Chapter 10: A melon forced off its vine is not sweet – Part 4

While understandable, the inclination of women to wait until they have found an eligible part­ner within their own occupational and income bracket comes with the non-negligible peril to be left with no man at all. Therefore, hypergyny is always a bit of a gamble where the bachelorette expects (or hopes) to get a better mate than the ones she had met before. For her, the biggest risk is that of becoming so picky that she wastes time that she could other­wise be spending in procreation. She will probably prefer to date a wealthy man, even if the possibility of marriage is fairly dim. She wants that Prince Charming “who is gene­rous and sweet and faithful but who also drives a Maserati”[1], and might wait for him for quite a while. She expects the perfect partner to come along, but all she gets is older. Assu­ming that men seek fertility more than anything else, her chance of finding what she wants is getting slimmer and slimmer with every day passing, the availability of cosmetics and plastic surgery notwithstanding. Many males nowadays still follow their instincts of setting youth and beauty as their top criteria for partner selection. This may not be politi­cally cor­rect, but it is more often than not the only right thing to do in the survival game. Thus, for every man she lets slip, she loses a valuable reproductive opportunity. This is a choice that may not affect her while she is young, but it could haunt again her later, potentially at a time when her health and physical capabilities have passed their zenith.

So what happens if she turns thirtysomething, is financially independent, but has no child? Is she going to stay single or rather drop her standards and go for a poor, possibly ugly man who is a sure thing? Since males themselves are relatively unconcerned about their target’s socio-economic condition when choosing mates, high-status men can make their pick from a large pool of candidates consisting of both low and high-status women. This spurs an intense rivalry among the members of both groups.[2] Setbacks or disappointments, such as a series of rejections or an insufficient number of opportunities, may prompt fears of being squeezed out of the marriage market, triggering thoughts and reactions similar to those described in the Kübler-Ross’ model of Five Stages of Grief:[3],[4]

  • Denial: “This cannot be happening, not to me”; “There is no way that a high-quality woman like me cannot find her Mr. Right”;
  • Anger: “That pizza face will get married next month, and I am still single? Something is wrong here!”; “How could this ever happen to me?”;
  • Bargaining: “I look so old now; if I only could just do something to turn back the hands of time…”; “Ok, it was I who dumped him, but I’ll do anything to get him back”; “Mark was a jerk at that time, but I really should have accepted when he proposed to me”;
  • Depression: “I’m already old, why bother with anything?”; “Nobody wants me anyway so what’s the point… What’s the point?”; “I miss my ex, and now he is happily married to another woman… Why did I not fight more for our love? Why?”;
  • Acceptance: “Even if I have to stay single for my whole life, everything is going to be okay.”; “I can’t force any guy to like me anyway it, so why bother”; “I don’t need a man, I am independent, have a great job, lots of friends, a fantastic niece, two cute puppies… And now I am going to have some ice cream to compensate!”

While choosiness undeniably has positive effects, it also has the power to set off a vicious cycle of endless frustration, to which not even the prettiest and most achieving woman remains unaffected. While the first defeats are easily swallowed, the second and third ones may lead to doubt about her own worth. Angst kicks in, while her self-esteem takes the next blow. At that moment, she may face the temptation to lower her baseline. If she does and chooses a suboptimal can­didate, she confronts the risk to be unhappily married. If inversely, she prefers to persist on her quest, the spiral may go on and on, ending in what some parents consider the worst scenario of all for their children (at least for some women): Eternal singledom.


Related proverbs and citations:


níng kĕ gāo ào dì fă méi, bù qù bēi wēi dì liàn ài

It’s better to rot with dignity than to love in shame.



huā yŏu chóng kāi rì, rén wú zài shào nián

Flowers may bloom again, but a person never has the chance to be young again.



suì yuè bù liú rén

Time and tide wait for no man.

No one is so powerful that they can stop the march of time.



suì yuè bù ráo rén

Age and time have mercy on no man.

Equivalent to “Time and tide wait for no man”.



jī bù zé shí

The starving can’t choose their meals.

Beggars can’t be choosers.

If you request something to be given you should not question what you are given.



huáng dì bù jí tài jiān jí méi yòng

The Emperor taking his time is just as useless as a eunuch rushing things.

The onlooker is more anxious than the player.



nǚ rén èr shí duō suì xiàng zú qiú, sān shí duō suì xiàng lán qiú, sì shí duō suì xiàng pīng pāng qiú, wŭ shí duō suì xiàng gāo ĕr fū qiú

A popular joke in which women in their 20s are compared to a football (because more than a dozen guys are running after it), in their 30s to a basketball (still chased after but by a reduced number of players), in their 40s to a ping-pong ball (only two men are left), and in their 50s to a golf ball (the further you hit it, the better).



