Wedding Proposal Cover
Photo Credit: VCG
SOCIAL CHINESE

A Not-So-Modest Proposal: How to Pop the Ultimate Question to Your Loved One

Learn the best (and worst) ways to propose in Chinese

Deciding to get hitched is one of the most significant choices someone can make—like opening a magic door to a new life as a husband or wife. So, you should probably take care with how you knock on said door. You don’t want to knock too meekly and you certainly don’t want to go barging through. The goal of a marriage proposal is to obtain one word: “yes.” And if you really want to get it, you’re going to need more than the obligatory ring and a fancy candlelit dinner. You’ll need the right words to go along with it.

Obviously, there isn’t a standard template for a proposal. Your little speech can be romantic or realistic, dramatic or calm, serious or humorous. As Deng Xiaoping once (apparently) said in reference to the best model for China’s economy, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

The “bossy-boss (霸道总裁,bàdào zǒngcái)” style is definitely one of the most popular types of proposal nowadays. For this, we can blame popular TV romances aimed at women, featuring powerful, masculine, and sometimes overly controlling men. Toughness is supposed to be the new sexy and a seemingly non-negotiable proposal represents (on TV at least), deep and sincere love.

Bossy-boss: Listen to me. I’ll say this only once and won’t take no for an answer.

Tīng hǎo le, wǒ zhǐ shuō yí cì. Nǐ bùxǔ shuō bù.

听好了, 我只说一次。你不许说不。

Partner: What?

Shénme shì?

什么事?

I want to marry you.

Wǒ yào qǔ nǐ.

我要娶你。

Uh…

E……

呃……

Do you need to think about it that long before agreeing?

Xūyào kǎolǜ nàme jiǔ ma?

需要考虑那么久吗?

If you propose to someone like a mob boss looking for protection money, there’s always a (high) chance your partner might say “no” and walk away

A “bossy-boss” shows confidence, so using an imperative sentence structure is, well, imperative. And remember: never wait for the answer. Honestly, it’s a risky move because, if you propose to someone like a mob boss looking for protection money, there’s always a (high) chance your partner might just say “no” and walk away. There’s not a whole lot of wiggle room afterward.

The 暖男 (nuǎnnán), or “warm man,” on the other hand, is just the opposite: gentle, sweet, always knowing the way into your heart. They’re considerate of their partner all the time and know everything about them. As such, their proposal style features, inevitably, a promise to take care of their partner forever. Much like a state-media editorial or an evangelical preacher, they usually start off with a statement that they are the only ones who truly understand their beloved.

You are struggling in this city, renting a small apartment, working hard. I know it isn’t easy.

Nǐ yī gè rén zài zhè zuò chéngshì lǐ fèndòu, zūzhe xiǎofángzi, gōngzuò yě hén xīnkǔ. Wǒ zhīdào zhè bìng bú róngyì.

你一个人在这座城市里奋斗,租着小房子,工作也很辛苦。我知道这并不容易。

Please let me take care of you in the future. I can make you happy. Will you marry me?

Zài wèilái qǐng ràng wǒ zhàogù nǐ ba. Wǒ néng gěi nǐ xìngfú. Jià gěi wǒ hǎo ma?

在未来请让我照顾你吧。我能给你幸福。嫁给我好吗?

But that sort of cloying emotion is enough to make some reach for a barf bag. So, when it comes to the 文艺青年 (wényì qīngnián), or ”artsy youth,” being a sweetheart isn’t good enough. Their proposal is poetic and spiritual—the soul, destiny, the completion of life itself, all feature heavily. If you’re waiting on a proposal from this sort, get ready for some famous quotes.

People say “marriage is the tomb of love.” But if I could take you with me, I would go there without hesitation.

Rénmen dōu shuō, Hūnyīn shì “àiqíng de fénmù”. Dànshì rúguǒ néng hé nǐ zài yìqǐ, wǒ huì háo bú yóuyù de zǒu jìn qù.

人们都说 ,婚姻是“爱情的坟墓”。但是如果能和你在一起,我会毫不犹豫地走进去。

I know what you’re thinking: Tomb? Really? You and me in a tomb? Hang on, the gushing isn’t over.

