This month, marriage registrars in Shanghai are preparing for their busiest time of the year as lovestruck couples take advantage of the temperate weather to get hitched before the stifling heat of summer kicks in. (October is the second most popular month for broadly similar reasons; clearly, no one wants a photo album picturing sticky guests sweltering in suits and ankle-length gowns). This year, it seems harried officials will be working even longer hours as an estimated 135,000 couples will tie the knot in the city, a 30 per cent increase on 2007, largely due to the auspicious number 8, which traditionally denotes good fortune. Little wonder most commentators predict the opening day of the Beijing Olympics (2008-8-8) will transform many Chinese towns and cities into a spectacle reminiscent of the Rev Sun Moon's heyday of multiple betrothals.
But as the numbers spiral, so too does the cost. Professional wedding planners haven't been slow to capitalize on the surge: the price of wedding dresses alone is estimated to have risen by 20 per cent in the last 12 months. The cost of the average Shanghai wedding now stands at RMB 54,000, a huge sum for young urbanites. Of course, many couples try to minimize the expenditure, which is not always an easy task considering how large a voice parents have in the planning process. Even those aforementioned photos – be they taken in an ornamental garden, Ming-era courtyard or professional studio made up to look like either one-can cost the equivalent of two months salary.
Of course, these concerns will seem a world away to the grandparents of today's brides and grooms. Indeed, an enthusiastic correspondent for China Youth Dailyonce wrote that under the 'landlord classes' women were "merely slaves and properties of men, and marriage [was] nothing but a process of buying and selling with compulsion".
Granted, since 1949 the government has put much effort into reforming outmoded traditions of marriage, with the aim of remodeling the institution on an egalitarian basis. As such, it has tried to stamp out so-called arranged marriages, and to ban the practice of concubinage. If this goal has been largely accomplished, then it appears that economics has replaced gender bias as the major inequitable constraint facing newlyweds.
Long gone are the days in China when a sewing machine, a bike and a watch were considered the only necessities for future wedded bliss, as couples in the 21st-century struggle with the cost of living and mortgage repayments. Anticipating these burdens, more and more people have chosen to celebrate their nuptials in unconventional ways, including the recent phenomenon of 'bicycle weddings'. Dressed in qipao and morning suit, the happy couple cycles through the city streets accepting the best wishes of passers-by, rather than red envelopes stuffed with cash. This choice may not make for a stylish marriage (even if the bicycle is made for two), but odds are it will be no less memorable.