SCIENTISTS tell us that romantic attraction is caused by chemical pheromones, but they never reckoned with that other powerful force — parent meddling.
Rather that being an ancient tradition discarded by modern lifestyles, parental interference in their children’s love lives has simply taken on a contemporary manifestation.
A TV show called “Chinese-style Blind Date” (Saturdays, 8:30pm, Dragon TV) has swept the nation since its launch on Dragon TV in late December. Different from the stereotypical dating reality shows, “Chinese-style Blind Date” brings parents into the mix.
The parents meet the candidates first and then choose whom they consider to be ideal dates for their sons or daughters. Then the young people get to pick their choices.
On the program, parents often surprise everyone with their selection criteria. Apart from the usual questions about age, educational background and personality, some parents ask about diligence in doing housework and whether a female candidate’s hands and feet are cold, which is considered the sign of an unhealthy uterus. Some parents refuse to consider candidates from one-parent families, deeming them unstable.
The show has been criticized for its format. Some viewers think outlandish criteria are encouraged to give the program a more sensational tone. But others say the program holds a remarkably true mirror to real life.
In the show’s first six programs, 11 couples who “mated” involved candidates who were the choices of both parents and young people. Three relationships formed against parents’ preferences eventually failed.
The show, at least for now, reinforces the idea that the opinions of parents do weigh on the romantic lives of their children in China. And you don’t have to watch television to see the truth of the matter.
Take David Zhang, a 65-year-old retired doctor who is distressed that his daughter is over 30 and still unattached. He says he never interfered in his daughter’s personal life before, but she is shy and not getting anywhere in the search for a husband.
During the recent Spring Festival holiday, he attended six get-together parties on the prowl for potential sons-in-law. From lists provided by friends, he found two possible candidates. He declined one who is a policeman with an associate degree and took a shine to the other who is a public servant with a post-graduate degree.
“My daughter has a master’s degree,” he says. “I think her other half should have at least an equivalent degree.”
Zhang has used his own social network to let it be known that he is on the lookout for suitable boys. He has a long list of criteria. The young man must be within five years of his daughter’s age and have a similar educational background. He must have a stable job, even if it hasn’t made him wealthy yet. He should come from an upright home with two parents and no genetic diseases. Most importantly, he should be a responsible person who will care for his future wife and family.
At first, Zhang insisted that his future son-in-law be a native of Shanghai. He later spread the net wider, considering those from neighboring Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.
“I want all the best for my only daughter,” he says.
Over his years of searching, Zhang found less than half of the 20 potential suitors recommended by his friends actually met his criteria. And even though his daughter didn’t object to his checklist, none of the young men introduced to her have generated a romantic spark.
But Zhang has not yet given up.
“Her Mr Right just has not yet arrived,” Zhang says. “I won’t lower the standards. I would rather her be single than marry someone shoddy.”
Ann Zhu is another parent meddling in the mating game. With a son approaching 25, she worries whether he will ever settle down with a good woman.
Once, when she learned that her son had a campus sweetheart, she helped arrange a romantic Christmas Eve dinner for the couple at a steak restaurant and bought her potential daughter-in-law four expensive lipsticks. But when the dinner rolled around and Zhu met the girl, her enthusiasm faded.
“I don’t know quite how to put it,” she says. “I just intuitively didn’t like her. I didn’t consider her good enough for my son.”
She secretly asked a police friend to do a check on the girl and her family and was unhappy to learn that the girl’s parents were ordinary factory workers in the suburban Jinshan District.
“I had my son in my 40s,” says Zhu. “I will definitely be too old to take care of my grandchildren, so they would end up being looked after by the family of in-laws. It would be too far for me to visit them in Jinshan. Besides, I would be concerned about the children’s education if the in-laws don’t have a proper educational background.”
Zhu never pressured her son to break up with the girl, but her disapproval played a part in the pair gradually drifting apart.
“Our ideas just didn’t square with one another anymore, so we decided to go our separate ways,” says her son Jack Lin. “I don’t know how much my mother’s attitude affected me.”
Lin has recently been dating another woman that his mother finds equally unacceptable.
“It is still the same problem,” says Zhu. “The girl is not a Shanghai native. Her parents live in Shaanxi Province. I don’t think it will work out. I will tell my son what I think again if necessary.”
Linda Fang, a 56-year-old retired teacher, still remembers how she fought her parents’ objections to her marriage 30 years ago.
“They disliked my husband simply because he came from northern Jiangsu Province,” says Fang. “It was a ridiculous objection, and my choice proved to be a good one.”
However, she didn’t learn from the lesson of the past. As her daughter grows up, Fang is beginning to act like her parents once did. “Good personality, of course, is a basic requirement,” says Fang of any prospective son-in-law. “I prefer that he be a Shanghai native who owns a house. That will to some extent guarantee a stable lifestyle.”
Fang started implanting her selection criteria in her 25-year-old daughter’s mind 10 years ago. She thinks the subconscious “brainwashing” has succeeded.
“Most of the boys my daughter has dated so far are good, as I see it,” says Fang. “I am confident about her judgment.”
Parental interference in marriage choices can have a lasting effect on family relations. Two years ago, Karl Zhou married a woman five years older than him. His parents objected to the match because of the age issue and have refused to visit them since their marriage.
Zhou, a self-employed 28-year-old, says he has always been an independent person capable of making his own decisions. So he was really surprised when his parents reacted so adversely to his marriage, especially refusing to visit their first grandchild, a girl born 22 months ago.
“It is my life and my marriage,” says Zhou. “I don’t feel I need the approval of others when my wife and I love one another. It would have been nice to have my parents’ support, but that didn’t happen. So now we are just a small, happy family of three.”
Sociologist Gu Xiaoming says parents wanting the best spouses for their children is not unique to China. It’s the same everywhere, although the degree of influence may vary.
“It is just natural for parents to try to guide their children along the safest path, based on their own experiences,” says Gu. “They want the best for their children, but it’s wise to update their values to keep in tune with changing times. They also need to find the appropriate way to make their opinions known.”