Secret love in China: students hide relationships from their family

Young Chinese go to great lengths to keep boyfriends and girlfriends secret from parents and teachers who worry “premature love” will hinder success

By Shirley Sun

April 2019

The clock hand pointed to 8 am. After breakfast, Chen Xiao walked into her bedroom and picked up a novel on the desk. She kept turning pages over deliberately to make a sound. She wanted her mom to think she was studying.
Her mother, Li Lin, was washing the dishes after breakfast. Chen could hear the water running About 10 minutes later, Chen heard her mother enter the living room and put on her shoes. She was leaving for work.

“There are some coins in the cabinet if you want to take the bus,” her mother shouted through the door. “Come back early. You are all girls. It’s not safe to stay outside when it’s getting dark.”

Although Chen was 21-years old, her mother said the same thing every time she went out.

“I know, mom. Don’t worry. The girl’s party won’t last for long. I will come home before dinner,” Chen answered immediately.

“Bye!” Li shouted, slamming the door as she left.

Watching her mother leave through the window, Chen quickly changed her clothes and went out to hail a taxi.

Sinking into the back seat of the taxi, Chen drew a long breath. She took the mobile phone from her pocket and sent several voice messages with great excitement: I’m out!”

I received the message. I was headed to girls’ party that Chen told her mom she was going to. But that’s not really where she was going.

“Congratulations! Have a good time with your boyfriend!” I replied.

This was the most common way Chen hid her boyfriend from her parents during the summer vacation. Three other women and I, who have known each other for more than ten years, were her secret allies.

Chen’s boyfriend, Zhang Yi, was one year older than her and in the same university in Beijing. They met in the Drama Club in December 2016 and began dating three months later. At school and among friends, their relationship was known to everyone, even teachers. But it remained a secret between Chen and her family for nearly two years.

“I keep the secret because I don’t want my parents to get involved. They just make things complicated. I want to be the master of my own relationship,” said Chen, recalling her unhappy memories in the high school.

In the second year of high school, Chen was in love with a boy in her class. A love letter from the boy carelessly put in her bag was found by Chen’s mother. Without asking her, mother called the boy and told him to breakup immediately. Chen never heard from the boy again and only learned the truth several months later from someone else. When she cried, her mother sat with her all night. Chen remember her mother clearly her mother saying, “There will be more pain if you break-up after years.”

“This is how typical Chinese parents think. They are always worried. To get rid of the pain possibly happening in the future, they prevent you from the first step. My parents love me so much that they try to protect me in an unacceptable way,” said Chen.

Before this, Chen thought she could share almost everything in her life with her parents. But now her love stories were secrets.

Chen is not the only one in China with this secret. According to research conducted by one of the China’s biggest online matchmaking websites Shiji Jiayuqn, only 17.9% of Chinese college students tell parents about their boyfriend or girlfriends.

From my experience, the percentage among high school and secondary school students is even smaller. In Mandarin, there exists a particular word “zao lian,” which literally translates to “premature love”. Many people can recall the strong opposition from teachers and parents to zao lian.

Zao lian is regarded as the ultimate distraction and obstacle to “gao kao,” the national higher education entrance examination in China that all students must take to get into university. There is a popular Chinese saying: “One exam determines your life”.

In many Chinese families, gao kao is the only path leading to the best universities in the country, and the stepping stone to a decent job with a high salary and social status. It’s the hope of every ordinary family and preparation for it is regarded by Chinese parents as the most important mission for their children in the first 20 years of life.

Competition is fierce. According to Xinhua news, 9.4 million Chinese high school students took the gao kao last year with 3.72 million finally enrolling in undergraduate programs after the examination. Nothing, not even love, should distract a student from studying for the gao kao.

Wu Fei, 23, graduated from a university in Guangzhou last year. Although five years passed, she still described high school days as “unforgettable.” In one of the best high schools in the province, she said she had to do more than two hundred exams within one year. Although the atmosphere in school was more liberal than other schools, she said, dating still could cause a series of troubles.

Wu’s mother works as a Chinese teacher in a local high school in Ma’anshan city in Anhui province. Her mom understands teenagers, Wu said, and she thought they had an equal and mature relationship.

But when it comes to the gao kao, nothing is equal. Wu kept her high school love a secret.

She wasn’t allowed a mobile phone, so to get touch with her boyfriend after school, she tried many ways. She borrowed mobile phone from her classmates. But it was found by her mother and she had to return it. So she saved her money and spent it all on a cheap phone. Her mother caught her. She never saw that phone again.

“It was common for Chinese parents to enter our room directly without knocking at the door and bring some fruits and snacks to us. Actually, they want to check if we were actually studying when we were alone. I guess being frightened by sudden appearance of parents is almost every Chinese’s memory as a student,” she said

Sun Xianglong, 27, now works for the Huawei company as an engineer and lives in Shenzhen. He got married two years ago. In high school, he had a similar experience.

