Nothing like this has happened in human history. A combination of cultural preferences, government decree and modern medical technology in the world’s two largest countries has created a gender imbalance on a continental scale. Men outnumber women by 70 million in China and India.
The consequences of having too many men, now coming of age, are far-reaching: beyond an epidemic of loneliness, the imbalance distorts labour markets, drives up savings rates in China and drives down consumption, artificially inflates certain property values and parallels increases in violent crime, trafficking or prostitution in a growing number of locations.
Those consequences are not confined to China and India, but reach deep into their Asian neighbours and distort the economies of Europe and the Americas. Barely recognised, the ramifications of too many men are only starting to come into sight.
“In the future, there will be millions of men who can’t marry, and that could pose a very big risk to society,” warns Li Shuzhuo, a leading demographer at Xian Jiaotong University, in Xian, Shaanxi province.
Out of China’s population of 1.4 billion, there are nearly 34 million more males than females – more than the entire population of Malaysia – who will never find wives and only rarely have sex. China’s official one-child policy, in effect from 1979 to 2015, was a huge factor in creating this imbalance, as millions of couples were determined that their child should be a son.
India, a country that has a deeply held preferences for sons and male heirs, has an excess of 37 million males, according to its most recent census. The number of newborn female babies compared with males has continued to plummet, even as the country grows more developed and prosperous. The imbalance creates a surplus of bachelors and exacerbates human trafficking, both for brides and, possibly, prostitution. Officials attribute this to the advent of sex-selective technology in the last 30 years, which is now banned but still in widespread use.
In the two countries, 50 million excess males are under the age of 20.
Both nations are belatedly trying to come to grips with the policies that created this male-heavy generation. And demographers say it will take decades for the ramifications of the bulge to fade away.
PART ONE: STAGNANT LIVES
The growing number of eligible men who cannot find brides has had a profound impact on the age-old rhythms of family life. Adult sons live with their mothers – in some cases, their grandmothers. Indian and Chinese women who showed a marked preference for sons are growing old. They are still burdened with cooking and cleaning for their adult sons, and the stress affects their health. “I’ve cried so much I can’t see any more,” says one.
The gender imbalance could prompt a “crisis of masculinity” as traditional roles are upended and males embrace socially regressive stances to prove their manhood, says Prem Chowdhry, a researcher and social scientist in New Delhi. “People devalue their masculinity. If they remain single, they will be declared not men at all. The basic function of a man in rural society is to have a family and look after that family.”
“In rural areas, men who didn’t get married are really marginalised; even socialising in the village is difficult,” says Therese Hesketh, a professor of global health at University College London. “These guys are depressed.”
“Life is boring and lonely”
Li Weibin has never had a girlfriend. Boys outnumbered girls in the isolated mountain village where he grew up, in the factories where he worked as teenager and on the construction sites where he now earns a modest wage.
Today, 30 years old, he lives in a bare, stuffy dormitory room with five other men in the city of Dongguan, in Guangdong province. Bunk beds line the walls, cigarette butts carpet the floor.
“I want to find a girlfriend, but I don’t have the money or the opportunity to meet them,” he says. “Girls have very high standards, they want houses and cars. They don’t want to talk to me.”
Li’s problem is not only that he is poor and struggling to save enough money to buy a flat of his own, it is that in China there are simply too many men. This is a country where marriage confers social status, and where parental pressure to produce grandchildren is intense. Bachelors like Li are dismissively branded as “bare branches” for failing to expand the family tree.
But as any forester knows, bare branches pose a danger, and not just to themselves.
In Dongguan, where the gender ratio is 118 men to 100 women, Li says he has virtually given up hope of finding a girlfriend. He spends his spare time playing games on his phone, or accompanying his colleagues to karaoke or for a foot massage.
“It is just me,” he says. “Life is boring and lonely.”
“May you be the mother of a hundred sons”
When Om Pati, a farmer’s wife in the Indian village of Bass, in the state of Haryana, was having children, she actually prayed that a sweet-eyed girl bundle would arrive. Instead, she had a son. Then another and another – seven in all. Her neighbours in the village were overjoyed for her each time a new baby arrived. They rang steel plates so everyone in the neighbourhood would know a boy had been born.
