Review: Double Happiness

Photographer Ruben Terlou usually never smokes, but whenever in China it is hard to keep away from cigarettes. No less than a third of all cigarettes in the world are for the Chinese market. One of the most famous Chinese cigarette brands is “Double Happiness” , a reference to the character 囍 that is also used for events like marriages. All irony aside, for both men and women marriage can turn out be quite an unpleasant and stressful affair in China.

The one-child policy was phased out last year, during the 35 years the law was in force it has caused demographic damages that cannot be underestimated. According to classic Chinese philosophy, there are three ways to disappoint your parents and not having a son is the worst of them. This supposition led to many illegal aborts and adaptions, eventually causing a imbalance of 15% more men then women, around 50 million in total.

We meet a few of those 50 million a cargo ship on the Yangtze River. For these young sailors it is barely possible to find a girlfriend, and not exclusively because there are many other men looking for a wife or because they only have time to compete with those during their holidays. They also have to deal with the standards of Chinese society, which establish that the woman should have a lower social status than the man. Some Chinese men even seek desperately for help in so called flirting courses, which surprisingly turn out to be quite beneficial.

On the other hand, there are the Chinese girls with a high education background. Despite the female deficit in Chinese demography, it is by no means easy for them to find a boyfriend. A marriage market is a typical place where one can advertise to find a partner, but not expect young people to hang around there, since it are mainly the parents that take care for this rather shameful affair. Although many people refuse to be photographed by Terlou, one of the mothers invites us at home to get to know her daughter.

Her daughter is the typical left-over woman: 28 years old, highly educated and a good job. She herself doesn’t seem to care that much about her future. Although she hasn’t found a partner, at least she has got a good job and that is as least as important.  Those being unable to afford a house are unlikely to get approval of the daughter’s parents to get married. And even when married, the worrying will not be over. The Chinese housing market is one of the biggest economic bubbles that is probably soon to explode: high-rise rents, but at the same numerous abandoned cities all around the country.

As soon as we arrive to Nanjing, it turns out that not all Chinese can live with the social pressure of Chinese society. We meet a man with a binocular on a scooter. He spends his weekends all day long at the bridge, trying to save lives. In the last ten years he has saved 285 people from suicide on the Nanjing bridge, but this is probably just less than 10% of all the people who found death in the Yangtze River. He has seen a lot of things happening, being a woman that wanted to throw her child into the river one of the worst he has been through.

The high expectations of Chinese society are even embedded in the language itself. For instance, the characters for “power” and “working on the field“ form the word for “man”. On the other hand, the character for “women” is also represented in the word for “good” together with the character for “child” and in the word for “peace” (和平) as a woman under a roof. Is this the reason why so many people are longing to a cigarette to create their double happiness?


“Double Happiness.” Langs de oevers van de Yangtze. VPRO. 14 feb. 2016.

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