Skip to main content

The Cultural Revolution and the Timing of First Marriage in China


This paper empirically studies the impact of the exposure to the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) on the timing of first marriage in China. We find that the first marriages of cohorts born in the 1946–1961 period were delayed, on average, by 1.2–2 years. We also find heterogeneous effects across population subgroups because of various historical events such as school closures, the Sent-Down Movement, and class discrimination. People affected by these circumstances showed greater delays in first marriage than those who were not. In addition, women in urban areas faced particularly substantial delays in the timing of first marriage. These findings are robust to different identification strategies and model specifications.


Cet article étudie empiriquement l’impact de l’exposition à la Révolution culturelle (1966–1976) sur le calendrier du premier mariage en Chine. Nos résultats indiquent que les premiers mariages des cohortes fortement touchées par la Révolution culturelle (nés entre 1946 et 1961) ont retardé le premier mariage de 1,2 à 2 ans en moyenne. Nous constatons également des effets hétérogènes entre différents sous-groupes de la population chinoise en raison des événements tel que les fermetures d’écoles, le mouvement « Sent-Down» et la discrimination de classe. Les personnes touchées par ces circonstances ont enregistré des retards plus importants dans le premier mariage. Par ailleurs, les femmes dans les zones urbaines ont connu des retards plus importants que dans les zones rurales. Nos résultats sont robustes à différentes stratégies d’identification et spécifications de modèles.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

Data availability

Our data and code are available through email from Dr. Zhou when requested.

Code Availability

Our data and code are available through email from Dr. Zhou when requested.


  1. 1.

    Similar patterns are observed in urban and rural areas, and for each cohort born after 1955 (see Figures A1-A3 in Appendix A).

  2. 2.

    In 1980, a new law changed the legal age at first marriage to 22 years for men and to 20 years for women. Until 2015, furlough benefits and financial allowances were provided as rewards for delaying marriage and giving birth to only one child, since the introduction of the 1980 Marriage Law and the One Child Policy, respectively.

  3. 3.

    The hukou system classifies every individual living in China in one of two groups: agricultural and non-agricultural. In general, individuals with agricultural hukous were born in rural areas to parents engaged in farming, received education in rural areas, and mostly worked in the agricultural sector, while most people with non-agricultural hukous lived in urban areas. Despite controlling for migration status, changes in hukou due to the urbanization process may potentially increase the difference between our estimates for two subsamples.

  4. 4.

    There is a potential contamination of regional classifications resulting from subsequent urbanization and attrition. The attrition referred to here is the permanent loss of observation. For instance, people who come from a discriminated social class might have died earlier because they had been attacked and publicly shamed, leading to health problems or even death. In extreme cases, some of them might have died as a result of persecutions during the CR. There is also the possibility that some might have escaped abroad. As a result, our estimates of the social class “background” might be downward biased.

  5. 5.

    We have evaluated samples with different age spans as well as different exposures and obtained consistent findings. Nevertheless, we control for the sex ratio at birth in counties (and in the urban/rural population and agricultural/non-agricultural population, for respective subsamples) as a robustness check, because the usage of such a variable may lead to further loss of observations. The main results are not altered by the addition of this variable. However, the proposed measure is only a rough proxy for the real sex-ratio measures faced by the individuals during their marriage year in their marriage markets. These values are not available in the existing datasets. Results are available upon request.

  6. 6.

    Detailed approaches for index construction, relevant data processing procedures, and estimations with alternative datasets are provided in Appendix B. More results using the 2005 Census, other subsamples, and alternative model specifications are available on request.

  7. 7.

    School_Closure_Intensity is computed based on the timing of secondary school closure and the regional education attainments. Send_Down_Intensity is measured as the product of the probability of being sent down to rural areas and the average stay duration for each birth cohort and province. In the lower panel of Table 4, years of sent-down is thus equal to zero if the individual has been exposed to the CR (born in 1946–1961) but was not sent down to the countryside. Cases where being sent down to the countryside was reported after 1979 or lasted longer than 16 years are discarded.

  8. 8.

    See the distributions of the age at first marriage over cohorts in Appendix A, Figure A3 and life stage identification strategies in Appendix B, Figure B6. We use the ratio of the total number of years that a person spent during the CR (1966–1976) in the adolescence phase (11–20 years old) and in adulthood (21–30 years old) to the total length of the CR (11 years); we then apply baseline regressions with the samples from subgroups 1–3 respectively. Results are available upon request.


