XIN"AN VILLAGE, HANZHONG, China -- With no eligible women in his village, Zhou Pin, 27 years old, thought he was lucky to find a pretty bride whom he met and married within a week, following the custom in rural China.
Ten days later, Cai Niucuo vanished, leaving behind her clothes and identity papers. She did not, however, leave behind her bride price: 38,000 yuan, or about $5,500, which Mr. Zhou and his family had scrimped and borrowed to put together.
When Mr. Zhou reported his missing spouse to authorities, he found his situation wasn"t unique. In the first two months of this year, Hanzhong town saw a record number of scams designed to extract high bride prices in a region with an oversupply of bachelors.
The fleeing Mrs. Zhou was one of 11 runaway brides -- hardly the isolated case or two that the town had seen in years past. The local phenomenon has fueled broader speculation among officials that the fast-footed wives may be part of a larger criminal ring.
"She called me soon after she left," says Mr. Zhou, a slight man with a tentative smile. He says she asked how he was doing, and apologized for the hardship she had caused. "I told her, "I will see you again one day." "
Thanks to its 30-year-old population-planning policy and customary preference for boys, China has one of the largest male-to-female ratios in the world. Using data from the 2005 China census -- the most recent -- a study published in last month"s British Journal of Medicine estimates there was a surplus of 32 million males under the age of 20 at the time the census was taken. That"s roughly the size of Canada"s population.
Now some of these men have reached marriageable age, resulting in intense competition for spouses, especially in rural areas. It also appears to have caused a sharp spike in bride prices and betrothal gifts. The higher prices are even found in big cities such as Tianjin.
A study by Columbia University economist Shang-Jin Wei found that some areas in China with a high proportion of males have an above-average savings rate, even after accounting for factors such as education levels, income and life-expectancy rates. Areas with more men than women, the study notes, also have low spending rates -- suggesting that many rural Chinese may be saving up for bride prices.
Curbing consumption in hopes of connubial pleasure is increasingly the norm in Xin"an Village, or New Peace Village, a lushly verdant spot with 14,000 people, located in central China"s Shaanxi province. The village has over 30 men of marriageable age, but no single women.
As in other parts of the country, village customs dictate the groom"s family pay the bride"s family a set amount -- known as cai li -- while the bride furnishes a dowry of mostly simple household items.
In the 1980s, before the start of China"s economic reforms, cai li sums were small.
"When I married, my husband just bought me several sets of clothes," recalls Zhang Shufen, Mr. Zhou"s mother.
In the 1990s, cai li prices rose to several thousand yuan (about $200 to $400 at today"s conversion rates), mirroring the country"s growing prosperity. But it was only starting in 2002-03 that villagers noticed a sharp spike in cai li prices, which shot up to between 6,000 to 10,000 yuan -- several years" worth of farming income.
Not coincidentally, this was also the period when the first generation of children since the family-planning policy was launched in 1979 started reaching marriageable age.
So the normally frugal Xin"an villagers began saving even more in anticipation of rising wedding costs. While the Zhous are fairly well-off by village standards, they had been scrimping for years, growing their own vegetables and eating mainly rice and noodles, with little meat. The family had curbed spending in anticipation of wedding costs for their son who was working in southern Chinese factories. The hope was that he would return with a prospective mate in tow.
But when the younger Mr. Zhou returned home a year ago, he was still single. "In our village, when a boy is older than 24, 25, it is a shame on him for not marrying," says his mother.
Last December a family friend told his mother that her nephew recently married a girl from neighboring Sichuan province. The bride had three female friends visiting her, who might be interested in marrying local men, said this friend.
Encouraged, Mr. Zhou and his mother met the three girls the next day. After an hour"s chat with the trio, who claimed to be ages 23, 25 and 27, Mr. Zhou found himself drawn to the prettiest and youngest, Ms. Cai, who had angular features and an ivory complexion.
He proposed marriage. She agreed, with one proviso: cai li of 38,000 yuan, or roughly five years" worth of farm income. The Zhous agreed, but took the precaution of running a quick background check. Tang Yunshou, Xin"an"s Communist Party secretary, said Ms. Cai"s identity and residential papers checked.
Three days later the couple registered their union at the local registrar"s office. They posed for studio shots, with the bride in a creamy satin gown, the groom in a tuxedo. In one shot, they wear traditional garb, the bride pretending to light a string of firecrackers. Mr. Zhou mugs a grimace, hands to his ears.
They held the wedding banquet a week later, on Jan. 4, where Mr Zhou"s mother formally handed over the dowry -- half of it loans from family members -- to a woman she believed to be Ms. Cai"s cousin.
The new bride took up residence with her in-laws, and quickly found favor with her diligent and respectful ways, said Mrs. Zhou. "I treated her better than my own daughter," she said. A red electric scooter, with ribbons on the handles, sits in the living room, a wedding present for Ms. Cai.
Matrimony was catching. Two neighbors sought Ms. Cai out, and asked her to act as matchmaker for their sons. Ms. Cai recommended two girls within a few days. The neighbors each paid 40,000 yuan in cai li.
On Jan. 28, all these brides vanished, leaving the villagers reeling.
While there are no nationwide statistics, wedding scams have occurred before, but usually isolated cases. Mr. Tang, Xin"an"s Communist Party secretary, says he has never before seen such clusters of cases. Most of the 11 families involved lost an average of 40,000 yuan. Officials consider these to be fraud cases. So if caught, the women could serve jail time, according to police.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zhou is still lovelorn. "I feel I can"t hate her," says the deserted husband, who is now so depressed his parents have forbidden him to leave the village, as he longs to. "She must have her own troubles."