Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi

Contents

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pp. vii-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-14

I dove into this project armed with little more than my familiarity with Western relationships and a willingness to listen, read, and learn. As such, I owe a debt of cultural and intellectual gratitude to ever so many people, and I want to give special thanks to those who generously shared their time and knowledge....

Note on Pronunciation

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pp. 15-16

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Introduction: Who Wants an Ugly Wife?

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pp. 1-18

Mr. Wang paused, pondering the matter. “Well, maybe a rich man would want a beautiful wife,” he mused, “because she would not really need to do any housework.”
At thirty-one, Mr. Wang was not a rich man. But he was married. We were talking over tea and snacks in a Starbucks, huddled back from the bustle of the Chegongmiao metro station in Shenzhen, China....

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Prologue: Rooster Weddings, Second Wives, and Little Feet

Chang Xing

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pp. 19-22

In February 2012 I had the serendipitous pleasure of sitting next to Chang Xing, a seventy-eight-year-old Chinese woman, on a flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo. As we chatted over tea, Mrs. Chang told me she was returning home to Houston, Texas, after a visit to her Hong Kong–based son. She poked up one black-and-gray eyebrow when I mentioned my interest in the love and marriage stories of her homeland. “Would you like to hear about the weddings of my great-aunt and...

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PART ONE The 1950s Generation: When Love Didn’t Exist

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pp. 23-27

The 1950s generation, the first citizens born in Communist China, came of age in a world devoid of romantic love. They learned that life was a high-stakes mission and that their role was critical to its success. They grew up building socialism and fighting class enemies, not thinking about boyfriends or prom dresses. They were taught to care about the causes and teachings of Mao Zedong and to work selflessly for their country. In the harsh light of this grand collective...

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Love after Revolution

Jack Chou (b. 1954)

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pp. 28-36

My wife was my first and only date in my life, but not because I am an unromantic man. It was just that there was little room for romance when I was young, for many reasons.
My memory of the country when I was small is pretty gloomy. Our lives were dominated by political turbulence and economic deprivations. Political movements, mainly from inside the Communist Party, came one after another throughout my teenage years. By the close of...

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We Didn’t Know What Love Was

Lucy Lai (b. 1957)

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pp. 37-47

Lucy Lai was born in Beijing, the capital city of China. At fifty-five years of age, Lucy is an attractive woman, with full lips, a bright smile, and short black hair that puffs in gentle waves. We met in Portofino, a neighborhood where shops, Western cafes, and Laurel, a famous dim sum restaurant, ringed a picturesque lake. Lucy asked if we minded cigarettes and then methodically smoked an entire pack while she unfolded her delicate memories. She has two sons and runs a successful business with her second husband. But Lucy feels disoriented in life and wishes for more. Her story reaches into the past, tracing the murmur of things both experienced and left undone....

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The Three Wives of a Former (Teenage) Intelligence Operative

Tom Liu (b. 1958)

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pp. 48-56

Tom Liu was born in Dalian, a major port city in Liaoning, a northeastern province. He described his home city as a “very nice, romantic city, influenced by traditional Russian and Japanese architectural styles.” Dalian is China’s northernmost warm-water harbor and was home to foreign traders and businesspeople in the early twentieth century. It was also the entry point for occupations by the British, Russians, and Japanese....

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The First Group Wedding in Zhengzhou

Ma Yajing (b. 1959)

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pp. 57-62

Ma Yajing is fifty-three years old and came of age during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. She was raised in a village in Henan, but she and her husband now live in its provincial capital, on the southern banks of the Yellow River. For the past year, Ma Yajing has been living with her daughter in Shenzhen to help raise her new grandchild. It was this daughter who introduced us....

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The “Old Hand” Man

Mr. Yang (b. 1959)

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pp. 63-68

Mr. Yang grew up in a small city in Guangdong province and moved to Shenzhen in the late 1980s, as the special economic zone picked up steam. Linda and I interviewed him near his home, at a Starbucks in the Sea World neighborhood. If “Sea World” sounds like it should involve dolphin shows and the iconic Shamu, picture instead a neighborhood several blocks back from the water, featuring little more than an enormous landlocked boat to claim its name. Sea World is best known for its huddle of somewhat dated international restaurants and...

