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Transformation of social structure fuels rural wedding cost

LI HUAI | 2017-10-19
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Professional matchmakers, blind dates, wedding-planning firms, hosts, bands, chefs, disposable chopsticks and hotels, combine into a powerful seller’s market in rural China, using a variety of consumption strategies to attract young farmers to try new things or copy urban wedding ceremonies.

In recent years, there has been an explosion in spending on weddings in rural China. This stark rise in marriage spending—along with dowries—is outpacing growth in farmers’ incomes.
In this light, this article will analyze the structural factors from a big picture perspective—the interactions among society, government, market and culture—and reveal their relationships with individual behavior on a local level.

Increasing ‘bride price’
The research data of this article is derived from field investigations of marriage spending in Longdong regions in Gansu Province and media reports on marriage spending in the same area from 2001 to 2016. The focus is on the spending of the groom’s family, which reveals the changing pattern of marriage consumption in rural communities in general.

To start with, the dowry that a prospective groom needs to pay the family of the bride for permission to marry her has multiplied 25 times from 2001 to 2016. In the early 20th century, the dowry tradition often required the groom to buy watches, sewing machines and motorbikes. Today, golden rings, necklaces and earrings are customary while refrigerators, washing machines, and vehicles are classified as necessities.

In the past, the groom used motorized tricycles to pick up his bride, and now BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Audis are quite common. At the same time, spending on liquor, cigarettes, meat and vegetables is also soaring, showcasing the extravagance of rural banquets. A variety of drinks are added at rural wedding banquets and the main courses are often made of beef, fish and mutton.

In order to increase the festive atmosphere of the ceremony, music at rural weddings is usually provided by hired performers. The traditional Chinese two-men suona performance has been replaced by local bands who often blend traditional folk instruments and modern electronic gear.

In addition, the gifts for matchmakers went up 500 times in 2016 compared to 2001. Housing too is a major cost. The house for newlyweds must be newly constructed, and the materials and labor cost of renovation have increased greatly in recent years.

The increasing “bride price” has become a social trend, spelling out a major shift in the concept of consumption and consumption behavior concerning the bride, groom, parents, matchmakers, relatives and friends.

This shift is mainly formed in the process of socialization and is indeed a reflection of the specific social relations. Also, an individual’s consumption behavior is somewhat influenced by their surrounding group and other social factors, thus highlighting the social imitation tendency of consumption.

To dig a little deeper, the rapid transformation of the rural social structure since the reform and opening up has profoundly changed the meaning mechanism of consumption, which is the basic reason for the exponential growth in rural marriage spending.


The “meaning mechanism” here refers to a belief or belief system in which consumers achieve a balanced psychological state between the desire to consume and their purchased goods. It refers to relations between human consumption behavior and social environment.



In the end, the meaning mechanism of consumption provides psychological support for people’s consumption behavior, and it is the basis for the legitimacy of individual consumption behavior. With the rapid transformation of rural social structure, the meaning mechanism of marriage consumption has changed radically among farmers.

For one, social transformation accelerates the social differentiation of villages, which triggers an identity crisis. Farmers no longer rely on village or lineage as the benchmark to assess themselves. Instead, they want to show their money-earning power through consumption. Young farmers no longer regard older farmer generations as a reference group for consumption. The rich village elites are often who they look up to.

As a result, the young farmers began to use consumption as the main indicator to construct a new social identity system, which centers around the marriage consumption and leads to a spending competition in the village societies. This kind of comparison and consumption behavior further weakens young farmers’ original sense of identity and encourages the pursuit of identity and status via showing consuming power. That said, the rural differentiation caused by social transformation is the social force that changes farmers’ meaning mechanism of marriage consumption.

Next, since the reform and opening up, the government has not only stopped guiding private consumption but also adopted a series of macroeconomic policies to encourage consumption. In the 20th century, the government implemented a series of policies, including basic endowment insurance, cooperative medical care, farmland conversion system, land subsidies, minimum living allowance, compulsory education and a poverty alleviation mechanism in rural areas.

The aforementioned systems have diversified farmers’ financing channels, greatly expanding their access to financing. Now that access to education, medical treatment and pensions is relatively secure, farmers are more willing to spend on marriage—an event of a lifetime. At the same time, the state has also implemented preferential policies to encourage farmers to borrow, which further improves their access to capital.

The state’s various social security systems and incentives have transformed the meaning mechanism of rural marriage consumption, which is the policy explanation behind the rise in rural marriage consumption.

Third, in recent years, a wedding industry has gradually taken shape in rural areas with professional matchmakers, blind dates, wedding-planning firms, hosts, bands, chefs, disposable chopsticks and hotels.

They combine into a powerful seller’s market, using a variety of consumption strategies to attract young farmers to try new things or copy urban wedding ceremonies. This “new” wedding, though, comes at a high premium, but young farmers are undeterred. The market explanation for growing rural marriage spending can be found in these professional sellers who work to change the farmers’ spending preferences. 

Lastly, weddings are considered to be a milestone in life, and the marriage of young men and women is accomplished through a complete set of ritual procedures. The wedding banquet is thus the core. It contains the full significance of bringing  friends and relatives together to collectively bear witness that the couple has been officially married.

With the rapid transformation of rural social structure, the acceleration of class stratification, the prevailing social comparison mechanism and the diversification of financing channels, the farmers’ desire for marriage consumption is aggravated. Weddings, wrapped up with fancy goods and items, are a display of status and face.

A wedding banquet is no longer a simple gathering of friends and relatives. It has become a barometer of the host’s wealth and status. This shows that the cultural logic of conspicuous consumption has been widely accepted by farmers nowadays, which in turn further promotes the transformation of the meaning mechanism of rising rural marriage consumption.


Future studies
In summation, we must bear in mind two key points in the discussion of rural marriage consumption: First, if we focus on the rising dowry, we will overlook other marital expenses and the fragmentation of the research object will easily lead us off track. In fact, the rising price of the dowry is only one aspect of growth in rural marriage consumption.

Second, if we morally condemn the escalating costs of marriage instead of seeking the root causes, we can only draw superficial conclusions.

The aforementioned four explanations are the drivers of growth in rural marriage consumption, but in terms of importance, three of them—social, policy and market—are relatively superficial, while the cultural explanation is the deep-rooted cause that fundamentally affects the transformation of the meaning mechanism of marriage consumption.

In reality, the first three explanations work together and transform the cultural aspect, while the successful transformation of the cultural aspect will in turn affect the first three aspects. 

However, there is still room for further exploration in this discussion. First, researchers still need to consider the role of the state in marriage spending. Second, the article discusses the increase in rural marriage spending. What is the situation in the cities? Are their parallel trends or is there a gap? Third, it is worth studying what happens when someone from the city marries someone from the countryside and vice versa. If the couple comes from different geographical and family backgrounds, is there an increase in marriage consumption, and how do the two sides negotiate and reach a consensus? Finally, the four types of explanations discussed in this article constitute one possible way to account for the growth in rural wedding spending, so if we look at marriages across the country, the interactions of the four types of explanations may be more complicated, requiring researchers to carry out further corresponding empirical studies.


Li Huai is a professor from the School of Social Development and Public Administration at Northwest Normal University.