China: Marriage & Art in Shanghai

Since I’m stressing about final exams next week and don’t have a lot of time or energy to write – I just edited an article I wrote last summer in Shanghai that I never published anywhere; hope you enjoy! 

Emerging from the chaos of the Saturday afternoon Shanghai subway traffic, my classmate, Hope, and I loosened up as we entered the slightly less crowded, grassy, tree-filled, People’s Park – 人民公园 (Rénmín Gōngyuán).

We were in search of the Museum of Contemporary Modern Art, but couldn’t help but to pause and join the Chinese parents leisurely strolling down the pathways. Children were running around, shrieking in joy and dipping their fingers in the large pond at the heart of the park.  

Decaying green circular leaves floated on the glassy surface of the water, pink lotus flower buds reaching out for the sun. We turn the corner and our serenity was interrupted.

A throng of older Chinese men and women filled the space. Some sat behind umbrellas propped up on the ground; others stood beneath tents in spirited conversation.

I realized we had stumbled upon People’s Park’s “Blind Date Corner” 相亲角 (xiāngqīn jiǎo) – a marriage market held every Saturday and Sunday, in which parents of unmarried adults trade their children’s information in hope of finding them a suitable spouse.

These parents write details such as their child’s age, height, job, income, education, zodiac sign and personality on a piece of paper and then either string it up on a wall or tape it to an umbrella. In accordance with the traditional Chinese idiom 门当户对 (méndānghùduì), parents want to ensure that a marriage that is well-matched in social and economic status.

My Chinese roommate, Xiao Juan, and I once talked about blind date corner and she said she finds the custom – which is most prevalent in large cities – a bit strange because it seems like parents are advertising their child not as a person but a commodity.

I wanted to learn more so I approached a friendly faced woman who was trying to help her 33-year-old son find a partner. She said that her son is very busy working at an international banking company and has no free time to find a girlfriend on his own.

The woman said she merely wants her son to find an ordinary wife, with whom he can pass his days with and have a regular life. She grinned and added that it would also be nice if her son’s future wife was pretty – perhaps, she could look something like me.

I laughed and thanked the woman for her compliment but I was a bit taken aback by the fact that she expected nothing more than just average for her son. Don’t most parents hope for their children’s’ marriages to be exceptional – filled with excitement, laughter and happiness – or at the very least, love?

Later, I brought this up to Xiao Juan and she said I was looking at the woman’s desires for a run-of-the-mill daughter-in-law all wrong – an extremely remarkable wife could lead to uncertainty and instability. 

My Chinese teacher also once told me that in China men typically want their wives to be weaker than themselves and thus don’t want to marry rich, successful, intelligent women. The deragatory term “剩女“ (shèngnǚ) which means “leftover women” has even emerged as a way to pressure these successful women into marriage. But many “leftover women” choose the single-life because they want to pursue careers, enjoy the freedom and independence.

I asked the mother at blind date corner how she would react if her son rejected her marriage prospect suggestion and she replied that she would simply find another.

“This is my responsibility as a parent,” she said matter-of-factly. Yet, I couldn’t help but to wonder if her son agreed. My Chinese teacher told me that typically, parents go to the blind date corner without their children’s permission.

I also met a father trying to help his daughter find a marriage match. He said his main criteria was that his son-in-law was of the same social status as his daughter – however, considering that nowadays, the pickings are slim – he could lower his expectations. Ultimately, though, the decision is, of course, up to his daughter, he said. He doesn’t want to control her.

After we said good-bye to the father, Hope and I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Teenage girls overflowed the entrance and bouquets of flowers with notes such as “I flew across the world to see you” were arranged along the side of the building.

We discovered that the current exhibit was that of Wallace Chung – a very famous Hong Kong actor and recording artist with a passion for photography and abstract visual art.

The exhibit consisted not only of Chung’s photographs from around the world, but also his sparkly, embellished circus-themed stage costumes and neon-splashed props, such as a carousel horse.  