Born and raised in the countryside of Anhui province, he said many children around him could feel the anxiety and pressure from parents. Study was the centre of his life at home. He was always told by his father that anything irrelevant to study was forbidden and his mission before graduation from university was to “study, study, study”.

When Sun got the opportunity to go to one of the best high schools of the region in Nanling, 20 kilometres from his village, his mother went with him. They rented a room in the flat near the school and Sun’s mother cooked three meals a day to support his preparation for gao kao.

Feng Xianbo, a classmate of Sun, said that there were 80 students in their class and about 80% of them were from villages nearby. They all rented flats near school with their parents. He went home once a week and the rest of time, he spent all his time studying.

“Every student was the hope of the whole family. Especially we are from the countryside and our parents expected us to go to universities in big cities, then worked there. Zao lian became unbearable if found by our parents,” said Feng.

But in the new school, Sun finally escaped his father’s supervision and chased after girls, laughing as he recalled that time. He once skipped class with a girl and were chatting and walking across campus. Suddenly he saw a familiar silhouette in the shadow of the lights. It was his mother. He hid in a stairwell.

Just as his mother walked towards him, he grabbed the handrail, and leaped up the stairs with all his strength. The girl stood there alone, shocked.

But even after gao kao, Sun found that telling the truth to his parents was difficult. Parents were not strict than before but still emphasized the importance of study.

“When you are in high school, your parents think it’s just the game of teenagers. When you grow a little older, their attitudes totally changed. They became super serious,” said Yuan Shiya, 24, and now pursuing graduate studies in Hong Kong.

She had a boyfriend for five years but her parents never knew.

“I think my parents are very likely to disapprove of our dating. Chinese parents have much more to consider. My boyfriend lived in a single parent family, not wealthy. He went to work directly after graduation and didn’t have an advanced degree. All these things may make my parents dislike him,” said Yuan.

On Valentine’s Day this year, his father kidded that his daughter received no flowers and could only stayed home. Yuan lay in bed, texting with her boyfriend and chuckled to herself. It was part of her strategy to deliberately stay at home.

As the only child in the family, Yuan said her parents was very picky on the issues of marriage. Both her parents had a strong temper. When one of Yuan’s cousin Liu Lu declared that she was going to marry with a man they didn’t like, they called her constantly to try and stop her. They failed.

“You should never marry with a man less wealthy than yourself. You are the princess in our home and we will pick an excellent man for you in the future,” Yuan’s mom told her once when they were watching “Fei Cheng Wu Rao,” a popular Chinese dating game show, which means “If You Are The One.”

The audience ratings for this game show, which as of May 22, 2013 had screened a total of 343 episodes – were 2.77 percent of television viewers, or 36 million, twice as many as the nearest competitor for that timeslot, according to Beijing-based CSM Media Research. Yuan said she didn’t like the show because her mother often used the example in the show outline the ideal boyfriend.

In the show If You Are The One, a jury of 24 single women questioned one guy, watched his introductory video and pressed light buttons to determine whether he should remain on the show. In turn, the guy can choose his favorite girl and if he survives the “trial”, he will have a chance to pick a girl for a date. But Yuan thought that many of their choices were based on wealth and appearance, which also triggered a heated debate in the public in recent year.

Yuan was hunting for jobs in April. She discussed with her boyfriend that it may be a good timing to tell her parents about her relationship when she got a stable job in summer.

“I don’t know which way they will use to prevent me. The way I can think about is stop offering me money. So I think it’s better to be financial independent before I tell this to them,” Yuan said with a sigh. She didn’t know what would happen in the following months.

In university, Sun dated the woman that was to become his wife. But he still told a lot of lies. The most common one was to tell his parents the date of summer holiday three or four days late than the real one. He also experienced the conflicts with parents when he finally told the truth.

Sun’s father shouted at him when he knew all of the things. Sun said his parents were upset that his girlfriend was a nurse and didn’t graduate from a top university as Sun did. They thought Sun would marry a colleague and the economic situation of family would improve.

“In China, the situation is that there are possibly many paths to the future for you to choose. But most parents only knew one path they had once taken in their life. Then they pushed their children to go this old path since they think it’s the safest and least risky way to lead a cosy life,” said Sun.

But he thought his present life was quite satisfactory. The couple shared similar hobbies and often travelled around together. Sun said there was something money cannot replace.

Ten months ago, Sun became a father. When he hugged the baby and walked around, I asked him a question.

“What if your daughter has a boyfriend when she in in high school? Will you interfere her relationship as your parents did before?”

“I guess so. After being a father, I understand more about parental desire of protecting their children from being hurt both physically and emotionally. Especially for girls, they may get hurt more easily in a relationship,” Sun said.

“But what do you think will change in the relationship between you and your own child?”

“I don’t want her to hide her boyfriend from me. I hope she could share her secrets with me and take her boyfriend home. Although I don’t whether she will be willing to,” replied Sun.

My parents love me so much that they try to protect me in an unacceptable way.

I guess being frightened by sudden appearance of parents is almost every Chinese’s memory as a student.

You are the princess in our home and we will pick an excellent man for you in the future.