Nothing like this has happened in human history. A combination of cultural preferences, government decree and modern medical technology in the world’s two largest countries has created a gender imbalance on a continental scale. Men outnumber women by 70 million in China and India.
The consequences of having too many men, now coming of age, are far-reaching: Beyond an epidemic of loneliness, the imbalance distorts labor markets, drives up savings rates in China and drives down consumption, artificially inflates certain property values, and parallels increases in violent crime, trafficking or prostitution in a growing number of locations.
Those consequences are not confined to China and India, but reach deep into their Asian neighbors and distort the economies of Europe and the Americas, as well. Barely recognized, the ramifications of too many men are only starting to come into sight.
Out of China’s population of 1.4 billion, there are nearly 34 million more males than females — the equivalent of almost the entire population of California, or Poland, who will never find wives and only rarely have sex. China’s official one-child policy, in effect from 1979 to 2015, was a huge factor in creating this imbalance, as millions of couples were determined that their child should be a son.
India, a country that has a deeply held preference for sons and male heirs, has an excess of 37 million males, according to its most recent census. The number of newborn female babies compared with males has continued to plummet, even as the country grows more developed and prosperous. The imbalance creates a surplus of bachelors and exacerbates human trafficking, both for brides and, possibly, prostitution. Officials attribute this to the advent of sex-selective technology in the last 30 years, which is now banned but still in widespread practice.
In the two countries, 50 million excess males are under age 20.
Both nations are belatedly trying to come to grips with the policies that created this male-heavy generation. And demographers say it will take decades for the ramifications of the bulge to fade away.
In the four sections below are personal tales that show how the imbalance has affected:
‘Life is boring and lonely’
Li Weibin has never had a girlfriend. Boys outnumbered girls in the isolated mountain village where he grew up, in the factories where he worked as a teenager, and on the construction sites where he now earns a modest wage.
Today, 30 years old, he lives in a bare, stuffy dormitory room with five other men in the southern city of Dongguan, bunk beds lining the walls, cigarette butts carpeting the floor.
“I want to find a girlfriend, but I don’t have the money or the opportunity to meet them,” he said. “Girls have very high standards; they want houses and cars. They don’t want to talk to me.”
Li’s problem is not only that he is poor and struggling to save enough money to buy an apartment of his own; it is that in China there are simply too many men. This is a country where marriage confers social status, and where parental pressure to produce grandchildren is intense. Bachelors like Li are dismissively branded as “bare branches” for failing to expand the family tree.
But as any forester knows, bare branches pose a danger, and not just to themselves.
In Dongguan, where the gender ratio is 118 men to 100 women, Li says he has virtually given up hope of finding a girlfriend. He spends his spare time playing games on his phone, or accompanying his co-workers to karaoke or for a foot massage.
“It is just me,” he said. “Life is boring and lonely.”
‘May you be the mother of a hundred sons’
When Om Pati, a farmer’s wife in the Indian village of Bass, in the state of Haryana, was having children, she actually prayed a sweet-eyed girl bundle would arrive. But instead she had a son. Then another, and another — seven in all. Her neighbors in the village were overjoyed for her each time a new baby arrived. They rang steel plates so everyone in the neighborhood would know a boy had been born.
After all, this is a culture where male children are desired above all else — to light the Hindu funeral pyre, inherit property, care for aging parents. As the Sanskrit blessing says, “May you be the mother of a hundred sons.”
But by the time her eldest Sanjay — now 38 and a cook — reached marriageable age, the practice of families in her area sneaking off to larger cities for an illegal sonogram and then an abortion had taken its toll. When she and her husband began seeking matches for arranged marriage, still the norm, there were no suitable brides. The few young women had all married — that is, those who hadn’t left for better opportunities elsewhere.
These days, Om Pati, now 60, spends her days cooking and cleaning for her husband and adult sons, who range from age 22 to 38. They gobble up so many rotis — the flat-round bread loaves that are a household staple, each one shaped in her calloused hands — that she goes through several pounds of flour a day.
“There is no other option,” she said. “It’s not in our hands.”
‘No one knows how sad I feel’
Suresh Kumar once dreamed of getting married, with a procession through the lanes of Bass, a bride adorned in gold and the kind of ceremony that was once a near-universal rite of passage for Indian men.
But after one potential engagement fell apart, no other suitable brides could be found. He even went back to earn his high school degree in hopes of being a more attractive suitor.
Still no one. Now Kumar is in his mid-30s, long past what is considered marriageable age in India, and is beginning to face a hard truth — that a wife and a family won’t happen for him.
“People say, ‘You don’t have a wife and children at home to care for — why are you working so hard?’ ” Kumar said. “I laugh on the outside but the pain that I have in my heart only I know.”
