In China, women are often still seen as a commodity, a product that begins to lose value after turning 24, the average age of marriages there. “Whenever I talk to my mother, she gets mad at me because I still don’t have a boyfriend,” says Dream, a 28-year-old woman from Hubei. “My parents met in our village, their families were close friends. It was another time and they can’t understand where I am coming from.”
She has been living in Shanghai for several years, and here, as in many other big cities, women who are well-educated and earn good salaries can have a hard time finding somebody. “Chinese men want somebody to serve them and to be a housewife,” Dream says. Women her age are known by the term “Sheng Nu,” literally “leftover women.” Victims of social pressures, some turn to educational services, such as the classes on “How to find a boyfriend” given by the Weime Club. Out of this social climate, a multimillion-dollar industry has emerged that exploits the fears and loneliness of a generation.
Eric, the president of the Weime Club, has been teaching classes like this for more than 10 years. At first, they focused exclusively on male clients, but they have been shifting toward a female audience. “The cost of one month of classes is 6,000 yuan (around $800), so we realized that the men who could afford it had no trouble finding a wife,” he says before a class. “Today we will learn how to meet people on dating websites,” Eric explains while he opens a neatly organized Excel file. “Here I have compiled a list of the 150 women I have sent messages to last week, ranked according to beauty and intelligence.”
Eric’s classes are extremely results-oriented and resemble a collection of tricks on how to meet people that a pickup artist would use. At the end of the afternoon he chooses two students to take for hands-on training. “The goal is to meet as many guys as possible, so you can choose the best ones,” he explains while drinking a latte at a popular shopping mall in Shanghai. The students were told to pretend they had run out of battery life on their phones and to approach men, asking for a photograph. “After he takes your picture, you ask him to send it to you. This way you already have his number,” suggests Eric with a cheeky smile. Over the last few years, more and more such companies have cropped up in the ever-expanding Chinese cities.
Diamond Love, a matchmaking agency in Shanghai, caters to extremely rich clients. “Each search can cost between 10,000 yuan ($1,500) and 1 million yuan ($150,000), the price depends on the duration and the number of cities where we search,” says Xu Tian Li, the CEO of the company. The search begins with a team of “love hunters” who search the streets for suitable candidates. “Out of 100 women, we select 10 and our client chooses one,” he says. Tian Li was a successful IT executive but suffered from the loneliness that plagues many young men and women in China. He discovered that there wasn’t a company that helped wealthy customers too busy to find love on their own, and decided to start his own.
“Hi, I’m a ‘love hunter,’ are you looking for love? ” is the line that Judy has been practicing for the last eight years. She is a 40-year-old “hunter” at Diamond Love. The hope is that it will intrigue the women she is looking for, making them stop and listen for more. Today she has come with her team to a hip shopping district near Xintiandi. Judy scouts the streets and shops, searching for a girl who might fit the profile: she must be young, tall, beautiful and have white skin. She resembles a lioness, perched atop a hill, as she searches the terrain, looking for a suitable match. “The first thing a love hunter needs to learn is how to deal with rejection. The second one is patience,” she explains. When the right girl comes along, Judy is quick to pounce.
“At first it was very strange when she told me that,” says Sun Min Jien, a 24-year-old business graduate. “But I thought this would be an easy way to find someone who wants a serious relationship, or even marriage.” Although she may be considered young from a Western perspective, in China she has already passed the ideal age for marriage.
In the late 1970s, faced with a demographic boom, Deng Xiaoping’s government rolled out the one-child policy, limiting the number of children each couple could have. This generation was born at an influx point in China’s history and has benefited from a newfound material abundance. However, a rise in loneliness and family pressures also accompanied this economic growth. According to a study published in Science magazine, the children born after this policy was enacted are considerably more pessimistic, risk-averse and less competitive.
On weekends at People’s Park in Shanghai, hundreds of eager parents meet at the “Marriage Market,” as it is known among locals — holding paper ads or pasting them to umbrellas, trading contact information, hoping to find a match for their children. For some older single women, this market is their last resort for finding a match. “I have been coming here for the last few months, but I haven’t had any luck,” confesses Flora, a 43-year-old accountant from Shanghai. “My situation brings great shame to my parents, who would be at peace if I got married.”
Today, there is a big gender imbalance in Chinese society: parents were more likely to abort female fetuses than male ones, under the one-child policy. Experts say that by 2020, more than 30 million men won’t be able to find wives, a problem which is more severe in the rural areas. “In the big cities, highly successful and educated women are the ones that suffer the most pressures because they are single, have a good job and a good life,” Dream says after one of her classes. “But my parents don’t really know that. When they call, I feel worthless, so it is easy to forget about everything else.”