Robert, an American truck driver in his 50s, lived in a trailer park in the Deep South. After divorcing his wife, who had cheated on him, he joined an online dating agency that connected Western men with Chinese women through translator-assisted email exchanges.
Robert told me he had become frustrated with American women, whom he felt were overly materialistic and had lost their "traditional family values." (To protect the identities of my interviewees, I've used pseudonyms.) Yet Robert could barely afford to travel to China to meet the women with whom he exchanged emails. To save up, he often ate just a few dumplings for dinner, sometimes skipping the meal altogether.
Across the ocean, several Chinese women had gathered at their local dating agency, waiting to speak with their translator. Among them was Ruby, a former businesswoman in her mid-40s who had received a generous divorce settlement from her wealthy Chinese ex-husband and had retired in leisure. Next to Ruby stood another divorcee in her 40s, Daisy, who struggled to make ends meet as a department store sales clerk.
Despite their immense class differences, both women shared the same hope of marrying a Western man and moving abroad.
Commercial dating agencies like the one described here facilitate email exchanges and marriages between women from developing countries, such as Russia, Ukraine, China or Colombia, and men from economically advanced Western countries, such as the U.S., U.K., Canada or Australia. It's a US$2 billion global business. From 2008 to 2019, I conducted research for my book "Seeking Western Men: Email-Order Brides under China's Global Rise" at three international dating agencies in China, interviewing 61 Chinese female clients.
I wanted to know why, despite China's meteoric economic and cultural rise, so many women - especially those who were financially well-off - were still looking to the West for love and companionship.
Options narrow with age
Despite China's staggering male-female gender imbalance - where single men outnumber women by more than 30 million - middle-aged divorced women still face significant struggles.
There's the stereotypical Western media representation of "mail-order brides" - young women who marry older Western men to escape poverty. This dynamic persists. But contrary to this stereotype, the majority of women enrolled at the dating agencies where I conducted research were middle-aged and divorced.
None of them felt coerced, and they cited age discrimination in China as their No. 1 reason for seeking Western men.
As Ruby confided, "Here, rich men want a young girl who is 20 to show off."
Although it's no secret that divorced or widowed men in many countries remarry younger women, the pressure to do so is particularly acute in China, where women as young as 27 years old are stigmatized as "leftover."
Adding to the complexity, women with children from previous marriages - especially those with sons instead of daughters - face even more challenges in the local marriage market. Chinese women attribute this to societal norms that expect young men to own a home or have made a down payment before tying the knot. This means that parents are expected to financially assist their sons with mortgages, and many single men don't want to assume this financial responsibility when marrying a woman with a son.
Infidelity also ranks among the top concerns for women, in large part due to the country's post-1978 economic reforms, which spawned a new capitalist upper class. Many newly wealthy men - even those who were already married - started seeking younger, more sexualized women.
Ruby told me that her affluent ex-husband, who had a number of extramarital affairs, once quipped that "men are like teapots, each teapot should be matched with multiple teacups."
It wasn't just China's newly wealthy class of men who started seeking romance outside of their marriages. Women told me of husbands who had lost their jobs and then turned to drinking, gambling and infidelity to cope with their newfound financial struggles.
While many female clients sought Western men as a tonic against Chinese men's infidelity, this was hardly a concern for women who were mistresses to wealthy businessmen.
One former mistress, Jennifer, said, "I believe in patriarchy." She preferred the company of rich men with multiple partners over faithful but less prosperous men.
As these mistresses aged, however, their wealthy paramours abandoned them for younger women. But they were unwilling to settle for lower-status, less successful men in China. After years of being out of the workforce, their lavish consumption habits were at odds with their weakened labor market prospects.
As a result, they turned to marriage migration as an option for escape.
Spurned by the service sector
Meanwhile, my interviews with sales clerks and nannies shed light on the challenges faced by middle-aged women without college degrees. Many of them had been laid off from state-owned factories in the 1990s, when over 30 million workers lost their jobs.
These women struggled to find new work in China's service sector, which prioritizes hiring young, good-looking women. Daisy, a 43-year-old, felt fortunate to have secured a job at a luxury department store, but she feared for her future job prospects.
Meanwhile, less attractive women often had to work in less desirable positions: as nannies helping mothers take care of newborns, or street vendors who earned less than $5 per day. Without access to health insurance, retirement benefits or other social safety net programs, many of these women were desperate to leave China.
Finally, many struggling single mothers marry Western men so their children can study overseas.
Some of them want their children to escape China's exam-driven education system that can burden students with excessive schoolwork and no playtime. Others feel that the Chinese job market favors social connections over qualification.
Joanne, a retail manager with dreams of sending her teenage son to the U.S. for college, pointed out, "Unlike in the U.S., a lot of good jobs in China depend on 'hou tai'" - the Chinese term for "social background" or "lineage."
"Having a degree is not enough," she added.
Mixed marriage experiences
Interestingly, of the 30 women in my study who were financially secure, only 12 ended up marrying Western men. By comparison, 26 of the 31 financially struggling women married and moved abroad.
This is because many financially secure women were used to dating wealthy Chinese businessmen and politicians, so they often rejected their working-class Western suitors. After meeting these men face to face, they realized that they lacked the refined taste, lifestyle and sexual experience of their Chinese lovers.
By contrast, the financially struggling women held a different perspective. Daisy, who married a French mechanic, eventually grew to appreciate her husband for being kind and caring to her, even though she was not initially attracted to him and called him "foolish and clumsy, like someone from the peasant class."
Moreover, Daisy valued the opportunity to work as a waitress and earn $1,500 per month, which enabled her to send some money home to her daughter in China.
Likewise, Robert, the truck driver, eventually found love with a Chinese woman. She moved into his trailer and worked as a masseuse on the side to send money back to her sons in China.
While some brides felt content in their new marriages, others suffered. For example, Joanne found herself in a toxic relationship with a controlling American man. Yet she stayed with her husband because her older age, limited English skills and her son's need for financial support as a college student in the U.S. left her with few other options.
As Joanne's experience shows, given the gender, age and class inequalities that continue to plague modern-day China, single Chinese women can find themselves choosing between a rock and a hard place.
Author: Monica Liu - Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of St. Thomas