'To marry for money or for love?' - the age-old question takes on a new meaning for today's youth in China.
'Would you marry a boyfriend with no house or car?' enquired a post on a popular Chinese Internet forum, called Tianya Club (www.tianya.cn). The question attracted over 18,000 hits on the website and over 500 replies being posted within just a couple of days.
"It's a Catch-22 situation. If you are marrying for money, you feel like you're selling yourself; if you are walking into a marriage for love, in five or 10 years, you will realize that love doesn't pay your house mortgage, your phone, gas, or electricity bills," reflects Marsha Zhao, a communications officer for a foreign company in Beijing.
The newly-married Marsha, 25, swears her marriage is a result of pure love. "Think about this," she says, "My husband has less of everything than I do. In education, he holds a Bachelor's degree; I have a Master's. He earns less money than I do and doesn't even have a permanent residence card for Beijing... and you know how much parents care about that!"
Earning 100,000 Yuan (US$1=Chinese Yuan7.5) a year, which is 50 per cent more than what most of her peers working as newspaper reporters earn, Marsha explains that for her, buying a house or having a baby is not a priority. "We want our own apartment but the prices are outrageous. We simply cannot afford one," she says. The young couple currently lives in an apartment provided by Marsha's parents.
This love match apart, a recent online survey conducted by the Beijing-based 'China Youth Daily' survey centre indicates that marriage does come at a price. According to Fang Yihan, an editor at the survey centre, 58.8 per cent of men and 51.6 per cent of women believe there is "starting price" in marriage.
Among the 10,050 female respondents, only 47.4 per cent thought it's "ok" for a man to have no car when it comes to marriage, but was definitely not alright for him to have no house. On the other hand, only 39.3 per cent of the 8,962 male respondents shared this view.
Meanwhile, seven per cent of the women said they wouldn't consider marrying someone with no house or car, and 11 per cent men said they wouldn't even propose to their girlfriends if they had none of these two assets.
Olivia Jiang, 25, is still looking for her 'Mr. Right'. By 'Mr Right', Jiang means a perfect combination of love and wealth. "I don't really care if he has a house or a car, but he must have money. No matter how deeply you love each other, financial difficulties will sooner or later ruin the marriage," she rues.
Working for an international consultancy firm in the capital, Olivia realizes that her monthly salary of 7,000 Yuan can hardly cover her expenses. So, despite pining for a pair of her dream shoes, Olivia will have to wait till the discount sale. "Even then, they will still cost more than 1,000 Yuan," she sighs.
So how much should an ideal husband bring home each month? Olivia believes that with a 100,000 Yuan monthly salary, a couple would not have to worry about a mortgage, a car, or the cost of raising a child.
Such expectations may make the youth - young women in particular - appear mercenary. However, Wu Ran, a theatre director, thinks it is normal and legitimate for a woman to want to marry a man owning a house and a car. "You don't have to own a villa and a BMW," Wu clarifies, "but a car or a house shows a man's stable status."
Wu Ran would know. After all, he has directed 'D Style Life', a play that portrays the life of a young man who, having bought an apartment in an upscale area, secretly works two jobs to pay off the mortgage. He doesn't tell his girlfriend the truth for fear that she would dump him once she discovers that he is not the wealthy man she wanted.
"So many girls are like that in real life," explains Wu. "For me, it's an absolute must to have a house and a car before I marry the girl I love. I want to provide her a stable life."
Unlike a romance, married life involves two kinds of social relations: material and ideological. Therefore, "it is necessary and natural to have material demands, when it comes to marriage," explains Wang Wei, Deputy Director, Beijing Marriage & Family Institute.
Take the ideological era of the Cultural Revolution. Many women sought prospective husbands who had a good political background, a bicycle, a watch, a sewing machine and a radio. These were the prerequisites of marriage. During that period, one needed commodity ration coupons to buy such items and thus such commodities became symbols of power and the hallmark of an idea match.
Times have changed. "You cannot expect your children to not be materially inclined when society is full of advertising, and the 'no-free-lunch' philosophy has infiltrated our social life," says Li Dun, a sociologist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Last November, Shanghai, reputed to be China's most consumerist city, ran its first exclusive "Love Boat" party on the 'Captain One' to hook up local millionaires with rich and pretty women. The chance to find a dream partner was fixed at 28,000 Yuan.
The qualifications for making it to the party were a net worth of not less than two million Yuan for the men, and "pretty and desirable" for the women.
"I don't see anything wrong with that. It's a fair game - men and women get what they look for. Really, nothing is free. The wedding ceremony alone can cost you $1,000," reveals Yang, who is in her 30s and on the look out for her ideal man who must drive nothing less than a Porsche.
Indeed, the latest figures from the Shanghai Wedding Service Industry Association show that the average wedding spending in Shanghai hit 187,000 Yuan (US$23,375) in 2006 - 271 times that of the 1970s. Of course, a large chunk of such expenditure is a consequence of expenses on apartment decoration, branded products, and the honeymoon, rather than the actual wedding.
Zou Junyuan of Changsha, 76, still remembers her wedding ceremony "was very simple". "We stood in front of Chairman Mao's portrait, exchanging vows before relatives and the invited friends. Our major spending was our bed, sheets, and other living necessities."
While money can't guarantee happiness, Bi Jinyi, a Beijing-based divorce lawyer and marriage and relationship consultant has noticed that most of the divorce cases that have come her way "are related to financial problems".