[1]    Cited in: Townsend (1998), p. 124

[2]    Townsend (1998), p. 84

[3]    Kübler-Ross (1969)


Chapter 10: A melon forced off its vine is not sweet – Part 3

Social sneering and peer pressure notwithstanding, many females fail to muster enough moti­vation to pursue a relationship. Stuck between Scylla and Charybdis, they simply refuse to opt for matrimony as a necessary evil. In the poll about “leftovers”, around 41 percent clai­med that they still believed in love, but at the same time, nearly 20 percent declared that they are not confident in finding an ideal and stable relationship at all.[1] How can that be? The problem lies in their own fussiness. On the one hand, women have a good sense of the longevity of their reproductive career ahead and about the optimal timing for their preg­nancy. On the other hand, they have to be fastidious, because they need to be extremely cau­tious in the selection of their spouse, taking into consideration various aspects such as gene quality, the ability to protect herself and provide resources, commitment, the likelihood that the man will make a good long-term partner and parent, etc. The opportunity costs are tre­mendous. A small mistake here, and their lives and that of their offspring could be in danger or wasted. Thus, over the last millennia, the drive and aptitude to identify the best possible mate have become an inherent reflex and an important device in every female’s survival instinct. Those ancestors who picked wisely acquired major reproductive advantages, thus setting the path for an evolutionary development of choosiness.[2] As their descendants, today’s women cannot be expected to do anything except than following the same, inherited, strategy.

One of the main factors that may slow down a woman in her decision making is the tendency to seek a husband of higher socio-economic status than herself, that is, a husband who is greater than her in terms of educational degree, occupation, financial and social capi­tal, perhaps even physical attractiveness. This phenomenon is called, hypergyny, a spe­cial case of hypergamy where a female “marries above her station”.[3] Under this scheme, she is inclined to be attracted to men comparatively older, wealthier or otherwise more pri­vi­leged than herself.[4] This explains why doctors, lawyers, and business executives are par­ti­cularly popular among single ladies, but also the existence of statements such as “second-year women don’t go out with first-year guys, but second-year guys go out with first-year women, or with chirps or undergrads” in a university context.[5] A study involving medical students revealed that most of the females interviewed liked men who were above them pro­fes­sionally and financially, while none of them opted for a spouse with lower income or occupational status. Then, one-third of the respondents declared that they were looking for someone “who made them feel protected”, and over half of them needed a man “who was a challenge, one they could admire and respect”, i.e., who make them more secure.[6] Appa­rently, only males with superior wealth, income, educational level, career success, social stan­ding, etc. can fulfil this demand – even in the 21st century.

Since most women resist “marrying down”, high-status individuals are at a disadvantage in the mating game. The pool of single men who meet their standards is relatively small, so their chance to find someone fulfilling the requirements is accordingly lower. If a woman has enough means to support herself, why would she settle for less? Why would she need male assistance? Statistics in the Chinese study mentioned above illustrate this trend: The higher the education and income, the higher the chance to be, or at least to feel “leftover”.[7] Thus, it appears that women’s increasing economic independence and success fail to miti­gate the incidence of hypergyny. On the contrary, it exacerbates the phenomenon by making women more confident about them­selves and clearer about who (or what) is acceptable, and who (or what) is not. In view of the dilution of men’s relative economic strength, their value is significantly depreciated, and their function as providers in jeopardy. Under such condi­tions, marriage naturally becomes less and less appealing and divorce more and more likely. For the same reasons, older female singles and divorcees who are financially indepen­dent display lower fertility rates, as they remain childless, or have fewer children on average. For example, evidence from the 1980s shows that Singaporean educated women’s reluctance to marry down was so strong that members of this socio-demographic group were producing only 1.4 babies on average, compared to 4.5 babies for uneducated women.[8]


[1]    Cited in: Lu (2012).

[2]    It is not by accident that the term “old maid” (originally “a woman who has remained single beyond the conventional age for marrying”) is also used to refer to “a person regarded as being primly fastidious”. (Source:

[3]    Similarly, hyperandry refers to instances where men date or marry up. In contrast to that, hypogamy (hypogyny, hypoandry) stands for the disposition to date or marry a person of lower social status.


