When Zhu Xiuyun’s parents ordered her to end a relationship with the man she loved because of an unacceptable age gap she was devastated.
The year was 1985, and Zhu was 25 years old and living in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. At just two years younger, the man she wanted to marry could hardly be described as a toy boy, but in the social climate of the times he was far too young to make a suitable husband, and he had to go.
“In those days, if a man married an older woman, even if they were in love, he was seen as a loser,” Zhu said, adding that husbands were always expected to be better educated and older than their wives.
“It was considered really radical, even until as recently as the 2000s. I didn’t want my family to be seen as a joke in the neighbourhood so I gave up the relationship.”
Attitudes towards marriage in China have been slow to change, but progress is being made, Guangzhou Daily reported late last week, citing research by the institute of sociology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
According to the study, just 13 per cent of marriages recorded in the 1990s involved a younger groom. So far in the 2010s, that figure has rocketed to more than 40 per cent.
Better educational and employment opportunities for women, as well as a severe gender imbalance were all contributing to the decline of a centuries-old tradition that deemed Chinese husbands must be older than their wives, the study said.
Zhu’s daughter Yang Siwei is living proof of how attitudes in one Chinese family have been transformed in just a generation. The 31-year-old public relations manager at a tech start-up in Shanghai is married to a man four years her junior.
“For my mum’s generation, older, successful men were considered the best husband material,” Yang said.
“Husbands were used to being in control of their wives, but in my generation, that’s not so. Love has nothing to do with money, education or age, but is about sharing and a relationship of equals.”
Luo Aiping, a family lawyer and co-author of Investigation into China’s Leftover Women, said the marital playing field was levelling out for men and women.
“Traditionally men were considered superior because of their better education and better jobs,” she said.
“[But] One of the most main factors for [the rise in] jiedilian – a romance between an older woman and a younger man – is that Chinese women are now more educated than ever … and have better job opportunities.”
Such relationships were becoming increasingly common in China’s big cities, Luo said, where men and women of different ages were more likely to meet in the workplace and socially.
“The new trend of men marrying older women means that the traditional view in China that men are somehow more important than women is changing forever,” Luo said.
“Women should be cheering for it.”