After all, this is a culture where male children are desired above all else – to light the Hindu funeral pyre, inherit property, care for ageing parents. As the Sanskrit blessing says, “May you be the mother of 100 sons.”
Sometimes it felt to Om Pati like she was the mother of 100 sons. She worked from sunrise until night. She consoled herself with the thought that she would one day have daughters-in-law with whom to trade stories and share cooking duties. Grandchildren, too.
But by the time her eldest, Sanjay – now 38 and a cook – reached marriageable age, the practice of families in her area sneaking off to larger cities for an illegal sonogram and then an abortion had taken its toll. When she and her husband began seeking matches for arranged marriage, still the norm, there were no suitable brides. The few young women in the village had all married – that is, those who had not left for better opportunities elsewhere.
These days, Om Pati, now 60, spends her days cooking and cleaning for her husband and adult sons, who range from age 22 to 38. They gobble up so many rotis – the flat-round bread loaves that are a household staple, each one shaped in her calloused hands – that she goes through several pounds of flour a day.
“There is no other option,” she says. “It’s not in our hands.”
“No one knows how sad I feel”
Suresh Kumar once dreamed of getting married, with a procession through the lanes of Bass, a bride adorned in gold and the kind of ceremony that was once a near-universal rite of passage for Indian men. But after one potential engagement fell apart, no other suitable brides could be found. He even went back to earn his high-school degree in hopes of being a more attractive suitor.
Still no one. Now Kumar is in his mid-30s, long past what is considered marriageable age in India, and is beginning to face a hard truth: that a wife and a family won’t happen for him.
“People say, ‘You don’t have a wife and children at home to care for; why are you working so hard?” Kumar says. “I laugh on the outside but the pain that I have in my heart only I know.”
The men themselves are isolated, left out of major family decisions and subject to ridicule, with little in the way of support or mental health services. Worse, in the traditional culture of villages, those who miss out on marriage have no hope of female companionship; dating or having a girlfriend is out of the question.
One recent evening, a family threw a rooftop party to celebrate the birth of a boy. Parties to welcome girl babies are still so rare they are covered by the local newspaper. Before the guests arrived, Kumar huddled in a stairwell nearby, sweating over a cast-iron pot, cracking jokes with friends as he fried sweet pancakes for the guests. He likes to cook, he says, but the role occasionally unbalances him.
During a harvest festival last year, his mother was delayed in another town. So Kumar was left to prepare the pancakes on his own. As he flipped the cakes in the bubbling oil, he grew teary-eyed, thinking of how there was no wife and kids to eat the treats he was making.
With a wife, he says, “there would be somebody to make tea for me, to tell me when to take a bath. We don’t have much value as unmarried men in this society. Everybody thinks, ‘What problem does this man have? What is lacking in his family? What is lacking in him?’”
People say, ‘You don’t have a wife and children at home to care for; why are you working so hard? I laugh on the outside but the pain that I have in my heart only I know.
Evenings are the loneliest times, when the village folds into itself, minders return with their cows from the pond, smoke wafts from evening meals, schoolchildren still in their plaid school uniforms play in the uneven lanes. Kumar shuts himself in his room.
“I watch TV, romantic movies sometimes,” Kumar says. “What can I do? It’s up to me then. What I feel inside stays inside.”
It wasn’t supposed to end up this way. When he was in high school, he had a brief romance with a classmate, a beautiful 17-year-old, tall and slim, with two braids that reached down her back. Even now he cannot speak of her without singing a few bars of an Urdu love song. “I looked for her on Facebook just yesterday,” he says.
But the tryst was discovered, the parents put a stop to it, and his classmate eventually married someone else. Kumar’s family wasn’t able to find any other suitable prospective brides for him.
“We feel it, but this is a problem in every house,” says his mother, Bhima, sitting with her son after the party in the dimly lit courtyard of the modest house where they live.
Sometimes, Kumar says, the suffocation he feels is palpable: “You know how when there’s no wind and a plant is sitting there and the leaves are not moving? That’s how the man feels: You’re just stationary.”