[5]    Cited in: Townsend (1998), p. 85

[6]    Townsend (1998), p. 65

[7]    Lu (2012)

[8]    Townsend (1998), p. 134, 242

Chapter 10: A melon forced off its vine is not sweet – Part 2

One of the most important aspects of such arranged marriages is that of match­making. It lies in the nature of the practice that the selection of the persons to be wed is performed by someone other than couple itself. In addition to the parents, advisers (e.g., astrologers), trus­ted third parties (priests, religious leaders, local barbers, family friends, etc.), as well as exter­nal agents (including websites) could assume the role of the matchmaker(s).[1],[2] While some societies still cultivate the tradition more or less openly, the rules are not as stiff as it may initially appear. In several countries (for example, Iran with the “khastegari” ritual, Japan with the “miai kekkon” procedure, Korea with the “seon” meeting), the arrange­ments remain an “intro­duction only” scheme where the parents merely acquaint their chil­dren with a poten­tial spouse. In others, age-old observances have been discouraged (like in India) or sim­ply outlawed, such as the ban on buying or selling child brides (童养媳, tóng yǎng xí) in China. Likewise, the necessity to have marriage registry forms endorsed with the seal of an “intro­ducer”, as required up until a century ago, does not apply anymore either.

In spite of the modernisation of values concerning sex, love and family, the shift towards romantic love matches has not been completed yet. In many places, especially in rural areas, arranged (or at least semi-arranged) marriages in due consideration of the traditional rules of 门当户对 (mén dāng hù duì, i.e., “from families of equal social and economic status”) are still commonplace. Although professional go-betweens still exist, arrangements are now lar­gely initiated by the parents and senior kinsmen, while the network of relatives and friends is activated to find a suitable partner. It is then not unusual for Chinese mothers to visit public parks (best examples: Zhongshan Park in Beijing, People’s Park in Shanghai) in order to meet other parents with unmarried adult children. Bristled with hope and information about their sons and daughters (Chinese zodiac sign, height, weight, educa­tion, job, car brand, wealth, food preference, birthmarks, blood type, etc.), they spend a good part of their day in a quest to find a suitable match.

It is precisely this kind of excessive zeal that drives young single girls to utter the said pro­­verb. Not only do they not agree with their parents’ involvement in the mate selection pro­cess; the main bone of contention very often lies in the different opinions concerning the appro­­priate marriage age. As the older generation would like to marry off their children soo­ner rather than later, statistics show an opposite trend. In fact, the average age of the first mar­riage has been gradually increasing (in Beijing, for instance, it grew from 25 in 1996[3] to 26 in 2009 and 27 in 2012[4]). For many reasons, including higher work requirements, smaller opportunities to meet other people, exploding wedding costs (in China particularly), etc., many young people choose to tie the knot later. Aware of the adage that “dangers await only those who do not react to life” (Mikhail Gorbachev), however, most women instincti­vely know that they cannot afford to wait for too long. Not only does the ticking of their own biological clock get louder and louder after a certain amount of time, forcing them to hurry if they wish to have babies before reaching infertility; their attractiveness to men also declines dramatically with age. In effect, age is one of the heaviest handicaps to a marriage. A study showed that women who reach 30 unmarried only have a 20 percent chance of being taken as a bride. At 35, the probability plummets to 5 percent, hitting rock bottom at 40 (1 percent).[5]

Even today, the stigma of the “old maid” (老姑娘, lăo gū niáng, or 老处女 lăo chŭ nǚ) still remains in many cultures, as the existence of other somewhat derogatory terms like “cat lady”, “catherinette” in French, “Fräulein” (in German), “kurisumasu keeki” (a Christmas cake that nobody wants after the 25th December, respectively, birthday), or “urenokori” (lite­rally: unsold merchandise, i.e., a single thirty-something woman) in Japanese prove. In China, people use the expression 必剩客 (bì shèng kè, which has a similar pronunciation as “Pizza Hut” in Mandarin) to describe those bachelors who are already beyond the typical married age and are struggling to find their better half. The time and effort they put into their careers prevent them from flirting and dating prospective partners so that they are often considered to be “doomed singles”. Along with scornful remarks and contemptuous denomi­nations, single women face intense pressures from all sides, parents, friends, collea­gues, but also from themselves. According to a survey carried out in Shanghai in 2012, the con­scious­ness about the peculiarity of their status sets in at around 26, while their concern about being seen as a “leftover” attains a peak when they were approaching their thirties (oddly enough, those ladies far beyond the standard marriage age, i.e., 50 or more do not care so much about their condition). Although 30 percent of the respondents who feel that way find the term insulting, and 78 percent see an urgency in finding a husband or boyfriend, only 18 per­cent are willing to take action – in spite of the questions and insis­tence by their parents and relatives (which 60 percent of the “leftovers” in the study expe­rience during family reunions)[6].






