It’s no secret that China has a huge demographic problem. With nearly 20 percent of the world’s population, they have a lot of mouths to feed–which isn’t a problem when most of the population is young and working. However, thanks to years and years of trying to quell the population explosion with rules that allowed for only one child per family, the population is aging rapidly and many of the elderly have no one to take care of them.
Under Chinese law, children are obligated to care for their parents and elderly family members. But thanks to the long term effects of the one child policy, there are many older Chinese who have no children to take care of them. Additionally, the policy has led to many families ridding themselves of female offspring, as males were considered more employable. Yes, the practice was as horrific as it sounds, with some children being sold off and others being killed or left to die.
The average age in China is somewhere in the mid-30s, much higher than what could be considered healthy for a growing nation. That number will climb into the upper 40s by 2050, and the population as a whole will drop significantly–by as much as 30 percent. This all leads to a stark conclusion: there will soon be far more elderly people who are unable to work in the nation than there are workers to provide for them.
This has led one Chinese economist, Xie Zuoshi, to suggest something radical to help slow the demographic time bomb from going off, or at least to mitigate its negative impacts. That solution is polyandry, the practice of one woman taking on multiple husbands.
Polygyny, the practice of one man taking multiple wives, has been practiced in the past in China, though it is not common. Polyandry, on the other hand, is generally prohibited under moral codes that have been in place for a long time. In other words, it’s a taboo and Xie’s suggestion has raised more than a few eyebrows.
The primary issue is that there are around 33 million more men than women in China, which leads to a whole lot of mouths to feed once those men reach old age and are no longer able to care for themselves. If they were allowed to engage in bigamy or polygamy of some sort in order to have offspring, or even just become part of a family, they may be able to have their needs met later in life.
While the suggestion is seen as radical and immoral by many, it seems that it may not have been as uncommon in past centuries in China as previously thought. There are multiple cases of financial, romantic, or simply sexual arrangements between one woman and multiple men.
Polygamy in general has been frowned upon worldwide in recent years, though throughout most of human history it was more common than not. However, demographic changes and cultural shifts led to the modern preference for monogamy in much of the world, and China is no exception.
Xie, however, avoided the moral and social questions, speaking purely from a theoretical approach using the basic economic rules of supply and demand. In this case, the supply of men is high, the supply of women low, leading to a higher demand for women than men.
“With so many guanggun (bare branches, the term for bachelors), women are in short supply and their value increases,” he explains in his proposal. “But that doesn’t mean the market can’t be adjusted. The guanggun problem is actually a problem of income. High-income men can find a woman because they can pay a higher price. What about low-income men? One solution is to have several [men] take a wife together. That’s not just my weird idea. In some remote, poor places, brothers already marry the same woman, and they have a full and happy life.”
While the proposal may seem odd to many, even immoral, it does seems to make sense from an economic point of view–if only in the relatively short term. At the very least, it could lead to a softening of the blow in a few decades when the tipping point for age demographics is reached and the nation is forced to make hard choices about how to provide for its elderly population.
One way or another, China will have to address the issue. If rethinking outdated moral codes on polygamy is one of those solutions, maybe it should be considered there, as well as elsewhere in the world.