PART TWO: THE DESPERATE EFFORT TO LAND A BRIDE
It takes a house, savings and a good job to win a bride. Many Chinese men are working harder – and taking more dangerous or unpleasant jobs – to get ahead. Parents are also trying to give their sons a leg up financially. “It’s kind of an arms race in the dating and marriage market,” says Shang-Jin Wei, an economist at Columbia University, in the United States.
The high household savings rate, particularly in China, helps explain its huge trade surplus. A man who makes cheap shoes for export does not spend the wages he earns on consumer goods imports. Instead he saves to build a house and attract a bride. Another unintended result – urban housing prices are rising fast.
Male suitors in China pay a “bride price” to earn their future in-laws’ approval for the engagement. Because of the acute imbalance, it has gone from a few hundred dollars a decade or two ago to nearly US$30,000 in some parts of China. Families sock that money away instead of spending it.
Having sons was once a hedge against poverty in old age. Now elderly parents are sacrificing to help their sons appear marriageable – and to support sons who fail to find a bride. Daughters-in-law were once expected to look after their husbands’ parents. In millions of families, that is no longer possible.
“If you want to find a wife, you have to build a house”
The best way to find a bachelor in rural China these days: look for someone building a house.
Li Defu is typical. Now 21, he left home seven years ago to find work in the Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province, but he has pooled the family savings to build a 10-room house overlooking green hills and valleys of his birthplace, Paifeng.
“At the moment there aren’t any girls my age around,” he says, on a trip home to supervise construction. “But I am building this new house in preparation, in case I find someone.”
I want to find a girlfriend, but I don’t have the money or the opportunity to meet them. Girls have very high standards, they want houses and cars.
Li was brought up by his grandmother, a tiny, wizened woman who sits beside him as he chats. His parents still work in far-off factories; the savings they have collected could be crucial.
About 60,000 yuan (US$10,000), Li reckons, will have to be paid to his future bride’s family, just to gain their approval for the engagement. A centuries-old tradition, the bride price in China is similar to a dowry elsewhere in the world, but paid from groom’s family to the bride’s parents, rather than the other way around.
A decade or two back, the typical “bride price” was just a few thousand yuan. Today, in some parts of China, the average is nearly 180,000 yuan, according to a survey by the People’s Daily newspaper.
That translates into huge pressure for young men like Li and their families. Indeed, helping to build Li’s house is another young man who is already feeling that pressure.
“There are very few girls here, and many girls from outside won’t want to marry into this village because it’s poor,” says 25-year-old Zhou Haijiang, as he lays the tiles in one of the house’s many bathrooms. Only a show of prosperity can attract, and hold, a bride.
“In our village, if you want to find a wife, you have to build a house.”
Zhou says he would like to stay in Paifeng all his life, but the pay isn’t good, and he will soon reluctantly join the tide of migrant workers heading for China’s booming megacities, in search of riches – and brides.
Many unmarried Chinese men have made their way to cities like Dongguan, in the Pearl River Delta, a vast urban agglomeration nicknamed the “factory of the world”.
Their work ethic, their determination to succeed, is remarkable.
In a noodle shop close to a series of shoe factories, a 24-year-old who gives only his family name, Wang, is enjoying dinner with some friends. In between mouthfuls, he says he left his home in rural western China a decade ago and now works 11 or 12 hours a day, with just two days off a month.
He has already saved enough to build a house back in his home village, but is still struggling to find a wife.
“If you are picky, it’s hard,” he says. “There are also more boys here, and it is not necessarily easy to meet girls.”
PART THREE: IMPORTING BRIDES
Tens of thousands of foreign women are flocking to China for marriage, pushed by poverty at home and sucked in by China’s shortage of women. Chinese men surf websites that offer foreign brides, and may wind up paying upwards of US$8,000 for marriage tours to find a wife. For the brides, it’s a huge gamble: they are lured with promises of work, and some are effectively trapped and trafficked into marriage. In their new families, daughters-in-law often occupy the lowest status.
