chosen to be single in efforts to experience freedom of love and marriage.
In the era of the planned economy, people live with little freedom and being single at the marriageable age carried considerable social stigma. For one thing, an unmarried person did not qualify for housing, and many married simply to be able to leave the parental home.
As society became more open, the social tolerance of singletons grew. Being well off also allowed people to be single if they so wished.
An example is in Shanghai in 1995, where certain single women white-collars working in large companies qualified for housing subsidy. This was a landmark event in the third tide of singledom.
The mature single phenomenon is especially obvious in large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, where there are far more single women than men.
According to a survey at the time, single women over age 30 accounted for 50 percent more than single men of the same age.
Scholar Chen Huiping from the Women's Studies Institute of China (WSIC) under the All-China Women's Federation analyzed the phenomenon from the perspective of scientific and technological development.
"It was when reproduction was no longer closely associated with the traditional marriage model that the original relationships among human reproduction, life, love, sex and parent-child relationship changed," Chen said.
The consequences are apparent in the weakening concept of continuity of a clan and of the moral pressure on single people.
Chinese women continue to pursue their personal happiness in love and marriage in the new century.
"I am single. Does anyone have a problem with that?" 30-year-old Lin Fangfei asked on her blog, "If I cannot find the right man, I'd rather live alone than marry someone I don't love and ruin both of our lives."
Lin is the typical "three-high" woman—highly educated of high-quality and on a high income—in the eyes of other people. She is also of the social group known as "leftover women" by virtue of not having found a spouse at their optimum age for love and marriage.
"I can still have a wonderful, fulfilled life without a boyfriend," Lin said.
It is difficult, however, for parents to accept their offspring's single status. They often try all possible ways to arrange blind dates for daughters, but with little success.
"I don't have much to talk about on those dates," Lin confessed, "and I don't enjoy going on them. But I don't want to break my mom's heart. I want a quality relationship with my future life mate, and for him to have a sense of responsibility and filial piety."
Lin's sentiments match those of most young people. A recent survey by a dating website shows that integrity, talent, personality, looks, and health are the five factors young people looking for spouses are most concerned about. They wish their life partners to have the qualities of decency, generosity and morality, kindness and gentleness, and also to be talented.
There are women who disregard economic factors when looking for spouses, and place greater emphasis on human dignity, freedom and independence.
The growing number of urban women that own their independent living space is also gaining media attention.
It is reported that 13.6 percent of single career women get a sense of security from purchasing real estate; that 75 percent like the private space it gives them; and that it gives 4.61 percent of them a sense of accomplishment.
One woman wrote in her blog: "The house is more practical than the ring, more loyal than friends and more reliable than men because it cannot run away, and its value also appreciates."
Sociologists believe that more and more women consider the house as their own property rather than linked to marriage and a family. Independent ownership of real estate greatly reduces their dependence on others, including that on marriage. It also improves their freedom and sense of security in dealing with relationships and marital affairs.
New cyber words name new social phenomena. For instance, pets-only DINK family (ding chong) refers to DINK families who keep pets as surrogate children. Indoor woman refers to young women today who prefer to stay at home getting online rather than go out.
Economic independence, social openness and tolerance give Chinese women more diversified choices in marital matters.
Chinese women's marriage concepts have progressed in leaps and bounds from the "dictates of parents and words of matchmakers" to "I am in charge of my life."