Organized Panel Session
As birth and death rates fall, China’s society is aging. In response, the state has reversed decades of policy by asking women to marry younger and have more than one child. But women in China, as elsewhere, are increasingly delaying marriage. In particular, many educated women of rural origin, who long focused on marrying into the city as a path to social mobility, are instead pursuing postgraduate degrees and careers as a way “out of the countryside.” My paper investigates this under-examined rural/urban dimension of delayed marriage in China. It analyzes how women of rural origin continue to perform “traditional” virtuous femininity for their relatives “back home” while seeking “personal development” in the cities. To defer parental expectations, many hire “counterfeit boyfriends.” Others maintain “virtual” relationships online or, upon marrying, choose not to live with their husbands. In some respects, such practices resemble bride-initiated spirit marriage—a historical form of marriage resistance. Like their bygone sisters who placated their parents by marrying spirits, these women lead a dual existence. They experience and embody a disconnect between agency as the virtuosic performance of cultural ideals (Mahmood) and agency as resistance (Butler/Beauvoir). The twin spectral figures of “counterfeit boyfriends” and “ghost brides” index both the duplicity that this disconnect demands and the continued haunting of women’s desires by patrilineal/patriarchal social norms. State policies shape the constraints under which the existential dilemmas of these women unfold. Simultaneously, their pursuit of recognition conditions the new demographic realities to which state actors struggle to respond.