In any given age group, a proportion of men will fail to find brides, but they will stay in the marriage market, competing with younger men to marry younger women. The disproportion keeps growing. By 2050, French demographer Christophe Guilmoto estimates, there could be between 150 to 190 men for every 100 women in China’s marriage market.
The shortage of women in rural China is amplified because women there often “marry up”, seeking husbands with slightly higher educational, financial or social status. That takes women away from villages to the cities in search of those types of men, making it even harder for the men who stay behind.
“You are my slave”
Liu Hua could not find a wife in China, so he decided to buy a foreign one. His sister and mother helped him to choose from a selection of Cambodian women who had come to China looking for husbands, eventually picking out a slim girl with a pleasant smile.
Their main concern was that she was a bit taller than him. That, and worrying about what the neighbours would think.
“People in the village said she would run away; they thought a foreign wife wasn’t as good as a Chinese wife,” says Liu, who lives in Leping, in southeastern Jiangxi province. “But now they don’t think so any more. My wife didn’t run away. She is friendly with the neighbours and treats them politely. Everyone says how nice she is.”
His wife, Lili, is among tens of thousands of foreign women who are flocking to China for marriage, pushed by poverty at home and sucked in by the dramatic shortage of women.
Leping has become a centre for the trade in Cambodian women: in village after village, they are easy to spot, looking after young children and picking them up from school, or just hanging out watching their husbands play mahjong.
In Huangling, a village two hours’ drive to the north of Leping, Liu’s was the first of several transnational marriages. “Our village has 50 or 60 bachelors and only one or two single women,” says Liu. “For men who are 40 or even older, Cambodian women are like a second chance.”
But for the women involved, it is a huge gamble, being catapulted into families where daughters-in-law often occupy the lowest status of all, especially foreign ones who have been “bought”.
Not surprising, then, that Lili’s mother did not want her to come. “You don’t speak the language, you don’t know anyone, it’s dangerous,” she warned.
Our village has 50 or 60 bachelors and only one or two single women. For men who are 40 or even older, Cambodian women are like a second chance.
But in Cambodia, daughters are expected to help support the family financially. Lili’s father had died, and there were three young brothers to bring up and get through school. Her village, in central Kampong Cham province, offered no real employment opportunities.
Lili, who was born Sreynich Yorn, was paid the equivalent of US$450, plus travel expenses, and promised a relatively well-paid job in a Chinese factory when she arrived, provided she agreed to get married. “I wanted the money, for my mother,” she says.
Liu says he paid deposits ranging from US$5,000 to US$40,000 to three local families, just for the right to date their daughters, and got only some of the money back when the matches did not work out.
Fed up with demanding Chinese families, he eventually decided to pay a broker nearly US$15,000 for Lili, who took a Chinese name after moving.
The two profess to be content, living in a house filled with photos of their wedding and their two young children: a four-year-old boy, Siyiuan, and his one-year-old sister, Sisi. In one picture, they sit on a park bench, he in his best grey suit and red tie, she in a white wedding dress carrying a bunch of red and white roses, together making the shape of a heart with their arms. Both insist theirs is a genuine marriage, not a transaction. Happily, Liu’s mother approves.
But Lili still feels cheated, especially after she found out how much her husband had paid. The job she was promised never materialised; she is furious with the marriage broker for pocketing almost all the fee. “She lied to me for money,” she says.
Lili spends her days looking after her two young children. Her husband, a painter and decorator, is often away for work, but her mother-in-law seems sympathetic, even proud of the young woman who brought her two grandchildren.
Her own mother even visited last year, and went home with a wad of money, about US$1,500, that will help the rest of the family.
Lili is one of the lucky ones. “My husband is a good man and he treats me well,” she says. “I don’t want to go back. I have children now.”
One 32-year-old woman, interviewed in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, says she was enticed to go to China with the promise of a factory job. But when she landed, she was forced to marry a man she didn’t like. “My husband said to me, ‘You are my slave, I bought you. If I want, I can do anything to you.’”
Her new family locked her in the house to prevent her from fleeing, she says. Her husband demanded sex four times a day. If she refused, she was beaten. Finally, she had a baby girl. Seven days after birth, her husband demanded sex again, and when she refused, he beat her, she says. Two years later, she recalls, she had a miscarriage, was denied medical treatment by her husband’s family and almost died.
