BEIJING — Like millions of bridegrooms in China, Beijing cook Zhang Jian nearly went broke when he got married last month.
Zhang, 27, had labored for four years in a steamy hotel kitchen to achieve his dream of buying the basic necessities for a normal wedding in urban China--a color television, a tape recorder, a refrigerator and a washing machine.
These four items, together with furniture, a bicycle and new wedding clothes, cost him about $1,350--a staggering amount considering that he earns only $40 a month.
"I would have had to delay my wedding for another two years if I had to pay for the wedding banquet, which cost 2,000 yuan ($540)," Zhang said.
"But my parents were impatient and decided to pay for it. Marriage is a very expensive business in China."
Most traditional Chinese wedding customs, such as kneeling in front of the couple's parents to offer tea, have disappeared since the Communists took power in 1949. But the old dictum that marriage is never cheap still holds true.
Dowries Officially Banned
All over China, millions of prospective brides and bridegrooms save feverishly to splurge on expensive electrical goods for their new homes, which are normally allocated by the state.
Dowries are officially banned, and most of the items are often paid for by the bridegroom or his family. But an increasing number of brides are sharing the burden.
Many young couples are spending up to 10 times as much on weddings as their parents did.
One recent marriage in Fujian province broke a local record with expenses reaching $2,700.
Authorities, alarmed by the growing trend, have launched a drive against the "social pollution" of lavish weddings, especially in rural areas.
The official press has published the findings of a survey on the rising cost of marriage and censured the extravagant behavior of newlyweds and their doting parents.
$1,800 Average Cost
A survey of 20 major cities showed that couples spend an average of $1,800 on consumer goods before their wedding day, a binge amounting to three years' savings for an average worker.
Most couples would also like to have a wedding banquet followed by a honeymoon, but the survey said only one-fifth of them realized their dream of a honeymoon.
The survey said the trend of basic wedding items had moved from bicycles and watches in the 1960s, and black and white television sets and tape recorders in the 1970s, to color television sets, refrigerators and cameras in the 1980s.
People's Daily said the problem is more pronounced in the countryside, where the average cost of weddings rose from about $25 in 1980 to up to $800 by 1985. The average per capita income in rural China is $115.
"This bad practice has polluted social morality and increased the number of cases of conflict between couples, forced marriage, suicide and murder, and slowed development of the rural economy," the newspaper said.
Chinese leaders have been trying to eradicate ancient wedding customs in which the bride is seen as being "married off" at a loss to her family, which must be compensated with money or gifts.
The custom has become like a competition in some villages, where parents of young couples try to outdo their neighbors with elaborate weddings, expensive feasts and new homes.
A Chinese official told a recent conference on marriage that in one county in Anhui province, most farmers were financially crippled by high-priced brides.
The men, at the first meeting with the bride's family, had to offer up to $220 as a greeting gift, the official said. "After that, a lot of gifts followed."