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Section II: Living in China continued—Dating, Sex, and Relationships

What are Chinese Girls Really Looking for in a Husband?

Empirical Research

Prof. Li Yinhe

Prof Li Yinhe, China's first female sociologist on sex

Some years ago, Dr. Li Yinhe, a highly-renowned professor at the Sociological Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, conducted an analysis of personal ads in a local newspaper and rank-ordered the stated importance of each of the attributes or traits that was being sought in a potential partner. In descending order of importance, they were: 1) Age; 2) Height; 3) Education; 4) Character and Temperament; 5) Profession; 6) Marital Status and Personal History; 7) Appearance and, finally; 8) Health (Wu, 2005).

In 2008, an updated and extended version of this study was conducted over a three month period with a total of 302 respondents (Mavrides, 2009). The new study presented participants with a list of nine "marital assets" (i.e., character and temperament, health, appearance, education, height, age, future earning potential, family background, and virginity) and eight "personal traits" (i.e., intelligence, honesty, loyalty, kindness, romanticism, industriousness, dependability and humor) and asked them to rank-order each list in descending order of importance in terms of what they were seeking in a future partner. For the purpose of this unit, only the results collected from the female respondents will be summarized and discussed below.

Study's Participants

The female respondents ranged in age from 16 through 28 years old, with a mean age of 21.5, SD=2.53. Most of the respondents (91.7 percent) were from mainland China (N = 132), representing 14 different provinces, while 8.3 percent were from Hong Kong (N = 12). Close to 80 percent of the respondents were attending a four-to-six year undergraduate degree program (N = 114), two were currently in senior middle school, four had graduated senior middle school but were currently not in college, and just under 17 percent had completed either a bachelor's or master's degree and were gainfully employed (N = 24). More than a quarter of the women indicated they had grown up in family households that could be described as upper middle-class or affluent (27.8 percent), the majority at 52.8 percent indicated a middle-class family background, while the remaining 19.4 percent indicated they had been raised by poor or working class families.

The majority of the respondents (70.9 percent) indicated no religious affiliation at all, while the remaining participants described themselves as Buddhists and Christians in descending order of frequency (16.7 and 12.4 percent, respectively). Just over a third of the respondents indicated they had never been in a relationship; 30.6 percent indicated one lifetime relationship; 19.4 percent reported two total relationships and 12.6 percent reported three to seven total lifetime relationships (N = 142, two responses were indicative of typographical errors and could not be used).

Slightly over 83 percent of the women indicated they were still virgins as opposed to 60 percent of the men and this finding was highly significant (χ2(1) = 19.10, p < .001). Almost 30 percent of the women either strongly agreed or agreed that it is best to only date and then later marry one man in their lifetime (N = 42); 31.9 percent either strongly disagreed or disagreed with that statement, while the remaining 38.9 percent neither agreed nor disagreed. In regard to cohabitation prior to marriage, just over a quarter of the women (26.4 percent) were against it, 36.1 percent had no clear feelings about it either way, while 37.5 percent thought it was a good idea.

While the majority of women in the study (58.3 percent) indicated that they had clear intentions of getting married one day, 40.3 percent of the respondents weren't sure and 1.4 percent (N = 2) indicated that they did not want to get married at any point in the future. Related, 65.3 percent of the female respondents indicated that they planned to have a child one day, 26.4 percent indicated that they weren't sure, and the remaining 8.3 percent stated that they did not want to have children.

The majority of the study's women (63.9 percent) indicated that they did not want to date or marry a man who smokes, while only 12.5 percent stated that they would not marry a man who drinks at all (i.e., would not marry a "social drinker"). A clear majority of the women (58.3 percent) stated that they would not marry a man if they could not eventually receive parental approval of their choice.