Some [marriage] services offer a money-back guarantee that the brides will be virgins, and a free replacement for any who run away within a year.
For three years, the woman did not called her family back home in Cambodia “because I didn’t want my mother to worry” and because she felt ashamed that she had not been able to send any money.
Eventually, though, she called her brother. Together they convinced the Chinese family to let her visit her sick mother in Cambodia, but they let her go only on the condition she leave her daughter behind.
Now she lives in a cruel limbo. Scared of being stigmatised in her village, she rarely goes home, working instead for low pay in a garment factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. She has been separated from her three-year-old daughter for more than a year. Thinking of her child, a fleeting smile passes over the woman’s face. “I cry every day,” she says.
With men outnumbering women in China by 34 million, the demand for foreign wives risks simply shifting the problem onto China’s smaller neighbours.
Russian women, some of whom used to look to the West for husbands, are increasingly seeking marriage in China, says Elena Barabantseva, at Britain’s University of Manchester, who has been leading an international project on marriage migration into China. In China, they are the most sought-after brides, prized for their fair skin and European features. They are seen as educated but accessible, less emancipated than Western women. These women are more likely to end up in bigger cities, with richer men.
Commercial marriage tours to Russia, as well as to Ukraine, offer Chinese men the chance to meet 10 or 20 women over the space of a few days for about US$5,000, rising to US$8,000 if they find a bride.
But a much larger number of women come from Vietnam. Marriage migration across the porous border in southern China began two decades ago and is flourishing, says Caroline Grillot, who has been researching the phenomenon for a decade, most recently with Barabantseva in Manchester.
Vietnamese women are seen as less “demanding” than some Chinese women and more focused on traditional family values. They are also sought after for their fair skin, their big eyes and slim waists, Grillot says. They in turn often prefer Chinese husbands to their own compatriots, not just for their wallets, but because they are seen as hard-working and family-focused.
Today, websites like ZhongYueLove.com (China-Viet-Love) offer a selection of Vietnamese women. Some services offer a money-back guarantee that the brides will be virgins, and a free replacement for any who run away within a year.
Others arrive from Myanmar and Laos, crossing into China’s relatively poor southwestern Yunnan province.
In effect they are replacing local women who have themselves migrated, to find husbands in more prosperous parts of “inner China”, says Shen Hanmei, a professor at Yunnan University, in Kunming.
Significant numbers have poured in from North Korea, too, especially after famine struck there in the mid-1990s. Many have suffered horrendous treatment from abusive husbands or were trafficked into prostitution in China, and ended up in labour camps if they tried to return to their home country.
PART FOUR: TAKING A STAND ON HARASSMENT
In Haryana state in northern India, crimes against women have risen 127 per cent in the last decade. Young men in Haryana say that they have no good job opportunities and little entertainment – save for a nightly game of cricket, football or kabaddi, the Indian contact sport. Out of boredom and frustration, many take to harassing young women. Egged on by Bollywood films in which a hero breaks down a woman’s reluctance, the men chase the girls.
The Indian government has tried to ban sex-selective diagnostic testing, but the practice remains widespread. Many families believe it is better to abort their unborn girls because it will be hard to protect them from sexual violence later in life, and parents will have to pay pricey dowries when the girls are married. In India, a nation of 1.3 billion, males outnumber females by 37 million.
“Locked in their fist”
First the girls refused to go to class. Then they launched a sit-in in the centre of town. Then they stopped eating.
A group of 11-graders in the Indian village of Gothra Tappa Dahina sparked a public revolt because they were tired of being harassed by men as they walked to school in a neighbouring town. Nearly every day on the road, they said, they would be circled by young men buzzing them on motorbikes, grabbing their scarves, their bodies, and calling them sexually provocative names.
Street harassment – called “eve teasing” – has long been a problem in Indian society, which remains deeply patriarchal despite years of economic growth and superficial signs of change. Now, the widening imbalance between numbers of men and women in the country is exacerbating the problem, public safety officials believe.