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PART TWO The 1960s Generation: Forbid the Early Love

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pp. 69-72

The 1960s generation grew up in the shadow of the worst famine in human history. Between 1959 and 1962, as the nation implemented new agricultural policies and a foolhardy iron-ore production scheme, farm output plummeted and tens of millions of Chinese people starved to death. The nation’s official estimates place the death toll at seventeen million, while independent scholars argue it was thirty or even...

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Marriage Is Nothing Special

Ziu Shouhe (b. 1960) and Lin Chunjiao (b. 1962)

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pp. 73-79

This interview, conducted with a Hunanese couple in their early fifties, was one of the few we did with both husband and wife present. Their daughter May and their baby granddaughter also joined us. In the beginning of our project, I expected some people would bring their spouse or partner along for the interview, but very few did....

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Wearing White for Chairman Mao

Xu Kiwi (b. 1966)

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pp. 80-86

Xu Kiwi is forty-six years old and came to Shenzhen in search of a new life in the special economic zone nearly twenty years ago. She moved here against the wishes of her family and ex-boyfriend, which shows some remarkable independence. At the time Shenzhen was one of the only places in China where she, a university graduate, could search independently for a job. Kiwi wanted to make her own way in the world....

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The Boy with the Baby-Raise-Wife

Liu Wumin (b. 1966)

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pp. 87-92

Liu Wumin is forty-six years old and was born and raised in Jiangxi province, in China’s inland southeast. His parents arranged for him to marry a child bride, but he avoided this fate, marrying a girl from the local brick factory instead. The couple raised three children and recently celebrated the marriage of their oldest daughter. I was curious to hear Liu Wumin’s love story and also to know how he felt about his daughter getting married....

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My Reasons for Hating My Father

Wen “Ayi” (b. 1967)

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pp. 93-98

Wen Ayi is forty-four years old and grew up in Sichuan, a large province in southwestern China known for spicy dishes and beautiful women. Wen Ayi comes from a poor village family, and after completing the fifth grade, she worked full-time to help them. Her back is stooped and her skin dark from a lifetime of manual labor, but Wen Ayi wears a constant smile, and her face is surprisingly youthful. (“Ayi” is a friendly term for a domestic worker, so her name is equivalent to “Auntie Wen.”)...

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A Good Fortune-Teller and Three Tips for Concealing Your Outside Woman

Mr. Zhang (b. 1968) and Mr. Wu (b. 1977)

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pp. 99-103

Forty-three-year-old Mr. Zhang grew up in a small village in Shandong province, along China’s eastern seaboard. Mr. Zhang was the first open member of the Communist Party who interviewed with us. Linda whispered to me that he was a “typical Chinese government person,” serious and traditional, a little bit fat from beer, and always trying to follow the rules. Mr. Zhang told us that you don’t have to join the party to work in government, but most people do....

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You Know Your Boyfriend Is Married If . . .

“Big Carol” (b. 1968)

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pp. 104-108

Big Carol is forty-four years old and grew up in the icy northern province of Ningxia, a small dab of a place tucked under the expanse of Inner Mongolia. Her parents were university professors, and Big Carol also graduated from college. She was one of the tallest Chinese women I had met, and she explained that her friends call her “Big Carol” because she is taller and a bit broader than the other Carol in her group of girlfriends. Her ready smile was bright and sparkling beneath a coat of peach-colored lipstick. This cosmetic choice surprised me because most women her age wear no makeup at all....

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PART THREE The 1970s Generation: Sex and Love . . . or Marriage?

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pp. 109-111

The 1970s generation truly straddles two Chinas. Born in the midst of the Cultural Revolution but coming of age in the era of “reform and opening up,” this is both a Mao and a post-Mao generation. Their early life was steeped in philosophies of self-sacrifice and radical collectivism, but Mao soon died, and their world slowly changed. They are the last generation that grew up in big families, only to be restricted...

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My Lover’s Name Is Sam

Fangfei (b. 1972)

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pp. 112-122

Fangfei is a slim, attractive, forty-year-old woman who grew up in a small village in Hunan province with her parents and twin brothers. Well educated and well spoken, she is now an instructor in a popular Chinese self-help program that combines psychology, yoga, and self-care. She credits this program with changing her life....

