Beijing (China Daily/ANN) - 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.
Many parents said they don't hold overly conservative attitudes to puppy love because they are unwilling to overplay or overemphasize things that are part of the normal process of growing up. However, many said that they are disturbed by the public intimacy.
"It's common to see teenagers feeding each other ice cream or a girl sitting on a boy's lap when waiting for a bus," said a mother of a 14-year-old girl in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, who gave her name as Zhang. "I tell my daughter to avoid physical contact when she's alone with boys."
But sometimes the children's tricks are hard to detect. Many students said their classmates have borrowed identity cards from older kids to go to hotels. ID cards are required as part of the checking in procedure, but most people don't receive them until they are 16.
Wei refused to say if he has been to hotels with his girlfriend, but said his boarding school is near a college district, which has plenty of karaoke bars and hotels. "I believe that's the main reason my parents refused to apply for my ID card in advance," he said.
Zhang Wen, a 15-year-old girl from Shanghai, said many of her schoolmates date girls or boys from other schools to avoid the attention of teachers, and that hotel dates are an open secret among their peers.
"Some girls are excited about going to bed with handsome boys," she said. "They usually stay at economy inns for just a few hours because it's expensive to stay overnight and also family rules mean they have to go home."
"Hotels do not cross-check the photo on the ID card with the holder because they are familiar with teenagers' practices," she added.
A 15-year-old girl in Shanghai, surnamed Guan, said minors are following the rage for hotel dates because they think it's an international practice, something they've learned from US TV series.
"The free and open life in Gossip Girl - a US-based teen drama - seems fancy and we yearn for that," she said. "When we see how open they are, we believe that we behave too conservatively. We should learn from the West," she added.
In addition to the impact of foreign ideas, experts believe information available in the mass media may also give children the perception that cohabitation and shotgun marriages are fashionable.
"It seems that TV series nowadays have no other ideas (in their plots) than getting pregnant before marriage, cohabiting and divorce," said Professor Cui.
"And divorced men are often promoted as the successful ones, looking for new sweethearts and living in two-story houses, things that make children believe these men really outperform the others," she said.
However, the influence of the adults in each child's life is a more powerful factor than TV shows, according to experts. "People (adults) will ask each other questions, such as 'Haven't you dumped him?' or 'You're still with her?' when they get together. Sometimes that can give kids the impression that it's a sign of success to constantly change girlfriends and boyfriends," said Cui.
In addition, the speed with which some parents marry and divorce can change children's understanding of love and marriage, according to Shu Xin, director of the China Marriage and Family Affairs Consulting and Research Center, a non-governmental organization.
"Children will no longer think love and marriage are very serious if they see seniors showing an imprudent attitude in this respect," he said.
More than 2.11 million Chinese couples divorced in 2011, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The data show that the figure has risen by about 10 percent on average every year since 2007.
Children constantly absorb a huge amount of information from their parents and society, so adults should consider the appropriateness of some of their public pronouncements and the possible effect on minors.
Moreover, the adult belief that sexual awareness is inappropriate for children can cause problems too. "Some adults blush when they see billboards featuring scantily clad men and women, and that's hindering the development of teenagers," said Cui. "The relevant agencies should keep an eye on this to ensure prime-time TV series and commercials are healthy for minors."
Lawyers said it is understandable that hotels do not stop teenagers checking in, they are businesses after all, but they are obliged to give reminders and discourage the kids.
"Greater legislation efforts should be made, such as demanding detailed registration information when minors check in at hotels or simply banning them from staying at hotels without their guardians," said Yi Shenghua, an attorney at the Yingke Law Firm in Beijing.
"After all, it's just like cybercafes and karaoke bars that prohibit minors from entering the premises," he said.