[5]    Townsend (1998), p. 122

[6]    Cited in: Lu (2012)

Chapter 10: A melon forced off its vine is not sweet

You can lead a horse to the water, but you can't make it drink

qiáng niǔ de guā bù tián

Given its very nature as a proverb, this expression must have been around for a very long time.[1] However, used in a Chinese context of women, love and relationship, it has arguably never been as topical as it is today. Indeed, contemporary young women probably use it abun­dantly when their parents suggest, or force, them to find a husband. From the genitors’ point of view, their advice to get married is always well-meant: They want their daughters to build the basis of a stable life, reap the benefits of security, and savour the joys of raising a child – while fulfilling their filial and social duties according to Confucian tradition. So far so good. Problems arise when missy has not found true love yet, and prefers to wait a little bit until her Mr. Right crosses her path; or even worse, when she has got him, but her parents do not like or accept him as a son-in-law. In that case, not even the best and most loving intentions may ever be enough to convince her. She will just not follow, nor even listen to her family’s admonition, thus risking discord with her entire kinship group. She argues that a forced union cannot work and will never make her happy. This is due to her expo­­sure to Western values that suggest that romantic love should be a prerequisite for mar­riage, and inversely that its absence may be used as an argument for divorce.[2] However, this view has only existed since the 19th century, while the concept of romantic love itself did not come into being until troubadours of the 13th century sang about it.[3] Before that, couples often lived their lives without affection, focussing on their marital roles. In China, the situation was even stricter, where falling in love was not only regarded as useless, but in fact as working against the supremacy of the parent-child relationship. If ever, affection was only to develop after marriage. Likewise, courtship had no place in spou­sal relationships, but was rather restricted to predetermined seduction scenarios bet­ween men and their mis­tres­­ses or concu­bines.[4]

Since everything was subordinated to the wishes and interests of the family (including one’s feelings and life aspirations), intragenerational relationships were much more valued than mari­tal ones. According to the Book of Rites[5], marriage was a filial duty towards one’s elders, which only had two purposes: To honour the ancestors and preserve the family line. Hence, not the sons or the daughters were to choose their futures mate, but their parents or grand­parents, who they had other criteria in mind than passion, ardour or spiritual conge­niality. What really mattered were factors such as purity of lineage, horoscope (i.e., the con­sultation of positions of stars at birth to predict the success of a particular match), as well the reputation and wealth of the future in-law’s family. Sometimes, dowries and bride pri­ces[6] were paid to settle the deal. Accordingly, marriage was no more than a contract between two family lines, defining specific rights and duties concer­ning heirs and property or, in its simplest form, “regulating the exchange of male economic investments for female fer­tility and parental investment.”[7] For peasants or people in the lower classes, the busi­ness agreement could involve cattle, cash or other gifts (cakes, con­fectionery, jewellery, golden chopsticks, etc.) as material engage­ment tokens. In the case of nobility, matrimony was used for the purpose of forming alliances, resolving conflicts or joining properties. Such customs are referred to as marriage of state (a special case marriage of convenience, deri­ved from the French term “mariage de convenance”, i.e., marriage of convention), or 和亲 (hé qīn, literally “peace marriage”).


[1] Although the origin of the present byword is unclear, it resembles another saying, “melon falls off when ripe” (瓜熟蒂落, guā shú dì luò), authored by Song dynasty writer Zhāng Jūnfáng (张君房) in the Daoist encyclopaedia Seven Slips of the Cloudy Satchel (云笈七签, yún jí qī qiān, also translated as Seven Tablets in a Cloudy Satchel, or Seven Lots from the Bookbag of the Clouds) he compiled for Emperor Zhēnzōng of Sòng (宋眞宗). By expressing that “at the right time everything comes easy” or “a thing will happen when conditions are ripe”, the adage implies that things are hard to come by as long as the time is not ripe. Accordingly, if a melon has not fallen off its vine, there is a chance that it is not yet ready for consumption. Plucking it might be counterproductive and is likely to yield the opposite result one was originally hoping for. Likewise, the English equivalent of the proverb (“you can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink”) cautions people that you can give someone the opportunity to do something, but you cannot force them to act if they do not want to.

[2]    Regan (1998), p. 91

[3]    Townsend (1998), p. 165


[5]    The Book of Rites (礼记, lǐ jì), one of the Chinese Five Classics of the Confucian canon (四书五经, sì shū wǔ jīng, the other four being Classic of Poetry, the Book of Documents, the Book of Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals), sets forth the social forms, governmental system, and ceremonial rites practiced during the Zhou dynasty (1050–256 BC). The text is believed to have been originally compiled by Confucius.

[6]    Notice the difference: Bride price is the amount of money, property or wealth that the groom or his family pays to the parents of a woman upon the marriage of their daughter to that man. The bride price is set to reflect the perceived value of the young woman. Dowry, conversely is due to the groom or employed by the bride to help establish the new household. (Source:

[7]    Townsend (1998), p. 9