The men themselves are isolated, left out of major family decisions and subject to ridicule, with little in the way of support or mental health services. Worse, in the traditional culture of villages, those who missed out on marriage have no hope of female companionship — dating or having a girlfriend is out of the question.
One recent evening, a family threw a rooftop party to celebrate the birth of a boy. Parties to welcome girl babies are still so rare they are covered by the local newspaper. Before the guests arrived, Kumar huddled in a stairwell nearby, sweating over a cast-iron pot, cracking jokes with friends as he fried sweet pancakes for the guests.
He likes to cook, he says, but the role occasionally unbalances him.
During a harvest festival last year, his mother was delayed in another town. So Kumar was left to prepare the pancakes on his own. As he flipped the cakes in the bubbling oil, he grew teary-eyed, thinking of how there was no wife and kids to eat the treats he was making.
With a wife, he says, “there would be somebody to make tea for me, to tell me when to take a bath. We don’t have much value as unmarried men in this society. Everybody thinks, ‘What problem does this man have? What is lacking in his family? What is lacking in him?’ ”
Evenings are the loneliest times, when the village folds into itself, minders return with their cows from the pond, smoke wafts from evening meals, schoolchildren still in their plaid school uniforms play in the uneven lanes. Kumar shuts himself in his room.
“I watch TV, romantic movies sometimes,” Kumar says. “What can I do? It’s up to me then. What I feel inside stays inside.”
It wasn’t supposed to end up this way. When he was in high school he had a brief romance with a classmate, a beautiful 17-year-old, tall and slim, with two braids that reached down her back. Even now he cannot speak of her without singing a few bars of an Urdu love song. “I looked for her on Facebook just yesterday,” he says.
But the tryst was discovered, the parents put a stop to it, and his classmate eventually married someone else. And the family wasn’t able to find any other suitable prospective brides for him.
“We feel it, but this is a problem in every house,” said his mother, Bhima, sitting with her son after the party in the dimly lit courtyard of the modest house where they live.
Sometimes, Kumar says, the suffocation he feels is palpable:
“You know how when there’s no wind and a plant is sitting there and the leaves are not moving? That’s how the man feels: You’re just stationary.”
The desperate effort toland a bride
To catch a wife, build a house
‘If you want to find a wife, you have to build a house’
Today, young people are fleeing the villages in a desperate search for fortune, and marriage. The best way to find a bachelor in rural China these days: look for someone building a house.
Li Defu is typical. Now 21, he left home seven years ago to find work in the provincial capital Guiyang, but he has pooled the family savings to build a 10-room house overlooking the green hills and valleys of his birthplace, Paifeng.
The reason is simple: It is the only chance he has of finding a wife.
“At the moment there aren’t any girls my age around,” he said, on a recent trip home to supervise the construction. “But I am building this new house in preparation, in case I find someone.”
Li was brought up by his grandmother, a tiny, wizened woman who sat beside him as he chatted. His parents still work in far-off factories; the savings they have collected could be crucial.
Around $10,000, Li reckons, will have to be paid to his future bride’s family, just to gain their approval for the engagement. A centuries-old tradition, the “bride price” in China is similar to a dowry elsewhere in the world, but paid from groom’s family to the bride’s parents — rather than the other way around.
A decade or two back, the typical bride price was just a few hundred dollars. Today, in some parts of China, the average is nearly $30,000, according to a survey by the People’s Daily newspaper.
That translates into huge pressure for young men like Li and their families. Indeed, helping to build Li’s house was another young man who was already feeling that pressure.
“There are very few girls here, and many girls from outside won’t want to marry into this village because it’s poor,” said 25-year-old Zhou Haijiang, as he laid the tiles in one of the house’s many bathrooms. Only a show of prosperity can attract, and hold, a bride.
“In our village, if you want to find a wife, you have to build a house.”
Zhou said he would like to stay in Paifeng all his life, but the pay isn’t good, and he will soon reluctantly join the tide of migrant workers heading for China’s booming megacities, in search of riches — and brides.
Many unmarried Chinese men have made their way to cities like Dongguan in southern China’s Pearl River Delta, a vast urban agglomeration nicknamed the “factory of the world.”
Their work ethic, their determination to succeed, is remarkable.
In a noodle shop close to a series of shoe factories, a 24-year-old who gave only his family name, Wang, was enjoying dinner with some friends. In between mouthfuls, he said he left his home in rural western China a decade ago and now works 11 or 12 hours a day, with just two days off a month.
He has already saved enough to build a house back in his home village, but is still struggling to find a wife.
“If you are picky, it’s hard,” he said. “There are also more boys here, and it is not necessarily easy to meet girls.”
‘You are my slave’