  1. Angrist, J. (2002). How do sex ratios affect marriage and labor markets? Evidence from America’s second generation. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117(3), 997–1038.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bai, L. (2014). Economic legacies of the cultural revolution. Lingua, 15, 283–309.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Bergstrom, T. C., & Bagnoli, M. (1993). Courtship as a waiting game. Journal of Political Economy, 101(1), 185–202.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Bernstein, T. P. (1977). Up to the mountains and down to the villages: The transfer of youth from urban to rural China. Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bertrand, M., Kamenica, E., & Pan, J. (2015). Gender identity and relative income within households. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(2), 571–614.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12(1), 1–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Chan, A., Rosen, S., & Unger, J. (1980). Students and class warfare: The social roots of the Red Guard conflict in Guangzhou (Canton). The China Quarterly, 83, 397–446.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Cunha, Flavio, James J. Heckman, Lance Lochner, and Dimitriy V. Masterov. 2006. “Interpreting the evidence on life cycle skill formation.” In Handbook of the economics of education, Vol. 1(2), edited by Erik A. Hanushek and F. E. Welch, 697–812. New York: Elsevier.

  9. Deng, Z., & Treiman, D. J. (1997). The impact of the Cultural Revolution on trends in educational attainment in the People’s Republic of China. American Journal of Sociology, 103(2), 391–428.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Esherick, Joseph. W, Paul G. Pickowicz, Andrew G. Walder. 2006. The Chinese Cultural Revolution as history. Stanford University Press.

  11. Goldin, C., & Katz, L. F. (2002). The power of the pill: Oral contraceptives and women’s career and marriage decisions. Journal of Political Economy, 110(4), 730–770.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Goldstein, J. R., & Kenney, C. T. (2001). Marriage delayed or marriage forgone? New cohort forecasts of first marriage for U.S. women. American Sociological Review, 66(4), 506–519.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Gould, E. D., & Daniele Paserman, M. (2003). Waiting for Mr. Right: Rising inequality and declining marriage rates. Journal of Urban Economics, 53(2), 257–281.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Guo, Zhigang. 2012. Re-thinking China’s demographic situation. International Economic Review (In Chinese).

  15. Han, H. (2010). Trends in educational assortative marriage in China from 1970 to 2000. Demographic Research, 22(24), 733–770.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Honig, E. (2002). Maoist mapping of gender: Reassessing the Red Guards. In S. Brownell & J. Wasserstrom (Eds.), Chinese femininities/Chinese masculinities: A reader (pp. 255–268). University of California Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  17. Huang, Wei, and Yi Zhou. 2015. “One-child policy, marriage distortion, and welfare loss.” Social Science Electronic Publishing

  18. Keeley, M. C. (1977). The economics of family formation. Economic Inquiry, 15(2), 238–250.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Li, H., Rosenzweig, M., & Zhang, J. (2013). Altruism, favoritism, and guilt in the allocation of family resources: Sophie’s choice in Mao’s mass send down movement. Journal of Political Economy, 118, 1–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Li, R. (1985). An analysis of age at first marriage of China’s population. Population Research (peking, China), 2(4), 27–35.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Liu, L. H. (2002). Invention and intervention: The making of a female tradition in modern Chinese literature. In S. Brownell & J. Wasserstrom (Eds.), Chinese femininities/Chinese masculinities: A reader (pp. 149–174). University of California Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  22. Loughran, D. S. (2002). The effect of male wage inequality on female age at first marriage. Review of Economics and Statistics, 84(2), 237–250.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Macfarquhar, Roderick, and Michael Schoenhals. 2006. Mao’s last revolution. Cambridge, MA, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

  24. Meng, X., & Gregory, R. G. (2002). The impact of interrupted education on subsequent education attainment: A cost of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 51(114), 53–57.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Merli, M. G., & Raftery, A. E. (2000). Are births underreported in Rural China manipulation of statistical records in response to China’s population policies. Demography, 37(1), 109–126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Montgomery, M. R., Cheung, P. P. L., & Sulak, D. B. (1988). Rates of courtship and first marriage in Thailand. Population Studies, 42(3), 375–388.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Mu, Z., & Xie, Yu. (2014). Marital age homogamy in China: A reversal of trend in the reform era? Social Science Research, 44(2), 141–157.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Ogawa, Naohiro, and I. Shah. Low fertility and reproductive health in East Asia. Springer Netherlands,