This conservative part of northern India has 7,000 villages with as many as 150 to 200 surplus single men each, one study says. In a country all too familiar with crimes against women, packs of men, fuelled by cheap liquor, often take to the street to chase and pressure young women.
Ultimately the girls decided to take matters into their own hands.
“There’s too many men,” says Nikita Chauhan, 14, the willowy daughter of the village seamstress who became a protest leader. “They keep us locked in their fist.”
Last May, amid blackened, burned-over farmers’ fields and in the scorching heat, the girls gathered under a printed cotton tent in the centre of the village and began their strike.
The temperature soared to 42 degrees Celsius. Some fainted and had to be taken to the hospital. Some passed out and lay as they were, fanned by fellow students, who spooned water laced with electrolyte powder into their mouths, like baby birds. They were joined by the mayor, their mothers, then women from other villages.
A month earlier, the girls had graduated from the village school to high school and began experiencing what their older sisters had long warned them about: that the 2.5km stretch of road between their village and the high school was not safe, because of the young men on motorcycles, with helmets obscuring their faces, who harassed them as they walked.
“I decided whatever I had experienced during those days wasn’t worth tolerating,” says Sujata Chauhan, 14, sitting near the protest site. (The girls are not related; Chauhan is a common last name among the local caste.)
Gothra Tappa Dahina village is a small community of nearly 3,000, mostly farming families who grow corn, wheat and millet. It is part of a district that has one of the worst boy-girl ratios in Haryana, an economically strong but socially backward state that has the worst gender ratio of newborns to age six in the country, according to census data. Crimes against women have risen in the state by 127 per cent in the last decade.
The imbalance of men to women in the village tells the story – there are 133 men to every 100 women, according to community health statistics.
During hot, sleepy days, the men in the village play cards on the front porch of the community centre, their backs to the painted “Girl Boy Board”, where community health workers have tallied the sex of newborns, monitoring done as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Save Girl Child, Educate Girl Child” programme, which carries out public awareness campaigns on the importance of caring for and educating girls.
Modi launched the programme after India’s ratio of boys to girls (newborns to age six) widened significantly between the census of 2001 and that of 2011.
Those who admit to “eve-teasing” say it is harmless. Sometimes the girls flirt back or encourage it, they say.
College student Shakti Singh, 20, says he would like a girlfriend but has no clue how to get one. With little help from their conservative parents but with easy access to the internet, he and his friends model their behaviour on the men in Bollywood romance movies. The genre – often with a hero who breaks down a woman’s reluctance – has been criticised for glorifying stalking and rape.
“There is a lot of effect from movies,” Singh says. “Even though the girl says no, he continues chasing her, and she still says no. But in the end, he gets the girl.”
Now multiply that impression by the several million unattached young men watching these movies nationwide. The state recently launched a programme to curtail these misguided “Romeos”, with special police squads to patrol shopping malls, college campuses and bus stands where chronic harassers gather.
“I won’t tease in the village. I will get beaten up. But outside I do,” boasts Lal Singh, a field worker, 31.
In Gothra village, the girls’ sit-in finally notched a small victory. After eight days, school officials – worn down by seeing the wilting girls on cable news as the protest garnered attention – announced that their demands would be met. They would open 11th and 12th grades in the existing village school so the girls would not have to walk.
It was a victory that did little to discipline the harassing young men, and one that will liberate the girls by keeping them closer to home, but a victory, nonetheless.
Suresh Chauhan, the local sarpanch, or mayor, who sat in the heat with the girls throughout the protest, says that education is the key to undoing what decades of patriarchy in India have wrought. “The change is in the younger generation. People look at each other and change themselves,” he says. There is some shift due to wider worlds glimpsed on television and smartphones, he adds, but he insists that “education is the highest reason for change”.
A few days later, the 11-graders, flush with victory, line up to await the start of classes at their school – a horseshoe-shaped ring of spare concrete rooms, some without desks.
“Until we were at the hunger strike, we did not realise how progressive our village had become. How supportive they were. How they think now! Now, we are not restricted at all,” Sujata Chauhan says. “People have come to realise that we have equal rights and they are willing to give them to us.”