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January 22, 2013

Where the Boys Are

In China, a cultural preference for boys has created such a severe gender imbalance that unmarried men will soon outnumber unmarried women by an estimated 40 million. Abigail Haworth reports on the country's looming marriage crisis from the lonely hearts ground zero — a village full of bachelors who may never find wives.

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In a village in Da Xin township, there are no single women.

Photo Credit: Eric Rechsteiner/Panos Pictures

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Yiguo Jin is not home. His wooden door is barred, his windows shuttered. Outside his weather-beaten, rural Chinese shack, a couple of chickens scratch in the dirt amid discarded beer bottles. It's all a bit forlorn. But nothing shouts "Here lives a lonely bachelor!" quite like the clothesline in Jin's yard. Its sole contents are a rumpled blue jacket and pants, an old T-shirt, and a pair of tattered briefs.

It's little comfort, says Jin later in the day when he returns from working in his fields, that there are 68 other unmarried men in his village. That just makes it worse. In the total population of only 284 in Jin's tiny hamlet in Da Xin township in China's Hunan province, the number of single women is zero. There hasn't been a wedding or a new home built here for a decade. "I'm poor and I'm no longer young," says Jin, who's 33 and still boyish-looking. "There are so many bachelors that I will never find a girl to marry me."

He's probably right. Due to China's alarming gender imbalance, there are now an estimated 10 percent more single men than women across the country. Within the next decade, the number of men unlikely ever to find brides is expected to reach 30 to 40 million — equivalent to the population of California. In rural areas, the imbalance is so acute it has led to thousands of so-called bachelor villages — remote communities like Jin's, full of single men who have never had a girlfriend, let alone found a wife.

China has always had a cultural preference for sons, but the situation has become dire over the past 30 years. Chinese traditionally believe daughters are "spilt water" — that is, a waste, because only sons carry on the ancestral line and provide for their parents. The Communist government's introduction of the one-child policy in 1980, which allows urban couples only one child and rural couples two, upped the ante for families to have a boy. Then ultrasound scans arrived, enabling sex-determination testing and prompting widespread abortions of female fetuses to ensure sons. "Chinese medics are banned from revealing an unborn baby's sex," says Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection, a book about global gender imbalances. "But a carton of cigarettes is enough to bribe some of them."

Today, an estimated 35 to 40 million women are "missing" from China's population. For years, demographic experts have predicted the huge surplus of young men would cause a rise in sexual violence and social instability. Now the first generation of children born since 1980 has reached marriageable age, and problems such as bride-kidnapping and forced prostitution are soaring.

The bachelors in areas like Da Xin are the least likely of all to find love. As the gap between rich and poor widens in China, uneducated rural men have little means of upward mobility. "I don't have any money to move away to look for a wife," says Jin. "I must stay here to work our land and support my elderly mother." (Jin's father died a few years ago, so his mother depends solely on him.)


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