Money and Affection: Understanding the Financial Motives Behind Chinese Relationships

Money and Affection: Understanding the Financial Motives Behind Chinese Relationships
Mar 22, 2014 By Thomas Hale ,

To many expat observers, money seems to be at the heart of Chinese affection. Scarcely a day goes by without tell of a relationship driven by money; a woman refusing to marry a man because he doesn't own his own apartment, a business contract that fell through because of inadequate baijiu-related spending, or parents who nearly worked themselves to death to save enough for their child's overseas education.

Money and Affection: Understanding the Financial Motives Behind Chinese Relationships

Tradition is always bubbling away underneath the surface. Self-sacrifice, and the ability to endure suffering and hardship are still highly valued—spending tremendous, self-damaging quantities of money without batting an eyelid is an important character trait in China. Spending and receiving money are therefore viewed very different; most foreigners have had the experience of trying to tip a waiter or taxi driver and being flatly refused, or chased down the street so that the inappropriate gift can be returned. To give is to show strength, and to receive is to admit weakness. Many foreigners are bemused by the status of money in Chinese affection – at weddings, guests will give gifts of up to 1,000 RMB each, parceled in red envelopes. A gift-giving culture so strongly based around simply handing over money may seem strange. Yet some of these peculiarities are less to do with a mysterious, baffling culture, and more to do with straightforward economics.

Financial prerequisits for love and marriage

Love and money are often in a state of conflict in China. Many men typically complain that without an apartment—a financial commitment of hundreds of thousands of Yuan—it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a wife. However, such a system is unsurprising: China's economic growth has yet to be matched by a welfare system that bears any comparison to those found in highly developed nations (the average spent on social security as a percentage of GDP in major Western nations is around 15.8%). Simply put, it's easier to pursue a marriage for love when your post-industrial government ensures a certain safety net. When social security is a genuine concern, marrying for money might be less a cynical act of greed, and more a prudent act of survival.

Only a hundred and fifty years ago, marriage was entirely related to social security in the West; a quick glance at Pride and Prejudice, where romantic love is something of an extraordinary exception to the general rule of parent-driven, money-related marriages, makes this painstakingly clear. Given that social security in China is so far behind, it is somewhat shortsighted for Westerners to criticize Chinese women for their predilection for wealthy men without a consideration of broader social issues.

Greed or need: social factors to bear in mind    

Worries over social security extends beyond marriage in Chinese society, where a single medical bill can literally destroy lives. Even in the comparatively wealthy Beijing, where the average yearly salary is 56,601 RMB, most people are still unable to foot expensive medical bills and have much left over. One reason why domestic consumption is so low in China (in 2011, consumer spending was only 35% of GDP, around half of the US equivalent) stems from people's anticipation of that "rainy day" when serious illness strikes and equally serious funds are needed to ensure proper treatment.

While parallels may be drawn with the US healthcare system, those who come to China are more likely to come from a demographic largely unaffected by lack of healthcare and accommodation—the many Americans suffering from the weaknesses of US welfare are not usually in a position to hop on a flight to Shanghai. Consequently, this aspect of the Chinese mentality may pass some observering expats by.

The "baijiu test" in China's business culture

Affection and money meet in the arena of Chinese business, as meetings and deals often degenerate into alcohol-related spending sprees. Yet, while the buying of copious amounts of baijiu is technically an act of affection, it also conceals an astute business strategy. As above, a lot of aspects of Chinese life relate to potentially unseen hardships, and being able to deal with these stoically is highly admired. The oft-repeated Chinese idiom to 'eat hardship' (吃苦) is personified perfectly by baijiu, which, in many cases seems to be nothing more than a means of testing just how much liver-related hardship you can force upon yourself.

The drink has long been central to Chinese business for perhaps this reason. A worthy business partner is one who can endure struggles, and the baijiu test often seems to be a miniature character-test. This extends beyond business itself; in fact, buying drinks for others often becomes a way of 'paying' for information about them. When the inhibition-removing effects of borderline paint-stripping alcohol are factored into the equation, getting people drunk is something well worth spending your money on. Affection—as in buying drinks for others—can often contain financial motivations beneath the surface, especially in a business context.

