Sat, July 13

The Central Committee of the CCP issued the first document specifically addressing the issue of exorbitant bride prices and extravagant wedding banquets

As the Chinese New Year approaches, many people are suffering from headaches due to the festive banquets. This year’s Central Document No. 1 includes a statement encouraging the use of rural comprehensive service centers to provide inclusive social services for farmers’ weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies, in order to reduce the burden of rural social customs. Rural areas have long been burdened by social obligations. It is said that across the country, there are countless banquets, with Guizhou province hosting half of them. There are reports that in some places in Guizhou, building a house can be used for multiple purposes, such as hosting guests multiple times. After laying the foundation, hosting a banquet, adding a floor for another banquet, and finally completing the construction for yet another banquet. Screenshots of WeChat group chats have been circulating, with some people sharing stories of not being able to afford a full moon banquet in their childhood, and now, 20 years later, they are making up for it and inviting everyone to join. It is unclear whether these stories are true. One person from Guizhou expressed their pain, saying that the first thing they would do after earning money is to move out of Guizhou and away from the banquets. This person jokingly mentioned that even celebrating their success of leaving Guizhou would involve hosting another banquet.

It is quite common to hold banquets for weddings and funerals in rural areas, with more elaborate arrangements for such events. When it comes to celebrating academic achievements, it usually involves only two or three tables of relatives and friends. As for birthday celebrations and housewarming parties, it depends on the social circle, as there is no fixed rule requiring extravagant banquets. However, in recent years, there has been an increasing trend of ostentation and competition. In Guizhou, efforts have been made to crack down on lavish banquets, with various regions publicizing ways to report violations and offering rewards for verified reports. About 90% of villages have established committees to oversee such events, along with contracted canteens and even platforms for exposure, public shaming, and performance evaluations. For instance, some places have detailed regulations such as limiting wedding car processions to no more than ten vehicles, restricting funeral processions in urban areas to five vehicles, and capping dowry amounts at 60,000 RMB in rural areas and 80,000 RMB in county towns. Official reports claim that there has been a two-thirds reduction in banquets over the past three years. However, it is challenging to eradicate deeply ingrained social customs and personal relationships through mere regulations. Changing social norms is far from easy.

Southwestern University of Finance and Economics once released a report on Chinese household finance, revealing that the proportion of interpersonal expenses in Chinese households’ total income has reached 22.1%. One-fifth of the income is spent on gifts, which may seem tolerable at first glance. However, when grouped by annual income levels, the results paint a different picture. In the lowest 25% income bracket, urban households spend 45.1% of their total income on interpersonal expenses, with rural households likely spending even more. The burden of attending gift-giving banquets is heavier on the poor. I have seen farmers who earn only a few thousand yuan a year feeling embarrassed to give a gift of 100 yuan. The money they earn from working outside the village can be spent on half of the expenses during the May Day holiday, National Day, and Spring Festival. Since giving gifts makes them poorer, they feel the need to make up for it. The poorer they are, the more they give gifts, and the more they give gifts, the poorer they become.

Jiangxi’s betrothal gifts are also well-known, with the cost of hosting a banquet reaching tens of thousands of yuan per year. The betrothal gifts can amount to tens of thousands of yuan, which is really a burden. Jiangxi is quite constrained, with its economic development lagging behind. Although the amount of betrothal gifts in Jiangxi is not as high as in Zhejiang and Fujian, the issue of betrothal gifts is similar to giving gifts at weddings. Wealthy people can afford to maintain their reputation and extravagance, while poor people cannot. As a result, the poorer one is, the more they feel the need to keep up appearances. This cycle continues, leading to a situation where the more one tries to maintain appearances, the poorer they become. It becomes a cycle of giving and receiving gifts, with no end in sight.

According to a report by Jiemian News in 2021, there is a strong negative correlation between the financial level and development level in different regions of Jiangxi. Even within the same city, areas with lower per capita income tend to have higher average bride prices. For example, in the provincial capital of Nanchang, the average bride price ranges from 128,000 to 188,000 RMB, which is already considered high. However, in the counties and rural areas below Nanchang, the starting price for bride prices exceeds 200,000 RMB.

In recent years, Jiangxi has been making efforts to reduce high bride prices. The Civil Affairs Department of Jiangxi recently mentioned in an article that the largest decrease in bride prices in the province was seen in Fuzhou. Fuzhou’s approach involves creating a red and black list, where zero bride price is on the red list and high bride prices are on the black list. They have also set a limit on bride prices, which should not exceed three times the average annual income per villager. This regulation is considered smarter compared to other provinces as it does not impose a fixed amount but rather sets a relative limit based on villagers’ income.

At the grassroots level, things are often simple and straightforward. In rural areas, the desire for high bride prices is driven by the need to save face. By creating a black list and publicizing it, Fuzhou is addressing this issue openly. The feeling of embarrassment and awkwardness when facing high bride prices in rural areas is something that only those who have experienced it can truly understand.