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For One Tree, Do Not Sacrifice the Forest

Ming-Ming (b. 1972)

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pp. 123-130

Ming-Ming is thirty-eight years old and grew up in a small city in Anhui, an inland province due west of Shanghai. She has lived in Shenzhen for fifteen years and met her husband on the Internet. They opted for a luǒhūn, or “naked marriage,” just six months after their first date. Such a marriage is controversial, as the union is sealed without the exchange of cash, an apartment, or cars or any elaborate wedding celebration. Parents and friends may worry about a girl who...

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Shenzhen Marriage Park: Want Ads of Last Resort

Jason (b. 1974)

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pp. 131-142

In Shenzhen’s Lianhuashan Park, seven huge notice boards stand huddled inside a pleasant grove of fat Chinese palms. This public space is dedicated to matchmaking, and parents and grandparents of all types gather in the shade of the palms to read ads, meet each other, and match up their overripe children. Unmarried men and women in their thirties and forties drop by as well, perusing the signs and discretely punching numbers into their phones....

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The Ultimate Perfect Happiness as a Stay-at-Home Mom

Sally (b. 1976)

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pp. 143-153

Sally is thirty-six years old and was born in the big city of Xi’an, during the final year of the Cultural Revolution. Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province, an interior region of eastern China known for wonderful dumplings and the recent discovery of the terra-cotta warriors. Sally is a pretty, confident woman whose laugh comes in a burst, as though she is pleased and slightly scandalized by what you’ve just said. After college she dumped her “iron rice bowl” job, rejecting...

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A Man Who Could Speak His Own Name

Chou Xiao (b. 1978)

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pp. 154-162

Chou Xiao is thirty-three years old and grew up in Shandong province, along China’s northeastern coast. After graduating from university he moved to Shenzhen to work in the software industry. Chou Xiao is a tall, good-looking man with a strong face and an easy smile. A few years ago he married a woman who loves him very much, and they have a baby son. He sees his new family only a few times a year, during public holidays, as his wife still lives and works as...

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PART FOUR The 1980s Generation: Reform and Opening Up of the Heart

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pp. 163-166

The bālínghòu, as the 1980s generation are commonly called, were born into a rapidly changing world. The economy was booming, the practice of arranged marriages had all but disappeared, factories and cities seemed to leap up overnight, and romantic love clamored to become part of courtship. At the same time, education levels and women’s earning potential were increasing, the guarantees of the...

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Girls

Ben Wang (b. 1980)

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pp. 167-175

Ben Wang is a broad-chested man whose satisfied belly and slick hair make him look older than his thirty-one years. He grew up on a farm in Shandong province, where his parents hoped to raise enough wheat, corn, green vegetables, and chickens to feed the family, profiting from any surplus. In this northern region, people usually prefer wheat over rice, making a kind of bun called mántou each day. Ben has worked in a number of cities as an engineer but recently joined an architectural firm in Shenzhen so that he and his wife could live together....

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Six Times Love

Pan Shanshan (b. 1984)

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pp. 176-181

Pan Shanshan was born in Fujian, a southeastern coastal province that faces Taiwan across the East China Sea. Her childhood was spent even farther south, in Shenzhen, but after primary school she moved many times for educational and familial reasons. She recently returned to Shenzhen to do office management and recruitment for a foreign import/export company focused on Zambian copper mines. Shanshan is tall, slim, and attractive, with bright eyes, dimpled cheeks, and a vivacious spark behind her warm smile. She talked easily, laughed often, and brushed her bangs out of her face while she spoke....

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Everyone Knows That a Girl Shouldn’t Like a Girl

Riley (b. 1985)

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pp. 182-196

Riley is a twenty-seven-year-old architect from Sichuan province. She was my very last interviewee, as it proved quite difficult to find anyone in China who was openly gay and willing to share his or her story. Riley was a friend of a friend of a friend of mine, and when I asked if she would tell us her story, she texted back, “I would love to.”...

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A Wife of Noble Character, Who Can Find?