Parents see personal sacrifice as educational opportunity for children

Affection also manifests itself very strongly in parent-child relationships. A recent Chinese film, 含泪活着,described the true story of a Chinese man who moved to Tokoyo and worked illegally for over a decade, saving money for his daughter to eventually, triumphantly, study medicine in the US. The one-child policy has projected a huge amount of affection onto individual children, whereas Western families are more likely to have this affection and its financial benefits dispersed amongst siblings.

In China, parental financial sacrifice is most powerfully linked to education. Tales of migrant workers wiring the vast majority of their salary to their homes further in central or western China so that their children can go to decent schools are incredibly commonplace. In 2005 (a long time ago, in some respects), Chinese migrant workers sent home an estimated US $65.4 billion. Again, this instance of money-driven affection relates entirely to societal structure. In many parts of China, social mobility is almost impossible to achieve through free education; instead, parents who save harder, and sacrifice more, will watch their children reap the benefits.

The historical/developmental context of Chinese "greed"

Affection is still linked so closely to money because extreme poverty was very recently a reality for the vast majority of the country's population. Cultural attitudes and norms that sprung up around this inevitably concern themselves with security, and such concerns can easily outlive the material conditions that bred them. The continual raving about China's economy may, also, miss the point; a rich country is not the same as rich people.

China may have the world's second largest economy, but its GDP per capita is 88th, just behind the Dominican Republic and Libya. Western attitudes toward affection are bound to differ from those in a country where economic security is such a life-defining issue. Obviously, greed will always have a role to play in social relationships, Chinese or otherwise. And while there is no denying that greed has become a major aspect of affection and money in China, the money-driven attitudes displayed in the structure of many Chinese relationships and the profound importance of money in gift giving, actually run far deeper than merely greed. They are remnants of a time of need that the nation, in spite of its growth, is yet to entirely emerge from.    

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Keywords: Chinese affection and money economics of Chinese relationships Chinese personal finances Chinese culture and money


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A HK tourist went to USA recently...apparently he slipped and fell while walking...his short visit to a hospital in USA cost many thousands of US dollars...uh, in China it would have cost 1 single dollar...

Mar 16, 2015 02:43 Report Abuse



It is so difficult to try and understand anything in China. Time and time again we try to rationalise irrational and impulsive behaviour. Logic does not dictate and so we come up with many theories for the behaviour we see but because of this absence of logic and reasoning everything is riddled with contradictions. China is the fastest growing economy in history. It would appear they're in a great position but this growth is fuelled by impulsive thinking and enormous borrowing. The debt is rising twice as fast as GDP and debt already doubles GDP. I was recently criticised by a Chinese person for thinking too much, not that this is a one off. Her words were, "you're the same as all the other foreigners, boring. Too much thinking and no doing." This was in forcing me to make a decision within less than 5 minutes of a proposal.For me, this reveals much. It contains all these signs, some of which that were displayed in the writing of the early Chinese philosophers, some of which were apparent in China's actions throughout history; isolation, impulse, lack of thought, Chinese superiority and without niceties. However, after living here so long I'm so unsure of everything now, there are probably contradictions all over this.

Mar 23, 2014 08:17 Report Abuse



You did well in taking your time. I can't tell all the times I've made wrong decisions because of being pressured. Forget it! When that happens to me in China I just tell them that I will make a decision when I am ready. And if I am not fast enough for what they want- too bad.

