Weddings, universally regarded as a major life event, can vary greatly by culture or region. In China, the process of getting married typically involves multiple stages: an engagement, registering for a marriage license, and finally the wedding itself.
Missing from that list, at least until very recently, was a romantic, event-style proposal. But more and more young Chinese have begun incorporating this foreign import into their courtship rituals.
This July, my research team and I conducted a survey of 2,500 young people in the southern city of Guangzhou. When we asked them which element of the marriage process they value most, the most common response was “getting a marriage license,” followed by “the proposal.” “Throwing a wedding” came in third.
Interviews with 20 Guangzhou couples under the age of 35 who’ve married within the last year bore this finding out. All but one of the couples had gone through a proposal.
Proposals weren’t a part of traditional Chinese culture, which focused instead on “the parents’ mandates and the matchmaker’s decree,” in the words of an old saying. So how did they become so essential to young people’s imaginations of the perfect wedding?
The answer lies in popular culture. As early as 2014, proposals were common enough in certain circles to spawn a reality show, “A Chinese-Style Proposal.” The show bombed, however, in part because its staged proposals were crude and cringeworthy. It wasn’t until the 2017 Hong Kong film “Love Off the Cuff,” in which male protagonist Jimmy serenades his girlfriend with an original song before dropping to one knee while their friends and relatives hold up signs in support, that proposals had their pop culture “moment.”
Screenshots from the film “Love Off the Cuff.” From Haokan Video
The movie, which was widely seen, helped catapult proposals into the cultural mainstream. More recently, bloggers on the youth-oriented social media and e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu have helped cement the proposal’s status as they seemingly compete to stage the most elaborate public proposals.
These displays, although sappy, tap into users’ romanticized ideals about urban life. The proposal staged by 28-year-old architectural designer Xiaowang exemplifies this trend. (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.) On the day he proposed, Xiaowang and his girlfriend went to dinner and then the movies, after which he suggested taking a stroll on the rooftop of a mall. The sky was awash in the colors of sunset as they approached his predetermined location: a rooftop bar. Upon their arrival, the band started playing their song, Li Yuchun’s “A Magical Encounter 1987.” As his girlfriend admired the river view, Xiaowang took out a diamond ring he had designed himself. On cue, the bar staff encircled them, all holding up various signs he’d created for the occasion.
Xiaowang and his girlfriend both said they are very emotional, sensitive people. After they started dating, they created a joint account on Xiaohongshu where they share videos of them being affectionate. The pair made sure to upload clips of the proposal and spill all the details to their fans afterward.
Influenced by cultural products like social media, commercials, and dramas, young Chinese have internalized the notion that price is equal to value. Material gifts like fresh flowers, candlelit dinners, diamond rings, and other goods are seen as valid expressions of emotional intensity.
The pair made sure to upload clips of the proposal and spill all the details to their fans afterward.
In other words, the importance young people attach to the emotional factors of marriage can be tangibly represented through an elaborate — and expensive — proposal. Indeed, modern-day Chinese proposals don’t center around the personal decision-making aspect of their Western counterparts. Their focus isn’t on the question of “will you (or won’t you) marry me?” Rather, they are celebrations of the connection between two people, as well as a way to perform that connection in front of friends, family, and even strangers.
Take Wenwen and her fiancé, for instance. Although they had very different ideas about how and when to get married, Wenwen spoke highly of her fiancé’s surprise proposal. Although he had successfully kept the secret, Wenwen said she realized as soon as she entered their private room at a restaurant and saw their friends and family that this was far from an ordinary birthday party.
“I just had a sense. I thought, why make such a big deal out of a birthday?” Wenwen said. “I went in and saw a small karaoke stage. The floor was lined with candles and a heart made of rose petals, and that’s when I realized, ‘This is it.’ But I still had to pretend I didn’t know and act surprised.” Wenwen turned to her fiancé and added, “You know how hard that is?” Despite the playful rebuke, she was clearly smitten.
While the material elements matter, the most important part of the proposal for our interviewees was not the financial investment, but the ceremonial preparation and presentation, which reflects the sincerity and effort their boyfriends put into the relationship.
Indeed, it is almost always the men who are expected to propose, and not the women. Our research found a consensus among interviewees that a proposal should be a romantic surprise initiated by a man as an indicator of his commitment and good faith to his partner. The preparations he puts into the ritual demonstrate his willingness to spend time and energy catering to his partner. The result is a kind of role-play that follows the script of an established courtship while ostensibly allowing the woman to wield a high degree of autonomy. The guy, as the “proposing” party, deliberately places his partner in a position of power in the relationship, punctuated by the must-have element of getting down on one knee. For her part, the woman takes on a passive posture, enjoying her part in the play.
In 19 of the 20 couples we interviewed, it was the man who proposed, even in cases when the woman clearly had the upper hand in the relationship. The only exception to this rule was also the only couple not to do a proposal at all. The pair, both programmers, confessed to skipping the proposal and couldn’t even pinpoint when their relationship had started. Instead, they said they just fell into becoming “partners” at work and in life. Curious, I asked them how their proposal might have gone, had they chosen to have one.
The woman thought for a moment before replying. “It’d probably be me asking, because every time we do something, I’m the one who initiates and decides,” she said.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A sculpture of a man proposing in Shenyang, Liaoning province, April 2021. Huang Jinkun/VCG)