Lightly Chanchan (b. 1985)

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pp. 197-204

Lightly is twenty-six years old and grew up in a town in Hunan, a landlocked southern province. She was not raised in a religious home, but in 2006 she converted to Christianity and got involved in a local church. I was curious about the life experience of religious people, since the Communist Party extends a tenuous hand at best to gatherings of the faithful. Christianity is officially recognized in China, along with Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism, and churches can register...

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A Tale of Two Sisters: Arranged Marriages and Secret Boyfriends

Lingyu (b. 1986)

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pp. 205-209

Lingyu is twenty-five and was raised in a small, poor village in Jiangxi province. The onward march of reform and modernization has barely ruffled this traditional pocket of China, where parents still arrange marriages and sons reign paramount. Lingyu’s education terminated after she finished middle school, and she has worked various jobs for a decade since, ultimately moving to Shenzhen for better opportunities. She currently works in a shoe store and sends the bulk of her salary back to her parents each month....

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She Cut Out My Chicken Eyes

Licai (b. 1988)

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pp. 210-214

Licai is twenty-four years old and grew up in Sichuan province. He is one of China’s “modern migrants,” part of a mass migration of millions of young people who have jumped from factory to shop to salon, and from province to province, coming from the village to the big city for work. Licai currently works at a barbershop in Shenzhen, the place where Linda gets her hair done, and he agreed to speak with us about his love life....

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PART FIVE The 1990s Generation: Unguided Love

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pp. 215-217

The jiǔlínghòu, or 1990s generation, are the teenagers, university students, and youngest workers of current-day China. As they grow up, they are navigating a world flooded with foreign and domestic books, films, TV, and websites abuzz with possibilities for personal happiness and romantic love. While the Great Firewall was in place by 1998 and the government still does its best to censor the Internet, today’s ...

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The Buddhist Oracle Said “No Boyfriends”

Carrie (b. 1990)

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pp. 218-225

Carrie is a bubbly, slender girl of twenty-two. She was born to Buddhist parents in the Year of the Horse and grew up in Fujian, a coastal province directly across from Taiwan. Carrie finished her undergraduate studies just last year and moved to Shenzhen for her first job....

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I Thought We Would Be Together Forever

Ethan Li Mingwen (b. 1994)

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pp. 226-232

Seventeen-year-old Ethan was born in Sichuan, but his family moved to Shenzhen before he started the first grade. I met him at the end of his second year of high school and was surprised to learn of his plans to enjoy a “gap year” after graduation. After that he hopes to attend New York University and make his mark overseas. A sincere boy with eyes that crinkle when he asks questions, Ethan is both gangly and endearing....

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I Thought to Myself

Yu Lihe (b. 1995)

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pp. 233-239

At sixteen, Yu Lihe is a short and willowy girl with full pink cheeks and fashionably short hair. She grew up in Sichuan province with her mother, as her parents divorced when she was young. While many children mentioned growing up with only one full-time parent, Lihe was the first person I interviewed whose parents had actually split up....

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A Conventional Man

Will Guo Pingyou (b. 1996)

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pp. 240-244

Sixteen-year-old Will Guo Pingyou was raised in central Jiangxi province by his parents and paternal grandparents. When he was six years old, his parents left their hometown and moved to Shenzhen in time for Will to start first grade. Their commitment to his education has panned out well, as Will tested into the best high school in Shenzhen....

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There Are Three Kinds of Chinese Parents

Emma Yang Xichi and Peony Li Dandan (b. 1999)

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pp. 245-254

Emma and Peony were twelve years old and just beginning seventh grade, the first year of middle school, when we had our interview. They have known each other since preschool and were each other’s first best friend. I anticipated this meeting with great curiosity, as I presumed that kids growing up in Shenzhen would have access to a wider variety of ideas than children growing up in villages or towns, or even other cities that are not special economic zones. I wondered if they might consequently think more progressively....

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Conclusion

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pp. 255-280

Since the rise of China’s Communist regime, marriage has somersaulted from a parentally arranged relationship that was never intended to include romantic love to a relationship chosen by spouses who now expect a little more from the institution. This transition unfolded over just sixty years, against a backdrop of political turmoil, social oppression, reform, and modernization. During the transition, romantic...

Appendix

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pp. 281-286

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 287-288