In regard to a preference for dating and later marrying a foreign man, 15.3 percent of the study's female participants indicated that they would not even consider it, while another 48.6 percent indicated a clear preference for a Chinese man but stated they would consider a foreigner "if the right one came along." Only 4.2 percent (N = 6) indicated a moderate preference for dating and marrying a foreign man and not one of the 144 respondents indicated an exclusive preference for a foreign over a Chinese man. The most commonly stated reasons for this were "parents would not agree" and "problems with different cultures." Related, and not coincidentally, the six girls who indicated a preference for dating and marrying a foreign man were entirely among those who also indicated that they would not require parental approval of their choice.

Rank-ordered Preferences in Marital Assets and Personal Traits

Table 1
Rank-ordered Preferences of Marital Assets, N = 144
Rank-ordered Mean
Character & Temperament
Family Background/Social Status

Table 2
Rank-ordered Preferences of Personal Traits, N = 144
Rank-ordered Mean
Loyalty (will not cheat on or leave me)
Dependability (will keep promises)
Industrious (hardworking, ambitious)
Humorous (can make me laugh)


Marital Assets

It appears that quite a lot has changed in China over the past 15 years since Prof. Li first conducted her initial study of dating and marital preferences. I think a lot of these differences can be at least partially explained by China's rapid economic growth and, not unrelated, the soaring divorce rate over the past ten years.

Based on the newer findings, it is clear that what Chinese girls are really looking for today in a future spouse is stability and dependability: someone who is going to remain committed to them for the long haul. They want a man of good character and balanced temperament who is not going to cheat on them or leave them in 15 years for a younger woman, as soon as he can afford to do so. For centuries, Chinese people greeted one another with a question that reflected the country's most pressing concern: "Chi le ma" (Have you eaten)? Today, according to a recent joke circulating in Beijing, the former greeting has been replaced with "Li le ma" (Have you divorced)?

Whereas health ranked in last place in Li's study, it now ranks right under character and temperament as the second most important asset in a future husband, and this finding is echoed by the fact that almost 64 percent of the female respondents in this study did not want to date or marry a man who smokes. More than 12 percent of the young women didn't even want a man who drinks at all, even socially. The message is clear: "I want a husband who is going to be with me for many years to come."

A man's profession (future earning potential) and education were just about tied for third and fourth place. The Chinese, not just as a matter of national policy but as a deeply ingrained cultural norm, place an extremely high value on the importance of education. In 2007, China invested 4 percent of its GDP into improving the quality of its educational system and, one year prior to that, produced some 34,000 PhDs: more than any other country in the world barring the United States (Baker, 2007). Therefore it is not surprising that Chinese girls would rank profession and education as more important than appearance in mate selection. Similar to the findings on age and height differentials by gender, the Chinese do believe that a man should be better educated than his girlfriend or wife (certainly no less so).

For reasons that should now be clear, overall physical appearance is simply not considered a very important factor for women in mate selection in China. However, having just written this, it is also true that most Chinese girls will more favorably evaluate a foreign man’s physical appearance than their Western counterparts do. The reason for this is that the Chinese tend to focus on specific facial features and other characteristics, such as skin coloring, rather than on the overall gestalt when evaluating Western beauty: They will focus on the size and shape of the eyes, the shape of the nose (particularly the definition of the bridge) and on skin and hair coloring.

Foreign men with fair complexion and light hair will be considered very attractive in China even if most Western women do not think so (and this is generally true across Asia). Most Chinese girls, although they certainly like men who are in good shape and well-toned, will eschew those who could be described as “muscle-bound,” especially if they are well-tanned or dark skinned, primarily due to the connotation associated with it in China, i.e., it signifies manual labor and poor education. This latter reality exists in stark contrast to, for example, American-born Chinese girls who actually prefer, on par with fair-haired men, dark-haired, muscular, and Mediterranean, i.e., "swarthy" type of men (Tan, 2002). Related, Chinese girls also have a much higher tolerance for men who are overweight, as—even in China today, although far less so than twenty years ago—a “big belly” is associated with prosperity. Another interesting difference, in regard to appearance, is that most Chinese girls (Chinese in general actually) seem to have a pleasant curiosity about tattoos that is absent the social stigma they may hold for some Western women (it's as if they are more or less expected on foreign men).

