Economist Xie Zuoshi has a solution to China’s massive bachelor problem that he says his country is too afraid to consider.
Let women marry multiple husbands.
By 2020, China expects its population of unmarried men will reach 30 million. They are known as guanggun, or “bare branches.” Like Japan’s “herbivore men” and South Korea’s singletons, they are a major factor behind the country’s falling fertility rate.
Xie, an economics professor at Zhejing University of Finance and Economics, argues a polyandry approach might be the only thing that can save Chinese society.
“Because I promoted the idea that we should allow poor men to marry the same woman to solve the problem of 30 million guanggun, I’ve been endlessly abused,” he wrote in a blog post, which has since been removed, The New York Times reports. “People have even telephoned my university to harass me. These people have groundlessly accused me of promoting immoral and unethical ideas.”
China has seen polyandrous relationships thrive, though they are typically confined to less industrialized regions where social and government structures are far simpler.
In Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, in southwest China near Tibet, for instance, the Mosuo make polyandry work.
Instead of two people building a family by themselves, the Mosuo live in communal settings with “walking marriages.” Women are in charge and men float in and out of different homes, often raising children who aren’t necessarily their own.
Research has found these dynamics aren’t all that uncommon. In 2013, anthropologists Katherine E. Starkweather and Raymond Hames analysed the relationship structures of 53 societies around the world. They found evidence that polyandry existed even in early human history, flourishing most often in societies with a disproportionate number of males.
That’s the argument Xie makes.
Xie’s solution to the guanggun is very much rooted in relationships as a social good that should operate according to the same laws of supply and demand as clothing or crude oil.
“With so many guanggun, women are in short supply and their value increases,” he wrote. “But that doesn’t mean the market can’t be adjusted.”
Starkweather and Hames disagree.
“Landowning societies all over the world have faced an excess of men at one point or another and have dealt with this by sending these men to the priesthood, to fight in wars, or to explore or make a name for themselves” elsewhere, Hames told The Atlantic in 2013. “It is clear that these countries will have to do something with all of the excess men, but polyandry will probably not occur as a widespread solution.”
Marriage trends suggest women in male-heavy countries aren’t interested in finding a husband, let alone several of them.
Women in many Asian countries are foregoing marriage because they’d rather focus on personal goals than sign on to a pre-set social role. After years of sex-selective abortions during the 1980s and 90s (to prioritise male babies), China and India are now facing a “marriage squeeze” as those babies have matured into young men looking for women who aren’t as interested in commitment as they used to be.
“High-income men can find a woman because they can pay a higher price,” Xie wrote. “What about low-income men? One solution is to have several take a wife together.”
But for Xie’s solution to be realistic, the marriage squeeze will need to make traditional marriages entirely impractical. Until that happens, the plan for polyandry isn’t quite ripe.
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