Chapter 21: You can’t lead the life of a whore and expect a chastity monument

You can't have your cake and eat it too

jì dāng biǎo zi, yòu xiǎng lì pái fāng

“It’s a trap!” This is what not a few men think of marriage and long-term relationships. In their mind, matrimony is an invention of women to control them, to rob them of their freedom. For them, the marriage certificate represents a one-way ticket to a Groundhog Day-esque existence marked by boredom, tedium, and expectedness. “Till death us do part” is not really want they want to hear on that special day, even if they deeply love their signi­ficant other. Many of them are afraid of losing not only their independence but also their edge as an eligible bachelor. The perhaps most terrifying aspect of all in this context is the pros­pect of sleeping with the same person for the rest of one’s life.[1]

Single life presents numerous advantages – also for women. These include privacy, addi­tional free time, guiltless flirting, the avoidance of conflicts, or increased flexibility (in terms of cooking, weekend planning, holiday destinations, career choices, etc.). By not being in a relationship, a woman has the entire bed, the closet, the refrigerator, and the bath­room all to herself. She does not have to spend time with anyone else’s friends, can get up at any time she wants during the weekend, has full control over the TV remote, escapes awk­ward family dinners, can focus on herself, her own goals, and make her own big deci­sions. Furthermore, what could be more galvanising than the tingling prospect of meeting Mr. or Ms. Right when going out next time and the excitement of a first kiss? Not to men­tion the possibility of indulging in casual sex…

Considering the variety of perks of singlehood and non-committed liaisons, it is not sur­prising to hear males and females say that they do not want to be tied down and prefer to keep their options open. However, one should be aware that this attitude has the potential of causing disappointment or resentment in the other partner. For example, if a man possesses the right assets to be a long-term partner (including a good health, a well-paid job, a high socio-economic status), but fails to channel all these resources to the woman he has been with for a certain time, she will inevitably ask herself questions. She may start to doubt his sin­cerity, his integrity, or faithfulness.[2] Even worse, if she has the impression that her boy­friend or fiancé “only” wants to have sex with her without investing in her (financially, but also in terms of time, emotions, sympathy, fondness), that he hesitates to engage in the nece­s­sary next steps, or that he seeks to disperse his devotion across several females, she is likely to develop feelings of degradation or of being used. Emotional distress can emerge as soon as she perceives a discrepancy between the level of involvement she expects or desires from the man and his actual engagement.[3] Once she deems him as “commitment-phobic”[4], there is a risk that she will lose her passion, lowering her own dedi­cation to him, at which stage the quality of the relation could suffer substan­tial­ly.

The proverb giving its name to this chapter thus reminds people that one cannot have it both ways or, stated differently, that “you cannot have everything for nothing”. In the language of love, it means that someone cannot expect to enjoy the benefits of a relation­ship (for exam­ple sex, catering, support, shared costs, etc.) without bearing the legal and financial obli­ga­tions of a more formal partnership. The message here, to men in particular: Sooner or later, you have to commit, otherwise your girlfriend will leave you. Notice also that the original (Chinese) version is often used to describe situations involving falseness and hypo­crisy, respectively to expose cheaters and pretenders – just like the girl who feigns virtuous­ness and chastity, but in fact sleeps around like everyone else (for money, her own pleasure, or any other reason). It can therefore also be interpreted as a warning sign against promis­cuity and adultery, which, however, are covered in other chapters.[5]



[1] Titus / Fadal (2009), p. 15

[2]    Buss (2003), pp. 41-42

[3]    Townsend (1998), pp. 34, 39

[4]    Carter / Sokol (1987)

[5]    See chapters 26 “A sly rabbit has three burrows”, 35 “No cat can resist snatching fish”, and 36 “Looking for a horse while riding a mule”.

Chapter 20: You can’t judge people by appearance, nor measure the ocean in pints

Don't judge a book by its cover

rén bù kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bù kě dǒu liáng

The discussion in the previous chapters revolved around the traits that people desire the most in a mate. Given the importance of sex in the whole question of partner selection, empha­sis was laid on physical aspects. Yet as most couples or parents know, relationship is not only about carnal knowledge. Since love marriage[1],[2] is increasingly common in many parts of the world, the rules of engagement in the mating game are now much diffe­rent than in the past. For many men, youth and physical attractiveness are not enough any­more. Inner beauty, which includes psychological factors such as kindness, compassion, elegance, cour­tesy, intel­li­gence, wittiness, honesty, etc. have become much more important. Admit­tedly, the proverb mentioned here may appear inappropriate in a context of love and partner selec­tion, but considering its essence (namely, that “appearance is deceiving” or that one should not prejudge the worth of something or someone by its outward appearance alone), it reminds us that (physical) beauty should not be equated with virtue and that it does not gua­ran­tee happiness in marriage, at least not in the long term.[3],[4]

Various works and philosophers across the centuries uttered similar words of advice, albeit in different terms:

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting

Torah, Bible – Old Testament (New International Version), Proverbs 31:30

Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.

