China to crack down on bride price custom to boost birth rates: The ‘dowry’ practice explained


A young man’s wedding in central China’s Hubei province earlier in January went awry after the original ‘bride price’ of 150,000 yuan (Rs 17.66 lakh) was suddenly hiked to 200,000 yuan (Rs 23.55 lakh) by her family.

A similar incident took place in April last year when a prospective groom, from Zhengning county, Gansu province, wrote on a government message board that he almost married his girlfriend, but the high bride price demanded by her parents “forced” the couple to break up.

In February 2022, a video of an internet celebrity’s 500,000 yuan (Rs 59 lakh) bride price dispute went viral on many Chinese social media channels. The video was uploaded on Bilibili, with the title “Without 500,000 yuan bride price, my girlfriend was dragged away by her family. What should I do?”.

There are many such instances that have been recorded in China and now, authorities are cracking down on this practice. Their reasoning is to encourage more marriages, which in turn will boost the birth rate in the country that is now struggling with a declining population rate.

But what exactly is this bride price custom and how does it affect marriages in China?

Bride price explained

Bride price, also known as Caili, is a payment made from the prospective groom to the bride’s family to show his sincerity and wealth, while also compensating them for raising a daughter in a country that has long favoured sons.

Sociologists state that bride price or Caili is similar to dowry, but paid from a prospective groom to the family of the bride, rather than from the bride to the groom’s side of the family. It has been one of the most important marriage customs in ancient China since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC to 771 BC). The tradition of paying bride price continued into the era of Republic of China (1912 – 1949) and even persisted until the 1960s. The People’s Republic of China government forbade it, but it came back into practice in the late 1970s.

Manya Koetse, China expert and editor of What’s on Weibo, in a BBC report stated that it’s a centuries-old tradition and has lived on even through the Communist era. “It was there in the 1950s, 60s, 70s… In that time the bride price could be a thermos flask, or bedding,” she told BBC. “Later on it became furniture, then a radio or a watch. When we come to the 1980s it could have been a television or a refrigerator. And since China’s economy has been opening up, that’s when the bride price started changing into hard cash.”

Also read: Japan’s declining population and the challenges to tackle the crisis explained

Skyrocketing bride prices

However, bride prices have been becoming more exorbitant in the recent years. The Economist in 2017 reported, “These bride prices have shot up, bending the country’s society and economy out of shape.”

In June 2013, a National Bride Price Map was first issued in Sina Microblog. According to the map, the highest bride price then was paid in Shanghai, consisting of a house and 100,000 yuan (Rs 11.8 lakh). The average bride price was relatively high compared to the annual per capita gross income of Chinese citizens.

Last year, a non-official nationwide bride price ranking revealed that in East China’s Jiangxi Province it went to the top with 380,000 yuan (Rs 44.7 lakh), not including a car or an apartment, which is really a whopping price for ordinary wage earners.

A couple holding their marriage certificates pose for photos in a sunflower field in Beijing. The number of people getting married for the first time dropped to 11.6 million last year, almost 700,000 down on the previous year, according to the China Statistics Yearbook 2022. AFP

Earlier, a report had claimed that a bride’s family in Jiangxi had asked for 880,000 yuan (around Rs 1 crore), although it was denied by authorities.

Experts cite China’s focus on ‘over-materialism’ and its one-child policy as the reasons for the soaring bride prices.

Mu Guangzong, a professor at the Institute of Population Research at Peking University, told the Global Times, “The skyrocketing ‘bride price’ is a result of ‘over-materialism’ and the extreme disparity that exists today between rich and poor.”

The skewed gender ratio is another contributing factor to the soaring betrothal gifts. Consider this: in 2022, the sex ratio in China was approximately 105 males to 100 females. An ideal sex ratio is a one-to-one. This skewed ratio is in large parts owing to China’s one-child policy that put a premium on the male child.

The skyrocketing bride price has also prompted government interventions. China unveiled its key policy document or No 1 central document for 2023 recently, vowing to launch a special campaign against problems including exorbitant “bride prices” and extravagant wedding ceremonies.

However, government efforts to change the bride price custom hasn’t been easy. A Bloomberg report quoted officials in Fujian province saying their campaign against expensive caili is going to be a “persistent and difficult war”.

Another village leader in Hebei admitted that families still charged as much as 300,000 yuan for betrothal gifts.

Adults hold children at a park in Beijing, China. The Asian giant in January stated that its population had shrunk last year for the first time in 60 years. Reuters

Move to curb population decline

Officials in China are of the opinion that a control on bride prices or a crackdown on this custom will improve marriage rates in the country and that will eventually lead to better birth rates in the country.

China in January stated that its population had shrunk last year for the first time in 60 years. The fertility rate (births per woman) fell to 1.0-1.1, well below the official forecast of 1.8. Most notably, the number of births dropped sharply to 9.56 million, the fewest since 1790, despite China’s shift to a two-child policy in 2016.

China has noted the decline in population numbers and has been initiating several campaigns to boost the numbers. It has rolled out financial incentives to encourage couples to have kids. This year, parents having a third child or more in Shenzhen will be eligible for a cash allowance of 19,000 yuan (Rs 2.23 lakh) until the child turns three years old. In Jinan, the capital city of eastern Shandong province, mothers who give birth to a second or third child this year will receive a childcare subsidy of 600 yuan (Rs 7,000) each month until he or she turns three.

Other measures have also been implemented. For instance, in Sichuan health authorities said they would allow unmarried couples to raise a family and enjoy benefits reserved for married couples. Previously there was a ban on single women registering a birth.

Also read: India’s population growth: Is it boon or bane?

The Asian giant is worried that changing population dynamics will affect its economy. The fall in the supply of labour force from rural areas has been pushing up the wages in the country, which may eventually erode the competitiveness of Chinese products. Additionally, the shortage of labour, rising wages may accelerate the already visible trend of exit of foreign companies from the country. Already some of them have shifted to south-east Asian countries and some of them are visualising India as a preferred destination to set up their business, reported Europe-Asia Foundation.

It is left to be seen if China can reverse its declining population trend and how they will do so.

With inputs from agencies

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China to crack down on bride price custom to boost birth rates: The ‘dowry’ practice explained
China to crack down on bride price custom to boost birth rates: The ‘dowry’ practice explained
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