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Love and marriage: China plays the dating game

By Ivan Watson and Connie Young, CNN
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Wed May 29, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thousands of single men and women gather for 'Love and Marriage' expo in Shanghai
  • Huge lists published with details of suitors -- such as age, height and income
  • Many adults attending event have never had a relationship, parents vet potential partners
  • Millions of Chinese have signed up with Internet dating services

Shanghai (CNN) -- It's called "Shanghai's 3rd Annual Love and Marriage Expo."

But the atmosphere at this massive gathering for single Chinese men and women was decidedly unromantic.

More than 18,000 people preregistered for the weekend event, located rather incongruously in a sprawling shopping complex specializing in home and office furniture.

The crowds were met by billboards posting lists of thousands of single men and women -- one list in pink and the other in blue. Within minutes of the doors opening on a rainy Saturday morning, visitors huddled to study the lists and take in vital intel about potential suitors -- age, height, education, annual income and their registered hometown, also known as hukou.

Some people took notes, while others snapped photos of single entries with their cellphones.

In one hall more than a hundred men and women in their twenties and thirties sat facing each other at tables decorated with red and yellow tablecloths, the soothing tones of a Norah Jones love song spilling out from loudspeakers.

It is one of the most talked about issues in Chinese society because a lot of educated women are left behind because they set a very high standard for their future husbands.
Song Li

"Welcome everybody to our 8-minute speed-dating event," announced the master of ceremonies eventually.

When the eight minutes was up, each dater was instructed to move on. "Male guests please move two seats to your left," boomed the announcer.

For some participants, this was the first time they had ever been on a date.

"It's useful...it's just like research," said Yixin Bai, a 20-year-old man home for the summer holidays from a university in Canada.

Bai said he has never had a girlfriend before. This is not uncommon amongst young Chinese, considering many teens are discouraged from having any romantic relationships in high school and told to focus on school work instead. He came to the expo to learn what women want from men.

"After asking them, I now know something: Women don't like men to rely on their parents," he said.

Bai was participating in a speed-dating event organized by Zhenai Inc., one of China's largest Internet match-making websites. The company says it has more than 58 million registered users and is growing by one million users a month.

Zhenai's founder and CEO is a Columbia University-educated former investment banker named Song Li. He says the one-child policy implemented by the Chinese government in 1979 has resulted in young adults having poor social skills -- crucial in the dating game.

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"A lot of kids who were born after 1980, they don't have siblings. So they grow up in an environment where you don't have the experience to meet with people of the opposite sex," Li opined.

Many participants said they came to the convention because they needed help. They said they found it difficult to meet potential romantic partners outside their immediate circle of friends and family.

And many Chinese approaching their late twenties, especially women, are under immense pressure to get married.

"My mother asks, 'Why are you still single? Are you a freak?'" said Elsie, a 26-year-old woman who was taking part in a speed-dating session.

The woman next to her, who asked to be called May and is also 26, said her father asked the same question.

"Everyone has the same story," said May laughing. "I feel free because I'm single... but I know this is the time I need to date somebody. I need to get married before thirty." Both women said they did not want to become shengnu, or the "leftover women."

"It is one of the most talked about issues in Chinese society because a lot of educated women are left behind because they set a very high standard for their future husbands ... and they are less willing, unlike their parents' generation, to compromise," said Zhenai's Li.

May, who has a good job in human resources at an international firm and speaks fluent English, said this was her first time at a match-making event. She said she had never had a boyfriend before or been in love.

"I have no time to get to know other males at a similar age ... that's why I can't find my Mister Right," she said. "I just wish that I have some luck today."

I have no time to get to know other males at a similar age ... that's why I can't find my Mister Right.
Exhibition attendee

Despite being rejected by two men, May was in good spirits. She said that the two men needed a women who had a registered hukou in Shanghai.

For a gathering of thousands of single men and women, it was surprising to note that there was very little flirting going on.

People wandered the corridors picking up brochures from match-making companies and stopped in to listen to self-help lectures from "life coaches," who were schooling women in how to "brand" themselves.

At times, the Love and Marriage Expo felt like a job fair.

Online match-making entrepreneur Li said that was an accurate comparison.

Finding a spouse is "almost like finding a job," he said.

"People tend to be very pragmatic," he explained. "[Being single] is a problem that you have an obligation to fix. And your parents feel that it is their obligation to see to it -- to get this problem fixed."

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Another startling revelation was that there were nearly as many parents at the Love and Marriage Expo as there were single men and women.

Some parents stood at the bustling entrance to the convention holding up printed posters advertising the details of their single children. Others walked alongside their adult sons and daughters, inspecting the booths of different match-making agencies.

One match-maker told CNN she had to prohibit parents accompanying their children to the speed-dating tables.

"I respect my parents' opinion," said May. "If my parents say this guy is no good, then I won't date [him]. But if my parents say this one is good, that they are happy with this boy, then I will try."

In some cases, mothers and fathers clearly played a role as social icebreakers for their children.

At one point, while wandering the corridors of the convention, May got a phone call. It was her father who was also there.

May found him standing next to another father he had just met.

The man happened to have a single son who worked in a bank and did not attend the convention. Fortunately he carried a photo -- and a passport -- of his son, which he showed to May.

"His picture looks good. A little bit handsome," May responded.

Then she stood somewhat awkwardly as the man's father took a photo of her in the crowded corridor. May's father looked over his counterpart's shoulder, murmuring advice as the digital image was taken.

May seemed pleased and grateful to the two dads.

"They are both trying to help their child find their Mr. Right and Miss Right."

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