In coming to Yilong I was particularly eager to learn whether or not the rapid changes in romantic attitudes in urban China had made any headway into rural China. What I observed first and foremost, however, was that the lonely heart in rural China faces a much bleaker landscape than one would in a big city. Even without having to deal with more conservative social norms, the severe drain of young people to the cities to work leaves few options. Out of the few young people I met who had stayed behind in Yilong to work, many of them were already married, even those close to my age; I could probably count on my fingers the number of young single people I met in my whole three months there.
Beyond this general scarcity of potential mates, I was fascinated to observe the contradictory forces at work in the dating scene in rural Sichuan, which I imagine are even more extreme than those operating on romantic conventions in more cosmopolitan parts of the country. On one end, arranged marriages, or at least extreme family involvement in the orchestration of matches, are still quite common. I met several couples in their late 20’s and early 30’s who, when I asked how they had met one another, replied that they had been “jieshao” 介绍–“introduced,” or essentially set up, by family members. On the other hand, the practice of dating in high school, still controversial in urban China, has already started to percolate into the countryside. High school couples can occasionally be spotted discreetly holding hands leaving the school. I once walked by a pair of high school kids who had found a secluded corner besides the old MiG fighter plane on display at the memorial to the civil war hero and Yilong native Zhu De 朱德 and were using it to practice some aggressive PDA.
This collision of traditional values with evolving attitudes was even more vividly brought home to me by the experience of my roommate and fellow volunteer at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. In many ways, Li (names omitted to protect the innocent) personally embodies this dichotomy of traditional and modern. A native to Yilong and the son of local officials, he was one of few of his classmates able to attend college, in the northern city of Dalian. After graduating, he spent several years working and volunteering in various NGOs in different parts of the country before returning to Yilong to work at ARDY. While proud of his roots and staunchly traditional in some respects, his views have also been inevitably changed by prolonged exposure to Western colleagues in various NGOs. Over the course of two months I observed his surprising and rather increasingly conflicted courtship of a local girl, Jin. Jin had studied at a teacher’s college in Chengdu and returned that year to teach English at a local middle school in the nearby town of Ma An 马鞍.
The two’s meeting had been a classic case of old-school match-making. Li’s great aunt had invited the two of us over for dinner on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It was only after we arrived for dinner that the aunt informed Li that she had invited a potential suitor as well, much to his embarrassment. The two barely spoke to one another for the whole course of the evening; however, Jin had procured Li’s cell phone number from the aunt and called him the next afternoon, and the two ended up chatting for over an hour. These hour-long phone conversations soon became a nightly ritual, though it was over a week before Jin was able to get a reprieve from teaching and take the 40-minute bus from Ma An back to Jincheng and see Li in person again.
I was utterly shocked how soon it was after this second “date” that the two began to talk about marriage–somewhat jokingly, of course, but nonetheless with definite intent behind it. I went to pay a visit to Jin’s classroom the week after they had started dating. Over lunch, she told me that although she had barely spoken to Liu Yi at their first meeting, she had felt an instant connection with him, “as if we had been married in the previous life.” She had already begun to weigh the possibilities for their future life together; would Li commit to stay in Yilong with her, or would she have to come with him if he went to work for an NGO in Chengdu which had previously employed him? I was utterly baffled at the speed with which their relationship had progressed to this planning stage, and skeptical that Li, who had worked with a different NGO in a different city each of his four years since graduating from college, would agree to settle down so soon.
I realize I’m already over the conventional length limit for a blog post, so you’ll have to stay tuned for the shocking conclusion later this week.