Reporting from Beijing — Mike Zhang considered himself serious boyfriend material. He knew what to order at an Italian restaurant. He could mix a tasty margarita. And he always volunteered to carry his girlfriend's handbag.
Then came the deal breaker. Zhang, a 28-year-old language tutor and interpreter, couldn't afford an apartment in the capital's scorching property market.
Rather than waste any more time, his girlfriend of more than two years dumped him.
Zhang's misfortune is not uncommon. China's housing boom has created a woefully frustrated class of bachelors.
Home prices in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai have easily doubled over the last year as families and investors rush to grab a piece of the Chinese dream. A typical 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in the capital now costs about $274,000. That's 22 times the average annual income of a Beijing resident.
Unlike in the United States, where home buying traditionally takes place after marriage, owning a place in China has recently become a prerequisite for tying the knot. Experts said securing an apartment in this market signals that a man is successful, family-oriented and able to weather challenging financial circumstances. Put succinctly, homeownership has become the ultimate symbol of virility in today's China.
"A man is not a man if he doesn't own a house," said Chen Xiaomin, director of the Women's Studies Center at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. "Marriage is becoming more and more materialistic. This is a huge change in Chinese society. No matter how confident a woman is, she will lose face if her boyfriend or husband doesn't have a house."
Dating websites are now awash with women stipulating that hopefuls must come with a residence (and often a set of wheels) in tow.
"I'm 25 years old, looking for a boyfriend.... I want you to have an apartment and a car.... The apartment has to be built after 2000 and the car has to be better than a minivan," read one post on the popular Chinese Web portal Baidu.
Material matters weren't quite so important when previous generations courted. Most Chinese were poor. Property was controlled by the state and homes were doled out through an individual's work unit. When China was more agrarian, marriages were usually arranged, and it was customary for a bride's family to provide a dowry — be it money, bedding or even a sewing machine.
But economic reform and mass urbanization in the last 30 years have upended these norms. In 1998, the central government launched one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history by allowing Chinese to buy their homes from the state, often with subsidies. The privatization of property spurred the creation of a commercialized housing industry with developers and investors.
Young Chinese are coming of age at a time of exploding wealth and rising expectations for material success. In a survey last year on Sohu.com, a popular Web portal similar to Yahoo, 73% of respondents said homeownership was a necessity for marriage. An almost equal percentage said they had difficulty buying an apartment.
"Not everyone has rich parents who can help you buy an apartment," said Chen Kechun, a 25-year-old Beijing native whose relationship disintegrated after his six-month search for an affordable home proved fruitless. "I learned that if a girl decides to marry you, you better have a strong financial foundation."
Growing male frustrations have given rise to a new female archetype: the bai jin nu, or gold-digger.
On the wildly popular TV reality program "Don't Bother Me Unless You're Serious," one woman tried to size up a suitor by asking matter-of-factly, "Do you have money?"
The man cut to the chase: "I have three flats in Shanghai."
The hard-boiled bachelorette, Ma Nuo, has gone on to become one of China's most recognizable bai jin nu. Marry for love? Fat chance, said the material girl: "I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on the back of my boyfriend's bicycle."
Ma's mercenary take on matrimony may be extreme; still, single women in China are driven by intense societal pressure to find a mate who can deliver the digs.
Though more women are becoming career oriented, China remains stubbornly traditional. Males are expected to be breadwinners while females rear a family's only child.
"My parents think it's important.... They would rather I marry someone who owns his own property," said Wei Na, 28, an advertising saleswoman in Beijing. "It just makes you feel more safe if a man has his own place. I think most women feel the same way."
Fang Jing is trying to hold on to his relationship. The 29-year-old has been trying to persuade his girlfriend to share in the $250,000 cost of a Shanghai apartment so that they can wed next year.