One of the big draws of Shanghai is People’s Square and People’s Square Park. Prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, People’s Square served as a course for horse racing, appropriately named the Shanghai Racing Club, open to elite members of Shanghai society.

When the communist government was established, horse racing and all its charms were considered decadent, so the area was converted into the municipal government’s headquarters. Over the years various attractions have been added to lure visitors. The Shanghai Art Museum is worth a glance and some fanciful, ultra-modern buildings like the Shanghai Grand Theater or the Hong Kong New World Tower will stimulate architecture buffs.

A longstanding event has endured among the glittering towers and lush gardens of People’s Park, attracting unwanted tourists and the curious. The “Marriage Market” gathers every Saturday and Sunday, where parents flock to the north end of the park from noon until 5:00 pm to get their daughters or sons matched.

It was an unexpected sight to stumble upon as I walked through People’s Park with friends one November weekend.

There are notices posting the particulars of each son or daughter —  usually listing gender, year of birth, job position, salary earnings and what type of mate they wish to secure for their child.

Advertisements are often displayed creatively:

Far from being an antiquated idea, the “Marriage Market” or sometimes called “matchmaking corner” is always crowded with parents seeking matches in equal amount to parents advertising:

There is even entertainment provided:

Though the atmosphere has the feel of a standard market, a few stern fathers refused to be the subject of my camera. In such a public venue, the act of privacy is still demanded.

As I maneuvered around the crowds, noting boards upon boards of advertisements, a question formed that I felt compelled to answer. With access to the world at their fingertips and the exponential growth of China, is a “Marriage Market” irrelevant?

Although Shanghai is the business epicenter of China and state of the art technology is inescapable, one thing that seems to remain is the deep bonds of custom. The rise and fall of imperial empires and the harsh years of communism hasn’t dulled familial expectation.

Which is what?

In the Chinese lexicon, marriage has never been a simple answer of love.  I love you, let’s get married.

In the imperial years, marriage was a shift in political ranking, social and economic advantages, not to mention addition of labor to a household. For an urban resident, the rise in political, social and economic status is obvious. For a rural family, the addition of a wife and daughter-in-law symbolized more sons for farm work and another female for household duties.

Whatever rank one landed in imperial society, men outranked women. Sons were considered precious and rare, to continue lineage and secure honor for a family.

By 1949, the communist government attempted to establish more equality in marriage. If a woman was dissatisfied in marriage, she could file her case with the commune leader and possibly obtain a divorce. Marriage for love became more acceptable and you could inform the commune leader that you had chosen a mate and proceed with the marriage. Land redistribution was a priority of the Chinese communists, which benefited women in some cases.

By the latter half of the twentieth century, a different kind of inequality emerged. Positioning in the CCP became important, party labels and the distinct difference between educated, urban suitors compared with less educated rural suitors factored into choices in marriage.

If we strip away academic analysis, when it comes to the core of a “Marriage Market”, Chinese parents perceive an unmarried child as dishonorable.

“I will lose face in front of my friends and family if you remain unmarried.”

So parents will leap to extremes for their children. They agonizingly type an advertisement, brave the damp cold of Shanghai to stand for hours, gather emails and phone numbers, badger their children to meet this nice young man or woman, and hope that necessity, if not love will form a union.

The ties of family are so strong, but I fear China and their children are changing so fast, a dissonance is forming between the pressure to please family and the need for choices.

My take is women feel the pressure more  and the longer they remain single, the greater the danger of becoming untouchable, as I wrote a few months ago. They are expected to produce heirs and thankfully, at least boys or girls are eagerly accepted into a family these days.

So while you might decide a “Marriage Market” is appalling, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment and encourage you to participate, to take a longer look.

Is it that much different than how we seek a mate nowadays? In online dating, combing through profile after profile, hoping that we’ll meet that nice young man or woman and a union will form?

The “Marriage Market” runs every Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Go to the north end of People’s Park located at 75 Nanjing Lu, by Huangpi Bei Lu. To get there by public transportation, take metro lines 1, 2 or 8 and disembark at the People’s Square Station. You can hoof it from there.

Photo [traditional Chinese marriage ceremony]: Akira2506