  29. Okun, B. S. (2001). The effects of ethnicity and educational attainment on Jewish marriage patterns: Changes in Israel, 1957–1995. Population Studies, 55(1), 49–64.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Oppenheimer, V. K. (1988). A theory of marriage timing. American Journal of Sociology, 94(3), 563–591.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Oppenheimer, V. K. (1997). Women’s employment and the gain to marriage: The specialization and trading model. Annual Review of Sociology, 23(23), 431–453.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Oppenheimer, V. K. (2003). Cohabiting and marriage during young men’s career-development process. Demography, 40(1), 127–149.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Raymo, J. M. (2003). Education attainment and the transition to first marriage among Japanese women. Demography, 40(1), 83–103.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Schmidt, L. (2008). Risk preferences and the timing of marriage and childbearing. Demography, 45(2), 439–460.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Smock, P. J., & Manning, W. D. (1997). Cohabiting partners’ economic circumstances and marriage. Demography, 34(3), 331–341.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Song, S., & Zheng, Lu. (2016). The impact of the sent-down movement on Chinese women’s age at first marriage. Demographic Research, 24, 797–826.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2007). Marriage and divorce: Changes and their driving forces. The Journal of Economics Perspective, 21(2), 270–352.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Sun, Muhan. 1987. A history of family planning in China. Northern Women and Children Press (in Chinese).

  39. Suzuki, Tōru. 2013. Low fertility and population aging in Japan and Eastern Asia.

  40. Xia, Yan R., and Zhi G. Zhou. 2003. “The transition of courtship, mate selection and marriage in China.” In Mate selection across cultures, edited by Raeann R Hamon and Bron B Ingoldsby, 231–46. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

  41. Xie, Yu., Jiang, Y., & Greenman, E. (2008). Did send-down experience benefit youth? A reevaluation of the social consequences of forced urban-rural migration during China’s Cultural Revolution. Social Science Research, 37(2), 686–700.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Xie, Yu., Raymo, J. M., Goyette, K., & Thornton, A. (2003). Economic potential and entry into marriage and cohabitation. Demography, 40(2), 351–367.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Xu, L. C., Qiang, C.-W., & Wang, L. (2003). The timing of marriage in China. Annals of Economics and Finance, 4(2), 343–358.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Wang, Nianyi. 2009. The revolutionary decades: China in 1949–1976.Bejing: People’s Press.

  45. Wang, Shun, and Weina Zhou. 2015. “The unintended long-term consequences of Mao’s mass send-down movement: Marriage, social network, and happiness.” Social Science Electronic Publishing.

  46. Ye, W. (1992). China’s ‘later’ marriage policy and its demographic consequences. Population Research and Policy Review, 11(1), 51–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Zhou, Dong. (2016). The long-term impacts of the Cultural Revolution: A micro-analysis. Labour: Review of Labour Economics and Industrial Relations, 30(3), 285–317.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Zhang, Shuang. 2013. “Mother’s education and infant health: Evidence from closure of high schools in China.” Cornell University Working Paper.

  49. Zhang, J., Liu, P.-W., & Yung, L. (2007). The Cultural Revolution and returns to schooling in China: Estimates based on twins. Journal of Development Economics, 84(2), 631–639.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Zhou, X., & Hou, L. (1999). Children of the Cultural Revolution: The state and the life course in the People’s Republic of China. American Sociological Review, 64(1), 12–36.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Zhu, Weixing, Li, Lu., & Hesketh, Therese. (2009). China’s excess males, sex selective abortion, and one child policy: Analysis of data from 2005 national intercensus survey. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 338(7700), 920–23.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We are incredibly grateful to the referees and editor for their insightful comments. We thank for all the discussants in the 2016 Annual Camphor Economists Circle Workshop in Guangzhou as well as 2015 conference of “Ageing and Health: Policy and Economics in an Era of Longevity” in Shanghai for their insightful comments. In addition, we would like to thank the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the China Institute for Income Distribution, and the Chinese Family Panel Studies of Peking University for providing their data. All mistakes are our own.


This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71703100) received by Dong Zhou and National Social Science Foundation of China (grant number: 16CSH072) received by Xue Li.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dong Zhou.

Ethics declarations

Ethics Approval

Not applicable. Our research does not involve human participants and/or animals’ participants.

Consent to Participate

Not applicable. Our research does not involve human participants and/or animals’ participants.

Consent for Publication

All authors signed the informed consent for participation as well as publication.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary Information

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary file1 (DOC 1115 KB)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Li, X., Zhou, D. The Cultural Revolution and the Timing of First Marriage in China. Can. Stud. Popul. 48, 265–291 (2021).

Download citation


  • Cultural Revolution
  • Marital delay
  • Adolescent
  • Sent-down Movement
  • Class discrimination
  • School closure


  • Révolution culturelle
  • Report du mariage
  • Adolescent
  • Mouvement Sent-Down
  • Discrimination de classe
  • Fermeture des écoles