The importance of family background (personal history) ranked in the same place (6th) in this study as it did in Prof. Li's earlier work. However, in this study, the social status of a future spouse appeared to be more important to girls who, perhaps, feel they may be less competitive as potential marriage partners by having lost their virginity or, related, by having engaged in more than two relationships over the course of their lifetimes. Thus, the desire for higher social status in a future spouse appears to be mostly compensatory.

Related, the vast majority of female respondents (83 percent) in this study claimed to still be virgins and this was only slightly (although significantly) associated with age (r = .252, p < .001). Thus the age of the young women only accounted for about 6 percent of the variance in virginity. These findings are consistent with a former study conducted in Shanghai that revealed that only 19 percent of the respondents of approximately the same age were sexually active (People's Daily, 2003).

Unlike the rather significant role that it plays in the West, for the vast majority of girls in China, religious affiliation plays absolutely no role in mate selection here (most Chinese identify themselves as atheists and religious affiliation was not associated with differences in the rank order of either assets or traits). Most girls will just try to fit in with whatever religious beliefs the foreign man holds. The only exception to this will be among those who have recently converted to Christianity: They will only be interested in men with the same beliefs (although one’s particular sect or denomination would be irrelevant).

Personal Traits

A careful analysis of the descending rank order of the eight personal traits presented in this study clearly indicates that marriage in China today is still very much a practical matter. A man's loyalty (fidelity), dependability and honesty are considerably more important to Chinese girls than are his sense of humor, kindness and romanticism. In addition, it would be accurate to think of marriage in China today as still something of a joint venture between parents and child: More than 58 percent of the women in this study indicated that they would not marry a man unless their parents eventually approved of the union. In addition, and although this appears to be changing over time, almost 30 percent of the respondents indicated that it is still best to date and marry only one man (and an additional 32 percent neither agreed nor disagreed with this statement). Thus, multiple casual dating, even among China's upwardly mobile, well-educated young women, is still not something most consider to be desirable.

Differences in the rank ordering of industriousness (hard working, ambitious) were highly associated with the age of the respondent: Older women tended to rank it as far more important than the younger ones (χ2(2) = 12.53, p = .002). Thus, the older a Chinese woman is, the more she needs to know that her husband will do his best and work hard to provide a comfortable life for her (and this finding is probably universally true irrespective of culture).

Differences in the rank ordering of humor proved to be very interesting: Young women who described their family backgrounds as either middle, working class, or poor, were far more likely to rank order humor higher (more important) that those who described themselves as having come from the upper classes (χ2(2) = 22.77, p < .001). Conversely, women raised in upper middle-class households tended to value kindness as more important than did those who come from poorer backgrounds (χ2(2) = 8.39, p = .015). Perhaps girls raised in poor families do not expect to be treated with kindness, but will settle for a man with a good sense of humor instead.

Another interesting finding was revealed in the analysis of the preferential differences on the trait of loving/romantic. A young woman's total number of lifetime relationships was highly associated with this trait's differential rank-ordering. Overall, the more relationships the respondents reported having, the more likely they were to rank the trait of loving/romantic higher in importance (χ2(2) = 29.58, p < .001). Again, this difference appears to be compensatory in that those who have had multiple relationships and are no longer virgins still want to believe that they will be treated as if they are, nevertheless, special and highly desirable.

Finally, the findings in regard to a preference for dating and later marrying a foreigner were quite surprising: 15.3 percent of the study's female participants indicated that they would not even consider it, while another 48.6 percent indicated a clear preference for a Chinese man but stated they would consider a foreigner "if the right one came along." Only 4.2 percent (N = 6) indicated a moderate preference for dating and marrying a foreign man and not one of the 144 respondents indicated an exclusive preference for a Westerner over a Chinese man. This led us to consider that our previous claims regarding the ubiquitous and pervasive desirability of foreign men in China was overstated. Although we still believe that foreign men are highly desirable in China, it appears that their allure is limited to a far more specific group of women than we had previously stated (in earlier editions of the guide). We will discuss those conclusions in the next section titled "Understanding the Attraction to Foreign Men."


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