In my opinion, the most engaging display was a small room in which projectors in every corner cast moving visuals onto the mirror-paneled floor, ceiling and wall – creating the illusion that one was truly living and breathing the scene before them.

When we sat in that room I felt like I was in a trance – beams of rapid, patterned flashing lights created fleeting images of snowy mountains, deserts, waterfalls, jungles. The landscapes were then magnified into microscopic detail and morphed into unrecognizable abstract shapes resembling outer space.

This kind of unpredictable, moving art demanded my attention and made me appreciate the way that certain moments and settings can produce specific feelings within one’s memory. The fall foliage, for example, reminded me of my childhood playing outside in Ohio – jumping into piles of freshly-raked, crunchy auburn leaves.

That’s what I love about art – one image elicits completely different meanings and recollections for every viewer; yet, somehow at the same time, everyone experiences the same feeling when looking at a piece of art. 

Since coming to Shanghai, I’ve developed a strong interest in art and have explored the M50 Moganshan Road Art District, visited the China Art Museum and attended a Shanghai University graduate art students’ exhibit.  

The graduate student exhibit titled “Connected Dots” displayed the artists’ mind maps in which they organized their inspiration and ideas. One of the artists, Zhang Zong, centered his work around famous cartoons such as Sailor Moon and BraveStarr.

The center of Zhang Zong’s mind map read, 认识你自己, which means “know yourself”. He said regardless of what one does in life, one needs to understand and be confident in their own personality and character.

One’s personality is inextricable from one’s experiences, he said, therefore one’s childhood strongly influences one’s character, which is why he decided to portray some of his first conscious memories – cartoons.

When I looked at Zhang Zong’s painting of Sailor Moon, I was also left with a deep impression of my childhood – playing with a Sailor Moon doll and wishing I, too, could protect the Earth and Galaxy.   

Someone from a different generation or different upbringing, however, might not recognize Sailor Moon or have no personal connections to her image. Just like how I didn’t recognize BraveStarr – yet, we both understand that the cartoons portray childhood memories. 

No one in this world is exactly alike because no one’s experiences and memories are identical. Peoples are so much more complex than what is presented on the surface level. 

Appearance, career and education bane in comparison to the intricate layers of moments, memories and scenes that make up an individual. So how can one expect to find a fulfilling marriage from solely judging the tip of the iceberg – as done so at blind date corner? And what happened to fate? What happened to time and memory aligning to create destiny? How can one genuinely be too busy with work to put oneself out there and let chance take its course?

Yet again, who’s to say that a couple can’t come to understand and get to know each another after marriage, rather than before? And who’s to say that an arranged marriage won’t be a happy one?

“Our marriage, arranged with other considerations in mind, took us from acquaintance to love and kept us together until we realized that our differences are the yin and yang that make our relationship whole. Now we consider ourselves absolutely perfect for each other,” Novelist Farahad Zama, wrote of his marriage, which his mother arranged for him when he was twenty-years-old. He had only met his future-wife once for 45-minutes before they married.

Maybe the divorce rate in the U.S. is so high because we waste too much time searching for “the one” and fail to realize that love can also grow from a relationship grounded in economic and social logic. Maybe our expectations are too high and we don’t understand compromise. Maybe no one will ever live up to our picture-perfect Hollywood-produced “soulmate” standards.

We learned an idiom in Classical Chinese 仁者见仁,智者见智 (rénzhějiànrén, zhìzhě jiàn zhì) which literally means, “the benevolent see the benevolent and the wise see the wise, and means that since everyone comes from different backgrounds and has different perspectives, everyone has their own way thinking and solving problems – all of which are rational and make sense. 

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Artist 徐东平 (Xú Dōngpíng) at his gallery in the Shanghai M50 Art District
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极乐寺 (The Jili Buddhist Temple in Harbin – the largest in north-east China)

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