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Cupid's arrow hits the young

By Zhou Wenting (China Daily)

08:41, June 19, 2012

Wei Xinchen's relationship with a female classmate came to light when the 13-year-old's father discovered a message written on the wall above his son's dormitory bed. It was simple and to the point. "I love you. Let's apply for a wedding registration!"

Although his father was wide-eyed with astonishment - in China, the minimum age for marriage is 22 for males and 20 for females - the boy was unfazed and almost dismissive.

"It's not a big deal," said Wei, a first-year junior high school student in Shanghai, who spoke on condition that an alias was used.

"There are seven pairs of lovers in my class. I feel proud to be chosen by a girl. Some of my peers are not in love because they are inferior."

Nearly 30 percent of those born after the 1990s admitted that their first "puppy love" happened in primary or junior high school, according to Baihe, a major dating website that recently conducted an Internet survey of more than 50,000 people across the country. Only 3 percent of those born before the 1970s gave the same answer.

Teenagers exhibiting early physical and mental maturity also tend to enter into relationships at a younger age and many are taking bold steps to express their affection in China's increasingly open social atmosphere, emboldened by a new understanding gained from a wide variety of sources, according to experts on juvenile issues.

"It's not surprising to see teenagers in school uniform kissing and cuddling in the street, but those youthful relationships were deemed bad behavior when I was at university in the 1980s. We didn't even dare to walk hand in hand," said Cui Lijuan, a professor at the School of Psychology and Cognitive Science at East China Normal University.

Wei said he's been with his girlfriend for six months, but his is not the youngest example. Cai Yimeng, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at a primary school in Chongqing, said one-third of the 36 students in her class are in relationships, including one couple that's been together for two years.

Qu Tingting, who teaches fourth-graders at Tairi School in Shanghai's Fengxian district, said she recently discovered a love letter written to a girl in the class that read: "It makes me really sad that I won't see you after next year." The boy's message came after the realization that if they move to different junior high schools after primary education, the children won't be able to meet daily.

The age at which students begin adolescent relationships also appears to be falling. Many now enter these relationships at age 12, whereas the average age in 2009 was 14, according to a recent survey conducted by the survey office in Harbin under the National Bureau of Statistics.

Many people said the figures accord with what they see in everyday life. "It's scary to see what kids are discussing in online chats and class yearbooks, almost all of which are about affection for an outstanding boy or gossip about their companions," said Shanghai resident Chen Yanli who has a 10-year-old daughter.

Wei said he is fascinated by his girlfriend's appearance and temperament, and he enjoys being adored. "Girls like handsome, athletic and humorous boys. None of the short ones in our grade has a girlfriend," he said. Moreover, Wei wants company and girls provoke a different feeling from that of being with other boys.

"Boys and girls separate themselves deliberately from middle school onwards, but we are curious about the opposite sex," said Wei. "Sometimes I feel bored in the company of boys, so I want to be with a girl."

The phenomenon of adolescent relationships has become a hot potato in China during recent years and many adults, especially the elderly, are often shocked at the intimacy displayed by pubescent, and sometimes prepubescent, children.

In the absence of national guidelines, some schools have issued their own regulations, labeling the relationships as "misconduct" and urging parents to intervene. Some establishments have reportedly banned boys and girls from being alone on campus and one school was alleged to have implemented a "safe distance" of 50 cm between students of the opposite sex, a claim the authorities denied.

However, becoming interested in and admiring the opposite sex is a normal part of the development process when young adults enter puberty, according to experts. "It is as natural as kids understanding the gender gap during the primary grades and then becoming estranged in elementary school, drawing a dividing line on a desk shared by a boy and a girl," said Wo Jianzhong, a professor at the School of Psychology at Beijing Normal University.

The fact that children are showing signs of physical maturity at a younger age explains why many students are starting relationships earlier than previous generations, according to doctors.

"About half of the girls experienced their first period before 12, and boys of the same age began to grow facial hair. But previously 14 was the usual age, a fact widely recognized by the medical profession," Yan Chunmei, deputy head of the puberty outpatient section of Beijing Children's Hospital, said in 2009.

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