A ‘Running of the Brides’ competition hosted by a local shopping mall in China. (Photo: Getty)
The fleeting summer romance is a tale as old as time — just look at Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, or more contemporarily, Grease and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Even for those of us who are too old to have summer camp flings — or extended summer vacations — there’s something about the lingering heat and the long days that make all of our worries fade into oblivion. Today, on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar year, many Asian countries like Japan, China, and Thailand celebrate the annual unification of forbidden lovers. The cowherder (the star Altair) and the weaver girl (the Vega star), who is also the seventh daughter of the Emperor of Heaven, were banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way. Once a year, magpies formed a bridge so they could meet.
Flower vendor selling massive bouquets for Chinese Valentine’ Day. (Photo: Getty)
There are many variations of the legend — some of which question their mutual attraction — but in one of the most famous poems from Song Dynasty, writer Qin Guan questions, “If the two hearts are united forever, why do the two persons need to stay together — day after day, night after night?” In China, it’s called the Qixi Festival, but Western media has dubbed it Chinese Valentine’s Day, and it’s as much of a celebration of singlehood for young women as it is about madly searching for love.
A procession of men hauling cows to woo lovers on the day before Qixi Festival in Wuhan, China. (Photo: Getty)
Traditionally, young maidens would gather toiletries in honor of the seven daughters in the sky and to pray for love. It’s a great excuse to buy more beauty products — Chinese American shopping deal site Dealmoon is even doing a beauty sale just for this occasion — but in modern, Hallmark-driven times, Chinese Valentine’s Day has become an extravaganza: Young women donning wedding dresses and running down the streets in sneakers, vendors selling mountains of flower bouquets, newlyweds folding paper cranes to ensure eternal love, and blind-dating game show-like attractions.
A couples’ kissing competition in Kunming, China. (Photo: Getty)
For both men and women, being single in modern-day China is extremely stigmatized due to a long history of patriarchal values in which not marrying at a young age is a source of family shame and social embarrassment. The derogatory term “sheng nu” (or “leftover women”) signifies women in their late 20s who are not married yet. In 2011, after International Women’s Day, the All-China Women’s Federation, a women’s rights organization that’s part of the Chinese government, printed an article called ‘”Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy.” “Pretty girls do not need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family,” the article said. “But girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult.”
Single women in Guangzhou racing in wedding dresses. (Photo: Getty)
In a recent New York Times article about single Chinese women, writer Whitney Robinson notes, “There are 20 million more men under the age of 30 than women in China, according to official news reports, yet many unmarried men work as farmers in rural villages and have little income.” In Foreign Affairs, political economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt estimated that by 2030, more than 25 percent of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. This is due to the one-child policy in China, in which parents are only allowed one child per household, resulting in a ratio of 120 boys for every 100 girls. Chinese culture is heavily entrenched in patriarchal hypergamy, in which women are encouraged to “marry up” with higher-earning men, which means high-earning women in China have a smaller selection pool, assuming they follow the cultural pressure to marry someone of the same or higher social stature. The consumption madness surrounding the Qixi Festival in modern-day China, consequently, isn’t all fun and carnival games — it’s a reflection of the relenting pressure to get paired up despite the statistically estimated odds.