China's gender gap, its rural farmers looking for affordable marriages, and Vietnam's mail-order bride phenomenon come together in a strange wedding that works – for some.
Their marriages were arranged for cash, but some of the Vietnamese women who have found unlikely Prince Charmings in remote Chinese villages say they are living happily ever after. “Economically, life is better here in China,” says Nguyen Thi Hang, one of around two dozen women from Vietnam who have married men in Linqi.
The township is a patchwork of hamlets spaced among cornfields deep in the mountains of Henan, one of China’s poorer provinces. It is some 1,700 kilometres away from Vietnam, but is a new market for an expanding – and sometimes abusive – marriage trade with Southeast Asia. The business is fuelled by demand from rural Chinese men struggling to find wives in the face of their country’s huge gender imbalance, driven by its limits on family size.
Hang, 30, arrived in Linqi last November, and struggles to communicate with customers at the dusty village store where she sells noodles, Coca-Cola and cigarettes. But her basic living conditions – a tiny bedroom with bare concrete walls, and an outdoor long-drop toilet next to a cage of chickens – are an improvement on her previous home, she says.
“We lived in a bad quality brick house in Vietnam, and were farmers so we had to work hard in the rice fields,” she says.
Hang's marriage to a local 22-year-old was arranged by her family, she says, with small ceremonies held in her home town, and China. “I knew they gave my family some money, but I did not dare ask my parents about that,” she says.
“My relatives told me to marry a Chinese man, they told me they care for their wives, and I wouldn’t have to work so much, just enjoy life,” she adds, smiling at a group of children buying sweets.
Her construction worker husband spends most of the year away from the village and was not present when we visited, but her grey-haired father-in-law seems proud of the newest addition to his family. “Vietnamese women are just like us, they do any kind of work, and work hard,” says Liu Shuanggen. “It’s not easy to find wives in this place, women are few.”
It is a refrain heard across China, where decades of sex-selective abortions by families who prefer boys to girls now see 118 males born for every 100 females, according to government statistics. The resulting gender gap has led to an explosion in “bride prices”, payments traditionally made by the groom’s relatives, hitting men in the poor countryside the hardest.
“To get married, the bride’s family will often require a car and a house, so it’s easier to get married if you have more money,” says shopkeeper Wang Yangfang, adding: “In Vietnam, they demand lower prices.”