It was the 500 glances that we threw at each other in a previous existence that led us to each other in this life. It’s destiny that I met you. You are the other half of my soul. Will you marry me?

Qiánshì wúbǎi cì de huímóu cái huànde jīnshēng de yí cì cā jiān ér guò. Yùjiàn nǐ shì mìng zhōng zhùdìng. Nǐ jiùshì wǒ línghún de lìng yí bàn. Nǐ yuànyì jià gěi wǒ ma?

前世五百次的回眸才换得今生的一次擦肩而过。遇见你是命中注定。你就是我灵魂的另一半。你愿意嫁给我吗?

For some, that sort of thing is romantic; others, well, prefer their suitor to eschew the dead body metaphors altogether.

Of course, you can’t expect such a poetic presentation from everyone. In the past, marriage could even involve trading the female party for cattle or land rights, and getting engaged today can still be practical, political, and economical. Nowadays, a pragmatic proposal over breakfast, though unromantic, at least takes some of the pressure off:

Maybe we should get married. Then, we can have breakfast together every day.

Huòxǔ wǒmen yīnggāi jiéhūn. Nàyàng dehuà, wǒmen jiù kéyǐ měitiān yìqǐ chī zǎocān le.

或许我们应该结婚。那样的话,我们就可以每天一起吃早餐了。

What?

Shénme?

什么?

I said we should get married. You see, right now, you rent an apartment and I rent another one. If we get married, we can live together and save half the money.

Wǒ shuō wǒmen yīnggāi jiéhūn. Nǐ kàn, xiànzài nǐ zū yí jiān gōngyù, wǒ yě zū yí jiān. Rúguǒ wǒmen jiéhūn le, wǒmen jiù kéyǐ zhù zài yìqǐ, shèngxià yí bàn de qián.

我说我们应该结婚。你看,现在你租一间公寓,我也租一间。如果我们结婚了,我们就可以住在一起,省下一半的钱。

In the past marriage could involve trading the female party for cattle or land rights, and getting engaged today can still be practical, political, and economical.

This style is extremely risky. First of all, you need to make sure that she knows you’re joking (note: you should be joking). You should also know for sure whether or not she’s the type of girl who really wants a ring, flowers, all that nonsense and, most importantly, how much money you can get out of subleasing that extra apartment.

The last type of proposal is that of a dramatic speech, the key ideas of which are as follows: I love you; I need you; I can’t live without you. This is also the realm of the diva—countless candles, a thousand roses, playing guitar, singing loudly, shouting up to your partner’s balcony. The more onlookers this proposal attracts, the better.

Hey, can you come down? I have something important to tell you!

Hēi! Nǐ néng xiàlóu yí tàng ma? Wǒ yǒu zhòngyào de shì duì nǐ shuō!

嘿!你能下楼一趟吗?我有重要的事对你说!

At this point, the partner on the balcony can probably figure out what’s so “important.” Happily or reluctantly, the soon-to-be-proposed-to goes down, if for no other reason than to spare their neighbors the noise.

Your partner waiting below takes a deep breath, then kneels down suddenly.

Please marry me!

Gēn wǒ jiéhūn ba!

跟我结婚吧!

Onlookers applaud, whistle, and kick up a fuss. The pressure mounts to almost unbearable levels. Now, if you say no—whether it’s because you don’t really like them or because they’re an idiot who just spent a month’s salary on roses—you’re letting down not just your partner (in the most publicly humiliating way) but everyone in the crowd too. Yet some can still stay strong:

Can you give me some time?

Gěi wǒ yì diǎnr shíjiān kǎolǜ hǎo ma?

给我一点儿时间考虑好吗?

You might think you’re out of the woods for now, but a (perhaps foolishly) persistent partner will stay on their knees and say:

If you don’t say yes, I won’t stand up!

Rúguǒ nǐ bù dāyìng, wǒ jīntiān jiù bù qǐlái!

如果你不答应,我今天就不起来!

Well, at least that shows commitment. So whether you choose to propose to your beloved with a ballsy business pitch, a bullying betrothal, or a romantic cry for public attention, be prepared to get an answer you don’t want—and to kneel for a long while.


“A Not-So-Modest Proposal” is a story from our past issue, “Romance.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

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author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.