What cost love: are China’s efforts to stamp out expensive caili betrothal gifts aiming at the wrong traditions?

What cost love: are China’s efforts to stamp out expensive caili betrothal gifts aiming at the wrong traditions?

“Our love cannot be measured in terms of a betrothal gift,” Cao Fengfeng and Shi Xiaoqiang declared in their wedding vows to each other in front of hundreds of people in eastern China last month.

In a wedding live-streamed on more than 40 television channels and website, they stood with 57 other couples in the first “zero-caili group wedding” organised by the government of Fuyang in Anhui province to promote “the reform of marriage customs and new, civilised trends”.

The other couples echoed the sentiments offered by Cao and Shi. One proclaimed that in a marriage, tolerance and respect mattered more than money paid to each other’s families.

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03:05

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Local governments have frequently hosted events like this public wedding in recent years to try to change a long-running Chinese wedding tradition – the caili, or betrothal gift.

Caili is a sum of money paid by the groom-to-be to the bride’s family as a way to secure the marriage and show wealth. It has been around for thousands of years and has been hard to ban because of the skewed gender ratio – in modern China a significant number of men are competing to find wives.

But the Chinese government has been trying to stop the tradition to make weddings more affordable and encourage births. In the past, local governments held “zero-caili weddings” and sought out “the most beautiful mother-in-law” to reward a bride’s family for not seeking money. They even had women volunteer to sign letters declaring they would only marry for love.

In a fresh legal push, China’s Supreme People’s Court issued a document on how to solve conflicts involving betrothal gifts, with changes coming into effect this month.

The court said extorting money and property using the excuse of marriage was banned. It also defined what qualified as a betrothal gift and what did not, such as birthday gifts and daily expenses.

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It said the amount of money paid had continued to rise in recent years, placing a heavy burden on families.

“It creates a hidden danger in the stability of the marriage and goes against promoting a civilised social trend,” it said.

The court said that whether the man could be reimbursed depended on the how long the couple had lived together, whether they had children and who was more at fault in the break-up.

However, experts say that any regulation of betrothal gifts is an acknowledgement that marriage can be traded for money, and does nothing to solve the problem.

“The Civil Code already bans ‘using marriage to extort property’, there’s no need for the court to have a new set of rules,” said Feng Yuan, co-founder of a women’s hotline based in Beijing.

The existence of betrothal gifts in practice “sells” women to the men’s families, Feng said, and it priced women based on how long they were married or whether they had children.

The new regulation came after years of public complaints about high caili. According to an article last year on the official news agency, Xinhua, it can be as high as 380,000 yuan (US$53,000) – about 10 times China’s average annual salary.

Women are often blamed for “being greedy”, even though the money more often goes to their families, not the bride.

And the exchange of money for marriage has caused physical conflict. In some extreme cases, a high betrothal gift that does not end in marriage has led to the groom-to-be killing the would-be bride.

But even with government bans, as well as the new legal rule, there are few signs the tradition can easily be curbed.

Yang Jing, a woman from the central province of Henan, said the tradition was still going strong in her village. Men must pay an average 100,000 yuan (US$14,000), as well as buy a flat before marriage, she said. In fact, when she gets married, her family will still expect a sum of money.

“It won’t change just because the government asked you to. The men have to compete in giving caili, otherwise they can’t even find a date,” she said.

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The root of the problem lies in the skewed gender ratio forged by years of preference for sons, according to Lin Lixia, a lawyer from Qianqian Law Firm which specialises in women’s rights advocacy.

“In our work, we sometimes see more than a dozen men waiting to get married at a village, while there were only three women,” she said.

“Furthermore, even if they have a house, cars and money, they couldn’t find wives, because they were spoiled … some had drinking and gambling problems and didn’t respect women.”

At the end of 2023, there were 30 million more men in China than women, according to national statistics.

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With the new regulation, it is more likely that more women – especially women in rural areas – will choose not to get married, according to Lin. She has represented many rural women who lost their right to collective land just because they were married and were no longer considered part of the clan.

Online, she often sees comments saying, “This is exactly why I didn’t get married” or “I wish I had never had children”.

“To solve the issue at the root, the government needs to achieve gender equality in family inheritance, village collective property distribution, access to education, employment and political participation,” Lin said.

“There needs to be more propaganda educating people so they change their wrong ideas [about gender preference].”

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