Women talk while filming a dating show in Shanghai, August 2013.
Carlos Barria / Courtesy Reuters

Since the early years of the twentieth century, Chinese social reformers, including leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, have repeatedly attacked the traditional family structure and sought to purge marriage and romantic relationships of their transactional qualities. Many communists were influenced by the German socialist Friedrich Engels’ account of the loveless bourgeois marriages that plagued capitalist societies, and one of the CCP’s first reforms was to ban arranged marriages, prostitution, and the buying and selling of brides. Such efforts were successful, at least in part. Notions of pure love and romance, untainted by financial interest or familial interference, have since come to serve as important reference points for many Chinese. In recent decades, however, the country’s wave of new wealth, combined with an overheated real estate market, has returned material considerations and transactions to the forefront of relations between the sexes.

At the center of this new reality

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  • JOHN OSBURG is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, Anxious Wealth (Stanford University Press, 2013).
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