Jiangxi is not just relying on publicity, they also provide tangible benefits. They were the first in the country to introduce a family courtesy mechanism. What does this courtesy entail? It includes not accepting dowries, allowing children to attend public kindergartens and primary schools in county towns after marriage, providing interest-free loans for starting a business up to 100,000 yuan, free admission to scenic spots, a free medical check-up at the county People’s Hospital, and discounts for purchases for families with no dowry. Although these are all small benefits, it is evident that Jiangxi is truly putting effort into addressing the issue of high dowries.

Are we only talking about the banquets in Guizhou and the dowries in Jiangxi? In fact, it’s the same all over the country. Many people who nostalgically remember and praise the countryside in short video comment sections should acknowledge a fact. Under the impact of money and population migration, rural areas are no longer what they used to be. Or we can say that in the past 20 years since 2000, rural areas have undergone significant changes. In the era when people had to rely on buses by the roadside, had to look at maps or constantly ask for directions when lost, and had to rely on newspapers and television for information, in the time when not every household had a private car, or even earlier, in the era of the urban-rural dual household registration system, rural areas were very closed-off, characterized by a society of acquaintances. The old banquets and dowries were based on the mutual assistance of geographical and blood ties. In a closed-off society where everyone knows each other, encounters with strangers always involve discussions about songs, ancestors, and the society of acquaintances. The ways in which people participate in social interactions, the frequency of weddings, funerals, and marriages, as well as the standards of banquets and dowries, were stable. This helped maintain a balance in social relationships.

There is a very important point to consider: reducing the burden of social obligations in rural areas does not mean eliminating them altogether. In urban areas, the sense of community is often lacking, with neighbors living next to each other for years without even knowing each other. Social interactions are limited to formalities in office buildings during the day and social gatherings at night. Even when it comes to organizing weddings, it is often reduced to a simple event from the wedding house to the hotel.

However, in rural areas, social connections and obligations are crucial. Each household’s courtyard is more like a semi-public space, fostering a sense of community. In a village with hundreds of residents, dozens of informal information stations about family affairs can emerge. In contrast, urban living spaces have become more private, requiring appointments in advance, cleaning the house, and changing shoes before entering. The natural atmosphere between hosts and guests can quickly become polite and distant.

He Xuefeng has a research on human relationships. In the vast network of human relationships in rural areas, almost all community members have the opportunity to gather frequently, participate in ceremonies, and socialize. Almost all members have economic transactions with each other, and through these economic exchanges, they form their own identity by giving and receiving favors. This is a basic condition for the survival of a rural community, a closed society of acquaintances where all families are involved in various life events such as weddings and funerals. The norms and reasons for human relationships are a consensus among villagers and cannot be arbitrarily increased or decreased. This helps maintain a balance in the frequency of participants’ gift-giving standards. For example, if one family has had many events in the past two years while another family has had fewer, as long as there is a long-term expectation, the balance of human relationships can be maintained. In other words, the balance of long-term expected benefits can cover the imbalance of short-term pressures.

However, from 2000 to the present, with the opening of village boundaries and the rapid population mobility, a long-term balance has been disrupted. People’s expectations have shortened, leading to some individuals only returning to their ancestral homes once a year, leaving the properties idle for most of the year. When they do visit, they may not even recognize their fellow villagers anymore. Without the long-term balance that existed before, the short-term imbalance in interpersonal relationships can lead to frequent alienation. In other words, those who give more gifts may become increasingly motivated to quickly receive favors in return, leading to a proliferation of various excuses and justifications. As participants become more alienated and the frequency of gift-giving increases, the standards for gifts also become distorted.

In an article by He Xuefeng, it is mentioned that each person decides the amount of gifts based on their unique relationship with the parties involved. Some may give more because they owe more favors, some because they are well-off, and some because of personal connections. These excessive gifts are recorded in a ledger of social exchanges, which others in the community are compelled to observe. This leads to a cycle where the frequency of gift-giving escalates, banquets become more extravagant, and the whole system of interpersonal relationships becomes increasingly disliked. It becomes a vortex and a black hole, devoid of meaning and merely a tool for accumulating wealth inefficiently. Apart from the restaurants, there are no winners in this situation.

Dowry operates on the same principle. The migration of population intensifies the marriage pressure on men in relatively underdeveloped areas. Capital flowing into rural areas brings with it urban lifestyles, where houses, cars, dowries, banquet standards, and even the quality of alcohol and tobacco become part of the competition. This further evolves into a pattern of demonstration by the upper class, emulation by the middle class, and pressure on the lower class. The influence of rural power structures is more terrifying than the outflow of population. In the Chinese TV drama “Blooming Flowers,” there is a scene that left a deep impression on me. Lily comments beside the steaming hotpot, “A Bao is a sentimental person.” A Bao replies, “I have nothing old to reminisce about. They say clothes are better new, people are better old, and there is no wine left to remember in my hometown. Then, it’s not really my hometown anymore.”