By Pan Wang*
Since the mid-2000s, China’s street parks have become new tourist attractions and popular venues for marriage matchmaking. Organised by parent volunteers attempting to find a partner for their children, these ‘marriage matchmaking corners’ or xiangqinjiao can be seen in cities across China.
Many of these parents grew up in the Maoist era (1949–1976) in which they hardly experienced romance or dating due to the political nature of the period. Their children, on the other hand, were born mainly in the opening-up period of the 1980s and 90s. They face the effects of the one-child policy (1980–2015) — coupled with the ingrained preference for sons and access to ultrasound technology and sex-selective abortion — that has distorted China’s sex ratio by producing millions of extra men of marriageable age.
This imbalance has been exacerbated with more and more women choosing to pursue higher education or career advancement, delaying their marriage plans. The rising cost of living and unaffordable housing of recent years has further discouraged people from seeking a partner or getting married.
While parents are desperate to find partners for their children, media outlets have ventured into the dating and marriage matchmaking market. Over the past 20 years, dating shows such as Red Rose Date and If You are the One have become enormously popular, winning the hearts of tens of millions of people. They have made watching others date on TV and gossiping about it a part of everyday life, provoking the public to reflect on love, dating and marriage in China.
From the mid-2000s, private agencies, dating websites and dating apps proliferated. Privately run dating camps and events target singles, teaching them how to date and attract the opposite sex, and create dating opportunities through social gatherings like cooking classes, hiking and afternoon tea.
Popular Chinese dating websites and apps like Zhen’ai, MoMo and TanTan have hundreds of millions of registered users. Gay dating digital networks also grew popular to meet the needs of China’s growing LGBTQI+ community. While many users have found love through these digital dating networks, others remain content with platonic-style romance in the virtual world.
China’s economic reform has also boosted opportunities for international romance. From the 1980s, Chinese-foreign romance was no longer perceived as ‘bourgeoise’ as in the Cultural Revolution, with a rising number of Chinese women entering Chinese–foreign marriages.
Foreign romances invited controversy against a backdrop of growing political sensitivity towards the West. Critics equated Chinese women’s ‘upward’ dating and marriage mobility with ‘western fever’ and ‘western worshiping’ and their foreign partners were dubbed as ‘green cards’ and ‘flight tickets’. But despite the controversy, Chinese–foreign romance continued to grow. Around 80,000 couples registered a Chinese–foreign marriage in 2001 compared to 8,460 couples in 1979. Entering the new millennium, China’s record-breaking economic achievement and its rising international status reversed the migration patterns of Chinese–foreign couples, with many now choosing to reside in China.
From the early 2010s, Chinese singles, primarily in their 20s and 30s, have started running their own services on date-renting platforms. Common services include meeting friends, having dinner dates, watching films, playing games, travelling or having a personal conversation. Prices, sometimes negotiable, vary from free to thousands of dollars.
Through these trading platforms, dating has become a privatised, contractual and tailored service among netizens. Love and dating are initiated through financial transactions and dating practice provides opportunities for love, friendship and other close relationships. Such commodified intimacy can be maintained as a durable economic relationship or converted to friendship, authentic romance or other types of relationships.
On the positive side, date-renting has provided a solution to growing loneliness in China, especially for single men who are unable to find a date due to their disadvantaged status in the marriage market. But it raises concerns around authenticity, information security and personal safety, such as scams, deception, prostitution and fake marriage.
While date-renting has attracted a rising number of singles to trade relationships, it has discouraged people seeking real dates or long-term relationships. This aligns with the paradoxical logic of the date-renting agencies — while supporting singles to find dates, agencies need to sustain their growth by retaining and attracting more singles. Date-renting will likely increase the number of singles and attract more people working as ‘dating professionals’. Dating has become an object for consumption and a business for individuals and firms to capitalise on.
AI technology has provided another platform for lonely hearts to find love. In recent years, a growing number of Chinese people have started to date virtual robots. Xiaoice, a chatbot developed by Microsoft, has become a loyal date to millions of people in China, especially males from lower-income backgrounds. The dating simulation game Love and Producer (Lian yu zhizuoren) has similarly become a sensation for millions of young women since its launch in 2017. The mobile game has been downloaded more than 7 million times, with over 4 million daily active users.
While a number of people date for entertainment or digital experimentation, the growing popularity of AI dating and dating simulation also reflects the rising level of loneliness in China and the harsh reality of those unable to find a partner in real life. As dating is no longer exclusively person-to-person, it will likely enhance China’s already weakened dating–marriage link. And as AI couples cannot achieve the goal of carrying on the family line, it is unlikely to contribute to the Chinese government’s goal of elevating birth rates.
While many Chinese parents uphold the conventional notion that marriage is the end goal of dating and desperately seek a potential son- or daughter-in-law on street park marriage corners, their children may have other plans. Perhaps they are waiting for an arranged date, are in a date-renting contract, falling in love with a digital boyfriend or girlfriend, or plan to ‘forever-date’ without entering into a marriage at all.
*About the author: Pan Wang is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese and Asian Studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.