Does Chinese parental matchmaking matter?

There is a new NBER paper on this topic by Fali Huang, Ginger Zhe Jin, and Lixin Colin Xu, the results are striking:

While parental matchmaking has been widespread throughout history and across countries, we know little about the relationship between parental matchmaking and marriage outcomes. Does parental involvement in matchmaking help ensure their needs are better taken care of by married children? This paper finds supportive evidence using a survey of Chinese couples. In particular, parental involvement in matchmaking is associated with having a more submissive wife, a greater number of children, a higher likelihood of having any male children, and a stronger belief of the husband in providing old age support to his parents. These benefits, however, are achieved at the cost of less marital harmony within the couple and lower market income of the wife. The results render support to and extend the findings of Becker, Murphy and Spenkuch (2015) where parents meddle with children’s preferences to ensure their commitment to providing parental goods such as old age support.

Here is an earlier SSRN version.


Another argument for social security: less meddling by parents and happier marriages.

Why not just let everyone be happy? Sounds good to me.

Oh, yes. Happiness is too important to be left in the hands of unqualified citizens. We need a government department of happiness to research the problem and develop evidence-based programs to maximize happiness.

Is less children a bug or a feature?

In any case, it's an association study so it isn't worth much.



If only there existed some sort of third alternative to providing for retirement. Almost like a system where working-age people save and invest in productive capital assets. Then later they could use the investment proceeds, dividends, and appreciated assets to support themselves when they're old too work. You might say they're "taking stock" in major productive enterprises. Maybe we could call it a "stock market". It might be amazing, retiring could actually contribute to the economy by inducing investment, rather than be a burden on future generations.

Oh well, such pipe-dreams are only possible in the loftiest realms of science fiction. I suppose the young must direct support the old one way or another, just the same as t's been since the Bronze age. I suppose financial markets have absolutely zero solutions to offer here.

Do they account for divorced couples? Otherwise their could be a major sampling bias.

Important caveat on the "lower harmony" finding in the methods:

"The survey question most closely related to the emotional aspect of marriage asked: "How do you usually reconcile with your spouse when you have conflicts?" We define a harmony index as follows: it is equal to 2 if the couple reported no conflicts, 2 if conflicts are usually solved by mutual compromise, and 0 if conflicts are solved by either unilateral compromise or third-party mediation by family members, relatives, or friends."

Implicitly, this considers egalitarian marriages more harmonious than patriarchal (or matriarchal) ones, rather than reflecting harmony per se.

As soon as I saw the result, I was wondering how they measured harmony. Good to know.

Marriages requiring third-party intervention to resolve disputes are almost invariably more miserable. Ever hear the phrase "don't go to bed angry". That's a little hard to do if you have to wait for grand-father to come over and give his opinion.

I guarantee that if you survey couples, far more people want less external family intervention in internal marriage affairs rather than more. The nosy butt-in mother-in-law trope is literally the foundation of the majority of our culture's marriage humor.

If they can't sove their problems without intervention of an external party, seems less harmonious by definition.

I would be interested to see how they got "submissive wife", what is one submissiveness? Is it measured in 1/ohms?

Also there are obvious transaction costs involved, particularly information search costs. For generations where academic attainment and workforce participation lag for women, I would expect parental matchmaking to be more prominent mechanism, simply for the information search value.

And then there is dowry. Its an obvious financial transaction. Here you might have a woman who could not go to school, her labor productivity is low, families want her to marry a male who has high labor productivity to take care of her, why should the male take on the liability of a wife with low labor productivity vs one with high if either have the same child bearing ability? So the wife has lower market income, is that adjusted for with the dowry payment, matchmaking parent may be ensuring their daughters "mary up" in a socio-economic sense.

"Is it measured in 1/ohms?"

Comically, those are "siemens".

I thought they were called mhos.

You sometimes hear that one too. They're the same thing, but siemens is funny.

I believe siemens is the SI term.

Is it measured in 1/ohms?

You owe me a new keyboard.

How could there be a causal relationship between matchmaking and likelihood of male children? Or do they mean surviving children...

I suppose the difference between greater number of children and higher likelihood of having any male children would be a tendency to continue having children until a male is born and have no more once a male is born, or at least not stop if the last child was female.

They found a causal relationship for number of children. So the likelihood of at least one male child is a redundant finding, unless they found that the likelihood of at least one male child holds even controlled for number of children, in which case they've found a correlation between matchmaking and sex-selective abortion.

Or it could be that people with more traditionalist, patriarchal personality types are more likely to have male children for genetic reasons, i.e., Romney v. Obama.

Women vary their offspring sex ratio with their status and condition. Basically, better prospects, more boy children. I believe it's observed throughout mammals and among humans.

You often see catchy articles about it with headlines like "Presidents have more sons."

To JM and C above, boy and girl babies don't come 50/50 at random. It's very much a function of the parents and their characteristics. There's an extensive and extremely funny literature on it, with results like engineers having substantially more boy children than nurses do.

Firemen have more girls, oddly enough.

Nutshelling a field I am not at all expert in: People in more systematizing professions (think engineer, mathematician) have more boys, people in more empathizing professions (think nurse, social worker, maybe fireman?) have more girls; Fathers of higher status have more boys; Fathers with higher testosterone levels have more boys; Families in better condition with respect to food and housing have more boys; Families where the father is more dominant have more boys. The effects are fairly large.

The supposed mechanism is the women being more or less receptive to carrying a male baby, perhaps because of its prospects for reproductive success. My impression is this part is not well understood.

And, while I read a few things on this, it isn't something I know about in any depth.

I was surprised by the linked article on maternal control of sex ratios and similar ones. I wonder if this finding is accurate and applicable to humans.

