While Chinese have stayed remarkably faithful to many traditional ideals and religious customs, one aspect of Chinese culture is seeing drastic changes: dating, love, and weddings.
Young women in China today enjoy freedom their grandmothers would find shocking, such as the right to choose a husband.
Understanding the interplay of how Chinese are embracing foreign traditions or holding on to old customs related to dating and marriage is essential for marketers. Each year in China more than 10 million couples marry, creating an industry estimated at $80 billion annually with strong ties to retail, fashion, jewelry, travel and tourism, financial planning, real estate and household purchases.
That includes not just the wedding day itself, but life stages that range from pre-wedding beauty expenditures to buying a home and planning for a baby. "This list is endless," said Christine Ng, managing director of BBH China, this week on "Thoughtful China," an online marketing affairs talk show produced in Shanghai.
As Richard Burger observed in his recent book, "Behind the Red Door: Sex in China," dating and marriage based on romance and love were practically unheard of in China until the 1980s. Casual dating did not exist.
Wedding-jewelry trends offer another glimpse at how China is evolving. Until a decade ago, traditional yellow gold and jade were popular, but young women today largely prefer platinum gold, white gold, silver and diamonds.
"They want white metal, mostly platinum, when they are choosing their engagement ring or their diamond ring and that is because [of] the influence of the West," said Rebecca Ip, VP, Hong Kong & Macau at Tiffany & Co. Ms. Ip was named one of Ad Age's Women to Watch at the first annual Women to Watch in China event in September 2012 in Shanghai.
"With more Chinese living and studying overseas, we observe a new demand toward more western-style weddings. Couples are trying to break away a bit from the traditions and enquire [about] a modern Chinese dinner, which is served plated rather than a traditional family-style dinner," said Patrick Behrens, The Peninsula Shanghai's executive assistant manager, food and beverage.
During the dinner, he added, couples also tend to serve wine rather than Chinese liquor "and since red is a color for celebration, at the wedding feast, red wine is far more popular than white. Another recent trend is to have a band or other live entertainer to perform during the evening. Although nobody is dancing yet during the dinner."
Just because women can choose a husband based on love doesn't mean they do, said Jin Tingting, editor-in-chief of Ijie.com (www.ijie.com), a Chinese-language wedding portal owned by U.S. wedding site The Knot.
Chinese women often are criticized in local media for being too "pragmatic" in their views toward marriage, Ms. Jin said. Ma Nuo, a contestant on reality show "If You Were the One," famously quipped, "I rather cry in the back of a BMW than smile on the back of a bicycle." Many do love their spouses, Ms. Jin said, but "every [Chinese] woman is looking for a rich man who is good-looking, [has a] high salary, and a large apartment."
While arranged marriages have disappeared except deep in the countryside, western-style dating and marriage aren't the norm yet either. Even today, most Chinese believe marrying the wrong person will bring disgrace to the entire family, and that family should play an active role in finding the right mate.
For many couples, courtship remains rooted in tradition. Sons and daughters are expected to seek parents' approval, and Chinese weddings are elaborate banquets that can go on for days.
Engaged couples shop for a diamond engagement ring together following extensive online research, with the bride and her family in charge of the final choice.
What of China's bachelors, the result of a steep gender imbalance caused by the country's one-child policy?
These men "are really aspiring to marriage...giving them tools [through] marketing and product development will help them feel better and more competitive and more complete in themselves," said Mary Bergstrom, founder of the Bergstrom Group and author of "All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Lines of China's Youth Market."
Normandy Madden is senior VP-content development, Asia/Pacific at Thoughtful China, and Ad Age's former Asia Editor. See earlier episodes of Thoughtful China at www.thoughtfulchina.com.