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January 22, 2013

Where the Boys Are

men playing cards

Bachelors playing cards.

Photo Credit: Eric Rechsteiner/Panos Pictures

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There are bought brides who don't wait seven years to flee. In the village of Yanzhuping, on another mountaintop a few miles away from Da Xin, bachelor Lou Qing, 47, spent his life savings on buying a wife and put on a lavish wedding feast. A week later, his bride vanished. Qing was the victim of a common wife-selling scam in which gangs employ a woman to pose as a bride, then orchestrate her escape as soon as payment has changed hands. Sitting inside his barren house, Qing says he resisted buying a wife for many years, but "in the end I couldn't bear another day of solitude." Now he is penniless, with no hope of recovering his savings, and says, "I have given up on marriage, on everything."

For women like Daling Huang — one of Qing's neighbors — it's impossible to have sympathy for a man who bought a bride from a criminal gang. Huang, 27, was herself sold as a wife to one of the 72 bachelors in this village six years ago. Unlike many women, she was not forcibly kidnapped. Rather, she was tricked by a female trafficker who "befriended" her while she was working as a migrant laborer in an electronics factory in the booming city of Guangzhou. The trafficker told Huang she knew a rich man who was looking for a wife, and Huang agreed to meet him. "Greed got the better of me," says Huang, who has a round face and a short bob. "I was struggling to survive in the city on my own."

Huang was driven overnight to Da Xin, a journey of more than 600 miles from Guangzhou. There the traffickers dumped her on the mountaintop at the home of her new "husband" — not the wealthy urban bachelor she was expecting but a dirt-poor farmer. "It was terrible," she says. "I wanted to run away, but I had no idea where I was. There was only wilderness around. I was very scared." The man who had bought her was "kind and fed her well," she says. Within a few weeks, she became pregnant. "I knew then there was no point trying to escape — my parents wouldn't take me back if I had an illegitimate child."

Huang gave birth to a son, and then another boy 18 months later. "I am angry about what happened to me. I fell into a big trap. But I love my sons, and their father is not a bad man," she says. "I will never leave them now." Huang admits she bribed a doctor to tell her the sex of her unborn babies, and was hugely relieved they were both boys. "My husband started treating me like a queen when I had our first son. I wanted that to continue." Huang does not see anything wrong with the preference for boys, nor does she worry about the shortage of women that put her here in the first place. She doesn't even make the connection.

According to author Hvistendahl, one of the biggest myths about China's gender imbalance is that women are regularly coerced or pressured into having sons by their husbands or in-laws. "Often women are just as keen, if not keener, to have boys than their husbands." Not only do they believe boys are more likely to take care of them in their old age, but they also realize that having sons improves their own status within the household, Hvistendahl has found.

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