'Will you marry me?' she says

Updated: 2012-02-29 09:23

By Tiffany Tan (China Daily)

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Talk about heartbreakingly romantic. In spring, 2011 at Wuhan University's Cherry Blossom Festival, a young woman climbed barefoot onto the hood of a red Volkswagen, clutching a bouquet of red roses. Resting against the car windshield were two cardboard signs with a message for her boyfriend: "Marry me."

If you're expecting a "yes", followed by a hug and a kiss, try again. The man said no. "The one proposing should be me," a netizen quoted him as saying, "but I don't have anything right now, so I don't dare propose or dare get married."

But he did give a pledge to his disappointed girlfriend.

"How about you give me three years. When I've made money to buy a house and a car, I'll ask for your hand in marriage. When the time comes, you must say yes." Ouch.

Had the woman lived in medieval Scotland, and proposed on a leap year, she would at least have gotten compensated for the rejection, according to numerous articles on the subject online.

Supposedly, a 1288 law by Queen Margaret of Scotland required that fines be levied if a marriage proposal was refused by the man. Compensation ranged from a kiss to a silk gown, in order to soften the blow.

Why was such a law created, how did men react to it and how did it affect social life?

It turns out there was no such law.

"The law of 1288 is spurious," says Roger Collins, an honorary fellow in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Scotland's University of Edinburgh.

Collins, a specialist in medieval British history, says Queen Margaret was only 5 years old and living in Norway when she supposedly enacted the law and that she died at age 7 without ever ruling Scotland.

"It is not a genuine law, and I do not know who invented the story," he says in an email.

But the account of women being given the "privilege" to propose to their sweethearts on a leap year persists. The story even began circulating on Chinese micro blogs in the weeks leading up to Feb 29 - supposedly the best date for such a proposal.

One reason for the tale's endurance could be Irish folklore, which even Hollywood used as a premise for the plot of the 2010 romantic comedy Leap Year.

The folklore goes that in the first century, St. Bridget met St. Patrick and complained that women did not have the right to propose marriage, says Patricia Lysaght, a professor in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics at Ireland's University College Dublin.

St. Patrick was apparently persuaded enough to suggest that they could have the opportunity every seven years, but St. Bridget negotiated for four years and won - the day in question being the extra day at the end of February, Lysaght says.

In present-day China, it does not seem to matter who pops the question or when - especially since formal proposals are not the norm in the country. Engagements often result from an agreement during an ordinary conversation between a man and a woman, sociologists say.

"In Chinese marriages, it seems hard to say which side should 'propose'," says Chen Xiaomin, a sociology professor and director of the Chinese Research Society on Marriage and Family. "Often, it's seen in which side takes the greater initiative or which side brings up the idea first.

"In the traditional Chinese culture of love and marriage, the man pursues the woman. But in modern times, there's been a growing number of women pursuing men."

Yu Lei, 26, admits to being one of them. In 2010, the native of Yulin, Guangxi province, proposed to her boyfriend of one year, certain she had found the right man.

"I have quite an aggressive personality," Yu says. "I have always believed that in matters of happiness, a woman should not wait around for things to happen."

Over instant messenger one day, she told her boyfriend Mo Xueliang, "Let's get married, OK?" A few months later, they were husband and wife.

Does Mo ever wish he had taken the initiative?

"No," says the 26-year-old digital software designer in Guangzhou. "I have quite a passive personality, and I like a bossy woman who tells me what to do."

But Mo does understand men who prefer to take the driver's seat - like the boyfriend who turned down the Cherry Blossom Festival proposal. He just advises a gentle approach. "If it's going to be a rejection, at least leave the woman with some dignity," he says.