At first look, it seems silly - it the sperm who decides if the children will be a boy or a girl, not the mother,

Apparently the idea is that the mother is differentially receptive to embryos of different sex. In any event, the effects are large and not confined to humans.

This is in China. Couples in these semi-arranged marriages are more likely to be traditional. Traditional couples are more likely to value boys. Couples that value boys are more likely, given the one-child policy at the time, to abort female fetuses in the hope of getting a boy next time.

Not directly related, but this might be relevant to the innovation and 'quirky' themes of this blog:

All the following is anecdotal.

I knew a man of the ultra-orthodox Jewish faith. He was an IT professional. His marriage had been arranged and he had no problem. My buddy and I in that conversation had non-arranged marriages that were horrid.

The divorce rate in the US is north of 50% And, much of the other 50% are miserable. .

Mother Goose has it: "Needles and pins! Needles and pins! When a man marries his trouble begins."

People change. I am not the same person I was 40 years ago, and neither is the Warden. A divorced (after 15 or 20 years and two daughters) friend once asked how I'd describe my marriage after 35 years. Short answer, "Pure hatred." He knowingly smiled.

We will be married 38 years in two weeks, three of the best weeks of my life.

We have fallen into a pattern of "oral sex." Every time we see each other we say, "Eff you."

Is it purely a financial arrangement then? I assume kids are no issue at this point so why not make it an open marriage in that case? Fear that would result in a divorce with financial repercussions?

Yeah if it was that bad he wouldn't still be married.

The divorce rate in the US is north of 50% And, much of the other 50% are miserable. .

No, about 40% of all marriages, lower for 1st marriages. And you're projecting regarding the remainder.

He undoubtedly overstates the problem, but I do think there's a faint hint of insight (whether intentional or not).

Once upon a time, there was an expectation of marrying early, and growing into a person who existed as part of that marriage. Expectations were, probably, not all that high, and so people could be fairly happy with relationships that were substantially less than perfect.

Today, the expectations are much, much different. There is a more popular expectation of forging an individual identity before entering into a relationship, which makes it more difficult to find a fit for a long-term one. Add to that higher opportunity costs to monogamy (both financially and with regards to diversity of sexual experiences) and lower transaction costs to leaving a marriage, it stands to reason that marriages which were "happy" 40+ years ago would not be so today, even if they are just as functional and loving.

Median ages at 1st marriage in the 1890s in this country were not much different than they were 90 years later.

About 10 years ago, a man in a nursing home not far from where I was living saw his 100th birthday. He was still lucid and interviewed, as that paper commonly did of local centenarians. He offered this about the outlook of people in farming in St. Lawrence County, NY, where'd he'd had his youth: "you didn't expect to have a big happy life. You just hoped to get by".

The problem, of course, is that people fancy they can improve their life by improving their circumstances. Later they discover that there's one consistent element in all their dissatisfying relationships.

People change. I am not the same person I was 40 years ago, and neither is the Warden.

Women change more than men do, and this is due to biological factors that are acknowledged but rarely discussed.

If SWPL men who get married in their late 30s would take a look at they might opt for perpetual singlehood.

prediction in 2004: "mass divorce by 2030" (under 10% of the populace married by then)

How am I doing in 2016?

“mass divorce by 2030” (under 10% of the populace married by then)

I don't see that happening. But if marriage declines it will be accompanied by an uptick in the single mothers by choice thing - which won't be good for society.

Not great. There was a very slight uptick around the time of the recession, but the divorce rate has been on a long, steady decline since roughly 1980 and shows no sign of stopping. It's about half what it once was.

"Matter" to who? Maybe a better headline would be "Could anyone not involved care less about Chinese parental matchmaking?"

What if they make China stronger?

You mean like they could bench press 300 lbs?

No, like them can defeat America.

America can "defeat" China now, does it matter? Anyway, nuclear weapons

What about 10 years from now? 20 years from now? 100 years from now? Maybe China will take over.

Without diving into the paper itself, I'd STRONGLY suspect that effects from how the match was formed (parental choice vs. the children themselves finding each other) are dominated by correlated cultural factors. i.e. Given a broad culture where some marry by parental matchmaking and others in ways closer to the Western/American norm,. the subcultures/families where a child allows/accepts parental matchmaking are likely to be rather different from those where a child finds/makes a match on their own.

i.e. Correlation != Causation...

(I'm not saying there would be no impact found in, say a randomized control trial, if such a thing were really possible/practical, but I doubt that this study, based on a survey, is particularly strong evidence of the magnitude and exact nature of such effects...)

I agree.

Here's Ron Unz on Chinese social darwinism:

Hard to take Unz seriously when won't even address why the genetically superior Chinese decided to follow a swell guy like Mao. Even after thousands of years of natural selection!

Pretty weak sauce

Is no one going to ask whether the type of people who get into arranged marriages are different from those who can find their own spouses? Perhaps some of those in arranged marriages would have been even more unhappy marrying on their own. Or absent the traditions that tolerate arranged marriages, all divorce rates would be higher.

Tyler is usually a bit quicker to worry about selection effects than here.

See Phil S. above.

Aren't young wives basically slaves to their mother-in-laws in China?

Or is that in Japan?

The extremely long life spans of East Asian women seems to be depressing marriage rates in Japan. As comedian Ali Wong says of her race/sex, "We live forever." So the idea of acquiring a mother-in-law with an expected additional 40 years of life expectancy is unappealing to young Japanese women.

"These benefits, however, are achieved at the cost of less marital harmony within the couple and lower market income of the wife."

Adjusted for how they measured harmony, there are basically no costs unless you have a modern Western/feminist view of marriage. If you're at all traditional or non-Western in your outlook, matchmaking is pretty close to a slam dunk.

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