The Steep Price for a Chinese Bride

Men in the relatively affluent eastern coastal province of Zhejiang typically pay $24,000 -- more than three times their average annual income -- to their future spouse's family

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Brides line up to attend a wedding ceremony in Shaanxi province, China, on August 28, 2011

In a country where 117 baby boys are born for every 100 baby girls, it might come as no surprise that Chinese men of marriageable age are willing to pay for the privilege of securing a wife. What’s startling is just how much they’re willing to shell out. According to data published by Quartz on Sunday, men in the relatively wealthy eastern coastal province of Zhejiang typically pay $24,000 — more than three times their average annual income — to their future spouse’s family.

The four other provinces where men pay the most for their wives are Shandong (where the going rate is $20,800), Shanghai ($16,000), Hubei ($12,800) and Tibet ($12,800). Quartz compiled the data provided by Vanke, a real estate company, and Sina, the Chinese-language portal. According to Quartz, the figures have “sparked debate around the nation about how the bride price tradition reflects an obsession with materialism and makes it hard for young Chinese couples to start families.”

Chinese wages as a whole have tripled over the past decade, according to the International Labor Organization’s Global Wage Report. The average annual income in China ranged from $4,688 to $7,543 in 2012, according to a Wall Street Journal report based on data released by the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. And despite China’s recent economic slowdown, Zhejiang’s economy is still going strong, buoyed by the consumer-goods and mechanical-and-electrical-equipment industries, according to a report last month in the China Daily.

(MORE: Chinese Grave Robbers Jailed for Selling Ghost Brides)

While some may be quick to point to China’s lowest-in-the-world female-to-male ratio, the price of brides in various provinces doesn’t always reflect the disparity or economics of specific regions. The sixth highest “bride prices” were in areas where the female deficit is less pronounced, including Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning provinces. The prices were also relatively high in economically weaker areas like Qinghai, which had the 15th highest rates out of the 29 regions compared.

With an estimated 24 million more men than women, brides in the world’s most populous country have substantial bargaining power. Results of the 2011 Chinese Marriage Situation Survey Report, in which more than 50,000 Chinese men and women took part, showed that 92% of women thought a stable income is necessary for marriage and almost three-quarters of those surveyed believed men should only get married once they own “housing properties.”

The premium men pay for women doesn’t convey other privileges, however. “Attracting a high bride-price is not the same as gaining more autonomy, and the increased value experienced by the eastern Chinese woman occurs only on the most basic level,” Mara Hvistendahl, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, noted in her book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.

The domestic bride shortage has led to an increase in men looking outside China’s borders for an affordable life partner. Vietnam, according to scholars, is one of the most popular sources of brides for “desperate East Asian men.” And just last week, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that a Chinese national was arrested in the Philippines when he attempted to smuggle two Filipino women — prospective brides — to China. It is illegal in the Philippines to arrange marriages between Filipino women and foreign nationals for profit.