Mar 23, 2014 19:53 Report Abuse



That pseudo "article", is a "nice" try! No matter what you're saying, you should know that greed makes people ugly and it makes Chinese people lose their face. Ask western people and foreigners in general and the very many will tell you how ugly Chinese people are when it comes to money. Greed does never unite people, unless the only thing they love is money.Greed, among humans, separates. Greed is the ultimate stage of deterioration of the soul. Beyond it, it lays a dehumanized person. Unfortunately, poverty in China is a poverty of spiritual values. Keeping a nation under both type of poverty, the spiritual and the material one, it turnes its citizens in monsters, or if you wish in zombies. Attracted by the smell of money, they resurrect from the tombs of history of spiritual and material poverty and now are dead-walking hungry for "life". What water is for a human's life so is money for the Chinese. A perverted and adulterated vision about the simple and real meaning of preserving life and feeling alive. Thus the long history of material poverty followed by decades of spiritual one, hence the Cultural Revolution, have effectively ensured the today's money making machine generations. In the way China promotes the value of money, both culture and socially, they belittle and downgrades the value of humanity in anyway and reduce the chance for the future generations to recover from this poverty. No matter how you put it, westerners and foreigners like myself are scared at the picture of how ugly people are because of the money. Love for money it confuses any genuine expression of love. Although many fall in love with Chinese girls, they cannot believe the reality that is behind the display such emotions. The drama behind is that many are lured into the cultural traps of making money. Love is a promise of taking care of each other, it's a promise, for better and worse, to stick together. Trying to unify a family based on the amount of money it's nothing but trying to stick clay and iron together. It may work for a while, but in the end it will violently break up. Keep justifying the greed for money of the Chinese people brings no service to the country. All the contrary it makes lose face at a national levels. It again underlines everything we foreigners despise: the reason of a nation wide human deterioration. Greed has no excuse nor justification.It's a diagnosis of a pitiable people showing how unreliable and mean and how ready they are to reach something they worship from the bottom of their hearts.

Mar 23, 2014 04:39 Report Abuse



Living in the countryside in Australia is to lose face for my Chinese wife. God I hate that phrase, "losing face". We call it embarrassment. What's so special about "losing face" Maybe "off your face" might throw most Chinese. Surprised no mention of the second most important feature of the Chinese, bloody food. That's something you put in your mouth as fuel and not to have an orgasm over. Money position and status have always been the Chinese way. I'd like to see the return of a benevolent Mao to sort out the disgusting capitalistic China.

Mar 22, 2014 09:32 Report Abuse



Mao tried, but instead of instilling socialist values, he weeded out any signs of bravery, independence and intellectualism. Leaving behind only a wasteland of phony herd animals. They're obsessed with 'looking good' to be accepted as one of the group, so as not to be singled out by the next gov't ordinance that ultimately just kills off outsiders, and solidifies the phony, face-saving ingroup.

Mar 23, 2014 00:03 Report Abuse



"there are other societies in the world that have a high level of social insecurity and poverty and they do not behave in this way." - Exactly! You saved me a lengthy commentary with this. My Chinese wife and in-laws are terrified, hysterical about our financial future, while my teacher's salary is well above the average salary here. She cries in regret of not marrying some comfortable government drone instead of me, and reminds me every day of my financial inadequacy. She is a good person, who truly loves me (otherwise she'd have left long ago), but the crying over spilled milk is culturally induced and degrading to her husband. Every time she whines like a spoiled child unhappy about her birthday gift, I wonder why I married a woman who can't be happy with what she has, or even show a little humanity and consideration to her husband's feelings. I know I'm not battling *her*; I'm fighting Chinese smallmindedness, or 'culture' every time. There is little hope for this country if people can't regain their humanity. Even the CCP's atrocities in the past are no excuse for the rampant cruelty people display out of panic. Perhaps if people encouraged their kids to excel, instead of giving them and their leaders lots of false praise? All that's needed is a little self-confidence; true dignity and confidence, not posturing and face-saving.

Mar 22, 2014 01:49 Report Abuse



"You don't understand chinese culture."

Mar 22, 2014 07:35 Report Abuse



Well thanks for explaining, though I don't know if you meant it seriously or as a joke.

Mar 22, 2014 09:01 Report Abuse



I feel for you. The government job is what the Chinese call the "iron bowl." It is something you will always have until you somehow miss a hong bao payment. On the average government workers do earn less than some teachers. I am not extremely wealthy, but I do earn way above the average government worker in my small town. Security is good, but maybe not at the expense of just living life.

Mar 22, 2014 10:06 Report Abuse



my answer is both serious and a joke. A joke because we have all heard this answer. Serious, because when i ask for a further explanation of 'chinese culture', all i get is silence. It is seen as a justification for any bizzare action.

Mar 24, 2014 09:30 Report Abuse



oh,yaaaaaaaah....the truth has been spoken...:)

Mar 22, 2014 19:02 Report Abuse



did you listen to yourself? money is always! sounds like mother gives birth money not child

Mar 22, 2014 19:01 Report Abuse



@linkon_abdulah Well put!

Mar 23, 2014 03:25 Report Abuse



This comment takes the cake

Mar 25, 2014 03:29 Report Abuse