Saint Augustine, City of God

Beauty pleases the eyes only;

Sweetness of disposition charms the soul.[5]


One sees clearly only with the heart;

What is essential is invisible to the eye.[6]

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


One of the most obvious reasons why men (and also women) should not choose their part­ner based on physical aspects only, is that beauty, more often than not, fades away with age. That means that after a few years into the relationship, the aesthetic or reproductive value of the spouse will gradually decline anyway.[7] In addition, physical chemistry itself is rather short-lived.[8] After a few rounds of fleshly pleasures, the attraction quickly vanishes if it is not supplemented with chemistry in the mind, heart, and soul. Only if physical affinity origin­ates in and is nurtured by emotional, intellectual or spiritual chemistry can it last or grow in time. When a man senses sexual chemistry with a woman, he feels interested in her, he likes her, he thinks he knows her… This may lead him into believing that he loves her. However, as relationship counsellor John Gray remarks, “the real test is whether he still likes and loves her after he gets to know her.” [9],[10]



[1] Love marriage refers to the union of two people based on mutual love, or else attraction, fondness, commitment, etc. It is opposed to the phenomenon of forced or arranged marriages, where one or both families fix up the matri­mony for the individuals involved. The term has only limited distinct meaning in Western societies, where love is commonly considered as a prerequisite for marriage. This may not be the case in South Asia and the Middle East, which have strong traditional arranged marriage systems. However, it shall be noted that even in the West, love mar­riage is a relatively young concept. So is the thought that affection, rather than duty (defined by wealth or social sta­tus) should be at the base of a shared life, which was first expressed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1761 novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse. It was not until the emergence of the feminist movement at the beginning of the 20th century that this new way of choosing one’s spouse finally became standard. (Source:

[2]    See chapter 10 “A melon forced off its vine is not sweet”.

[3]    See chapter 34 “Marriage is the tomb of love”.

[4]   The proverb is a quote from the novel Journey to the West (西游记, xī yóu jì, chapter 62) by Ming dynasty poet Wú Chéng’ēn’s (吴承恩). Widely known as Monkey in English-speaking countries (after Arthur Waley’s popular abridged translation), the work is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature (see also chapter 1 “Men are like mud, women are like water”).

[5]    Original: “La beauté plait aux yeux, la douceur charme l’âme.”

[6]    Original: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”

[7]    See chapter 5 “Old cows like tender grass”.

[8]    See chapter 11 “A lover’s eye only sees his love’s beauty”.

[9]    Gray (2009), pp. 17-18

[10]  See chapters 3 “Men like, women love” and 11 “A lover’s eye only sees his love’s beauty”.

Chapter 17: Finding a good job is nothing compared to finding a good husband

zuò de hăo bù rú jià de hăo

When close friends or family members of a young man are not convinced about the good faith or uprightness of his girlfriend or fiancée, they will utter all kinds of words of caution to him, for instance “she is only after your money”. When googling this very locution (inclu­ding the quotation marks), the search yields around 318,000 results.[1] This shows how common this piece of advice is, and along the way, how scared people are to be used by women in that fashion. Whether males are only slaves of this apprehension or whether their fear is gene­rally justified cannot be established definitively. The very existence of this pro­verb nevertheless indicates that the phenome­non of women choosing a good (in the sense of rich) husband over a good (in terms of well-paid) job is real – at least in China. What the phrase does not account for, however, are the reasons behind such predilection. As is about to be explained, the desire to find and marry a mate with enough resources has nothing to do with female laziness, rapa­city or parasitism, but is only the natural desire to feel safe and protected in exchange for the tremendous costs women bring upon themselves in the wake of sex, pregnancy, and childbirth.

Whoever dreams about long term relationships devoid of any material considerations should be set straight about such a naïve belief. In most cases, this ideal is doomed to remain a chi­maera. Pragmatic aspects have always been central to the definition of interpersonal rela­tions, inclu­ding romantic ones. In fact, they are so fundamental, that the sociologist John Lee iden­tified “pragma” as one of six basic love styles. According to his model, some types of couples are marked by at least one of the lovers rationally and realistically reflec­ting about her expectations in a partner. The costs and benefits of a relationship are thoroughly weighed, including the contingency of marriage and children, which are seen as potential liabilities as well as assets. When questing for a mate, the pragmatic lover uses practical cri­teria to select the right person, comparing qualities and ticking the items off her shopping list. She will carefully assess her “market value” and is likely to employ phrases such as “out of my league”. Like in a personal advertisement, the attributes sought after cannot be recog­nised on sight, but rather they reflect the target’s demographic background (religion, social class, etc.) or personality (hobbies, sports activities, artistic preferences, etc.).[2] In his book Love is a Story, Robert Sternberg describes a scenario that fits very well into the pragma scheme, illustrating the motivations of the partners:

In the business story, a relationship is run much like a business. An indivi­dual is attracted to a mate as a potential ‘business partner,’ who is evaluated largely in terms of his or her suitability in this role. Thus, a careful weighing of economic considerations, social status, and business sense may play more of a role in the formation of this kind of relationship than they would in the for­mation of other kinds of relationships. Indeed, to them, a relationship is a business, and the story of love is a story about successfully running a busi­ness.[3]

Researchers have tried to explicate the question of who marries (or appeals to) whom with psychological and economic models of human behaviour. Employing concepts such as social exchange theory,[4] it then becomes possible to elucidate the idea about the utility of romantic attractions. According to this perspective, amorous choices are the result of the desire to close the best possible deal in terms of the most benefits or rewards (for example, sex, love, support, etc.) at the lowest cost or price (namely, doing what one does not want to do). Mathematically, affinity is then defined by the equilibrium point of “exchange value”, i.e., where the personal assets and liabilities that each spouse brings to the relationship is dee­­med the fairest (or the best) by both. After that, the calculation is simple: The more of a win-win the partnership turns out to be, the more fulfilling it is and the longer it lasts.[5] And in the event of divorce or the breakup of relationship, there are always prenuptial agree­ments (also an immediate corollary of viewing of love as a business arrangement) to regu­late issues such as the division of property or spousal support.


[1]    Search performed on the 24th April 2017.

[2]    Lee (1998), p. 38

[3]    Sternberg (1998), p. 152

[4]    “Social exchange theory is a social psychological and sociological perspective that explains social change and stability as a process of negotiated exchanges between parties. Social exchange theory posits that all human relationships are formed by the use of a subjective cost-benefit analysis and the comparison of alternatives.” (Source:

[5]    Pines (2005), p. 63

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

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