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Sieren's China: All for love

Frank Sieren
May 25, 2017

Lovestruck couples have been celebrating Valentine's Day in China this week. The country's millennials are only just about old enough to go on dates, but for the men it's an expensive affair, says DW's Frank Sieren.

China 520 Valentinstag 20. Mai
Image: Imago

"Where's my iPhone 7?" says 17-year-old Chen Ting from Shanghai to her boyfriend. She's not looking for her phone though; she's asking about her Valentine's Day present. An iPhone 7 would mean her boyfriend really loves her.

She's not alone among the generation aged between 17 and 37. The cheapest version of the iPhone 7 costs 700 euros and often the millennials' expectations do not end there. In China, a relationship costs money - to paraphrase the old adage that a relationship means work. You need deep pockets to keep the flame of eternal love burning. 

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In stark contrast to a few years ago, when most 16-year-olds would not have been allowed to go on dates or think about relationships, no one wants to be without a boyfriend or a girlfriend now. Not so long ago, good grades at school and career prospects were much more important at that age. However, these did not leave much time for socializing or romance. So a whole generation of successful men and women in their late 20s emerged who had little experience of romance.

China Valentinstag 20.5. 520
Image: picture alliance/dpa/Z.Duan

Yet, the social pressure remained - if as a woman you're not married by 30, you're on the shelf. You can stop expecting expensive gifts.

"I love you"

There's another reason for giving expensive gifts. These replace the open expression of feelings. It's not common for Chinese men to actually say the words "I love you". Imagine, if these were not reciprocated? That would mean losing face.

DW's Frank Sieren is a China-based best-selling authorImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl

In principle, it's expected that young men hoping to woo a young woman should be willing to spend about a quarter of their monthly salary on gifts. Some young men might do this for about six months, spending on average 10,000 yuan (1,300 euros, $1,460) without knowing if their "investment" in a woman will get them to their goal.

China's equivalent of Valentine's Day is May 20. Instead of chocolate, flowers or cards, the most common gift is a red envelope containing 520 yuan. If you say the figures 520 aloud, they sound like the words "I love you". Thus, it becomes a romantic action to give money!

Used to wealth

This generation is used to receiving love in the form of money. That's how their parents and grandparents showed them their love. Nothing was too expensive for these small tyrants.

They were born when the country opened up economically. They know nothing of the hardships that their parents and grandparents suffered. Moreover, if they are middle-class and urban, their life is easier than that of their counterparts in the West. They do not have to pay off student loans, buy an apartment or build a house. Their grandparents or parents finance them. When a man gets married, he's expected to have an apartment already.

The millennials are a generation of emperors and empresses familiar with gifts in red envelopes.

This is unlikely to change for some time. The only thing that will change will be the question. From the fall onwards, young lovers will be asking about the "iPhone 8". All for love, of course.

DW's correspondent, Frank Sieren, has been living in Beijing for the last 20 years.