(CNN)Two years ago, Joanne Su was anxious about turning 30 years old.
She worked for a foreign trade company in China's southern metropolis of Guangzhou, earned a decent income and spent her weekends hanging out with friends. But to Su and her parents, there was one problem -- she was single.
"Back then, I felt like 30 years old was such an important threshold. When it loomed closer, I came under tremendous pressure to find the right person to marry -- both from my parents and myself," she said.
Now 31, Su is still single, but says she is no longer worried. "What's the point of making do with someone you don't like, and then divorcing in a couple of years? It's only a waste of time," she said.
Su is among a growing number of Chinese millennials who are postponing or eschewing marriage entirely. In just six years, the number of Chinese people getting married for the first time has fallen by a crushing 41%, from 23.8 million in 2013 to 13.9 million in 2019, according to data released by China's National Bureau of Statistics.
The decline is partly due to decades of policies designed to limit China's population growth, which mean there are fewer young people in China available to be married, according to Chinese officials and sociologists. But it's also a result of changing attitudes to marriage, especially among young women, some of whom are growing disillusioned with the institution for its role in entrenching gender inequality, experts say.
In extreme cases, some even took to social media to insult wives as being a "married donkey," a derogatory term used to describe submissive women who conform to patriarchal rules within marriage, said Xiao Meili, a leading voice in China's feminist movement.
"This kind of personal attack is wrong, but it shows the strong fear towards marriage felt by many. They hope all women can realize that marriage is an unfair institution to both the individual, and to female as a whole, and thus turn away from it," said Xiao, who once walked 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) to call for reform of China's child sexual abuse laws.
The declining marriage rate is a problem for Beijing.
Getting young people to have children is central to its efforts to avert a looming population crisis that could severely distress its economic and social stability -- and potentially pose a risk to Chinese Communist Party rule.
"Marriage and reproduction are closely related. The decline in the marriage rate will affect the birth rate, which in turn affects economic and social developments," Yang Zongtao, an official with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said at a news conference last year.
"This (issue) should be brought to the forefront," he said, adding that the ministry will "improve relevant social policies and enhance propaganda efforts to guide the public to establish positive values on love, marriage and family."
In 2019, China's marriage rate plunged for the sixth year in a row to 6.6 per 1,000 people -- a 33% drop from 2013 and the lowest level in 14 years, according to data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
Chinese officials have attributed the decline to a drop in the number of people of marriageable age, due to the one-child policy, a deliberate strategy introduced in 1979 to control China's population.
But demographers have been warning for years of a looming population crisis. In 2014, the country's working-age population started to shrink for the first time in more than three decades, alarming Chinese leaders.
The next year, the Chinese government announced an end to the one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children. It went into force on January 1, 2016, but both marriage and birth rates have dropped anyway. Between 2016 and 2019, birth declined from 13 per 1,000 people to 10 -- a trend not helped by the fact women are emancipating and millennials have different values.
The decline of marriage is not unique to China. Across the globe, marriage rates have fallen over the past few decades, especially in richer Western countries. Compared with other East Asian societies like Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, China still has the highest marriage rate, said Wei-Jun Jean Yeung, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore who has studied marriage and family across Asian societies.
But no other country has tried to social engineer its population in the way China did with its one-child policy.
That policy has also affected marriages in other ways, Yeung said. Chinese families' traditional preference for sons has led to a skewed sex ratio at birth, especially in rural areas. Currently, China has a surplus of more than 30 million men, who will face a hard time looking for brides.
Social economic changes
Demographic changes alone don't explain the drastic drop in China's marriage rate. Women are becoming more educated, and economically more independent.
In the 1990s, the Chinese government accelerated the rollout of nine-year compulsory education, bringing girls in poverty-stricken areas into the classroom. In 1999, the government expanded higher education to boost university enrollments. By 2016, women started outnumbering men in higher education programs, accounting for 52.5% of college students and 50.6% of postgraduate students.
"With increased education, women gained economic independence, so marriage is no longer a necessity for women as it was in the past," Yeung said. "Women now want to pursue self-development and a career for themselves before they get married."
But gender norms and patriarchal traditions have not caught up with these changes. In China, many men and parents-in-law still expect women to carry out most of the childcare and housework after marriage, even if they have full-time jobs.
"The whole package of marriage is too hard. It's not just marrying someone, it's to marry the in-laws, take care of children -- there are a lot of responsibilities that come with marriage," Yeung said.
Meanwhile, job discrimination against women is commonplace, making it difficult for women to have both a career and children.
"More and more young women are thinking: Why am I doing this? What's in there for me?" said Li Xuan, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University Shanghai who researches families. "(The gender inequality) is really making young Chinese female hesitate before getting into the institution of marriage."
To make matter worse, the grueling long hours and high pressure at work have left young people little time and energy to build relationships and maintain a family life, Li said.
Statistics show both genders are delaying marriage. From 1990 to 2016, the average age for first marriages rose from 22 to 25 for Chinese women, and from 24 to 27 for Chinese men, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The figures in big cities are even higher. For example, in Shanghai in 2015, the average age for first marriages was 30 for men and 28 for women.
Su, the 31-year-old from Guangzhou, has often heard from married friends about the burden that comes with married life.
"Nowadays, women's economic capability has improved, so it's actually quite nice to live alone. If you find a man to marry and form a family, there will be much more stress and your life quality will decrease accordingly," she said.