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Beans spilled over secret coffee with a friend’s husband

The Year of the Dragon brings marriage-related suspicions and a sour response over lunch

The city began emptying a few days ago to the rattle of wheeled suitcases being dragged along pavements towards subways and railway stations. By Thursday, most restaurants in Beijing were closed, apart from those in shopping malls that are contractually bound to stay open, even during Chinese New Year.

The Spring Festival marks the start of the lunar Year of the Dragon on Saturday, but the Chinese calendar is lunisolar, a combination of 12 or 13 lunar months and 24 solar terms. The first solar term of the year began last Sunday, which was the start of spring and because this year includes a leap month to align the lunar calendar with the solar terms, next spring will not begin until after the end of the Year of the Dragon.

Years like this with no first day of spring are known as widow years and are regarded as unlucky ones in which to get married. According to superstition, women who marry during a widow year are more likely to lose their husbands to illness or death.

Having a child during the Year of the Dragon is viewed as auspicious and there are hopes that the number of births, which hit a record low of 9.02 million in 2023, might get a boost. But there is no sign of a halt to the decline in China’s marriage rate, which saw only 6.83 million marriages in 2022, half the record figure of 13.47 million in 2013, which was also a widow year.


When I mentioned the superstition to a friend over lunch the other day, she was unimpressed.

“Yeah, I know, no marriages this year. So what?” she said.

It was a sour response I thought, but as soon as she delivered it her face tightened back into the doll-like, dimpled smile she has adopted as a fixture in recent months. Her natural, resting face has her mouth open and turned downwards like the tragic mask of the theatre, but she has trained herself to keep smiling and the guard seldom drops.

Tell me, why would anybody want to get married?

“I met my friend’s husband for a secret coffee and he said she thinks he’s having an affair with me,” she said.

I said that having secret coffees might not be the best way to discourage her friend’s suspicions, but she said there was nothing to worry about.

“She’ll never find out. She was getting a cosmetic treatment so she was gone for hours,” she said.

The secret coffee was an innocent one, but my friend is not above suspicion and her affair with another married man ended last year with his wife punching her in a cinema. From the disdainful way she speaks about everything to do with marriage, one might never guess that she was once married herself.

It was long ago and far away from home and her parents thought the match was ill-judged, but they travelled to the wedding anyway and wished the couple well. A few months later, my friend was snooping through her husband’s emails when she found proof of something she had suspected for a while, that he had been carrying on with her best friend since the day after their wedding.

She closed the laptop, packed her bags, walked out the door, and never spoke to her husband again, ignoring his calls and messages until he gave up trying. She came home to her parents and they welcomed her back, took care of her while she repaired her life and never spoke about the marriage again.

She will spend new year with them as she does every year and she spends most of her holidays with her mother, who has dementia, giving her father some time on his own. Since the onset of her mother’s illness a couple of years ago, she has seen a softening in her father’s manner as his old impatience has melted away.

I was thinking about all of this while she told me about how the secret coffee husband felt trapped in his marriage to her friend, who in turn had lost all feeling for him. She went on to catalogue the other unhappy marriages among her friends and relations, their affairs, betrayals and stand-offs.

We were in a shopping mall and all around us were couples, many of them with children and most of whom looked at least as happy as either of us. My friend’s smile looked tighter and her dimples deeper.

“Tell me, why would anybody want to get married?” she said.