Road toRomance


汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2016年3期


The different faces of dating in the modern Middle Kingdom

數不清的婚恋网站和交友APP, 千奇百怪的“把妹学”“女德班”,供不应求的古老职业“媒人”……所有这些, 都服务于当今年轻人“找对象”这件大事

The act of finding a partner should, in theory, involve two people, but the days of spotting ones mate across a crowded room seem over. In todays courting sphere, everyone is trying to get in on the action—from online startups and mega-sites to rural matchmakers and seduction superstars. Its old news that the dating game is worth a bit of money, but that cash varies depending on what people want, who theyre looking for, and how desperate they are to find that special someone. Online, the dating world is a smorgasbord of options catering to each and every taste, but there are, more often than not, a few sour ingredients involved. While much of the traditions of the past have faded into the internet realm, rural areas still maintain the importance of tradition and expertise, and modern matchmakers rise to fill this void. But, both of these options are perhaps different paths to the same goal: love, family, life; for the pick-up artists of China, who take their cues from a long line of sleaze, the goal is imminently more attainable.

Online sexcapades

The days of nagging parents trying to set up their sons and daughters with prospective dates, well, theyre still going strong in China, but now at least urban Chinese have a wealth of electronic means to find their own partner (or engage in casual sex) instead.

Clambering over the ailing computer-based matchmaking site, Momo, a mobile-app, has risen to the top of the heap with around 80 million users as of late 2015. As with most large-scale apps in China, Momo has had its brushes with the authorities; after being accused of harboring prostitution services, it has shifted its image away from primarily being a hook-up app to a more wholesome matchmaking option. To be fair, the service was, by many accounts, turning into a handy tool for prostitutes spreading salacious spam. If anything, Momo got off lucky; in May of 2015, the authorities shuttered over 100 websites for involvement in prostitution, regardless of whether prostitution was the intent or by-product of the site.

Wholesome, though, is often in the eye of the beholder, and those turned off by materialism might find certain aspects of Chinese online dating unappealing. Apps in China to a greater extent than in the West tend to include sections on peoples salary or earning power, because while it may not be a meat market, this market still demands hard currency. In all fairness, even the precursors to online dating, such as the signs put up in parks—scrutinized by parents acting as matchmakers—still listed salary as a key aspect of a partners desirability.

These days, online dating websites such as can even link to third-party credit-rating agencies to get the lowdown on the financial status of a potential match. But Baihe is hardly known for its sensitivity; in early 2014 it managed to enrage web users after a television advert suggested that people should get married merely to shut up their annoying relatives. It even included the line: “This year I must get married, even if [doing so] is just for my grandma”. For single Chinese women over 25, long the target of at least semi-officially sanctioned scorn for being “leftover women”, the message could not have been more irritating, as it encouraged already quick-to-judge relatives into piling on the marriage pressure and treated the suitability of a partner as almost irrelevant. The not-at-all subtle advertisement cranked the filial-piety angle up several notches by having the just-married woman able to inform said grandma of the marriage as the grandmother lay on her deathbed, her lifes sole purpose seemingly fulfilled.

Those interested in quick flings, however, need not fear. While the worlds most popular hook-up app Tinder is blocked in China, it has a presence in large cities among expats and Chinese interested in dating foreigners—and no, it has not become wholesome. Tinder is Tinder, even in China.

The vast majority of online Chinese daters, however, do not swipe right. Aside from Momo, there is also Tantan, though prospective users might be interested to note that Tantan was embroiled in controversy in 2015, when a Hong Kong based tech blogger stumbled upon massive security flaws. At the time, the app didnt seem to be encrypting user data at all. When the blogger, Larry Salibra, began poking around the code, he found that aside from certain salacious terms being censored, the lack of encryption meant a lot of data was visible to anyone with a modicum of technical knowledge.

“Much to my surprise, the information sent between my phone and Tantans server somewhere on the other side of the Great Firewall deep in Mainland China was completely readable,” he wrote. “I could see the password I had just entered, my phone number, and all the people I was being matched with. And if I could read it, that means any number of other people could as well.”

He went on to point out that info on marital status, sexual preferences, and hobbies were thus exposed, as were details of a persons phone address book if they opted to provide that information (which was suggested as an option, ironically, to give you assurance that those contacts would not see you were on Tantan if they were fellow users).

It was a particularly sensitive point, given the fact that in 2015 a scandal involving US based cheating-website Ashley Madison had made headlines after the private information of thousands of users was revealed to a voyeuristic public.

Salibra wrote that he emailed the company in March of 2015 and received no response, so he published the info online. Around eight months later, the CEO of Tantan got in touch with Salibra and said that the app was working on the issues he had raised and beefing up security.

But while the Ashley Madison hack made massive waves in the US, the Chinese headlines about online dating rarely register these kinds of privacy concerns at all. Instead, more titillating headlines dominate, whether they are lifting the lid on those who were scammed after the promise of sex, or the eternal wellspring of finger-wagging from the older generations about all that sex the young folk seem to be having.

It would seem that some things, regardless of country, never change.



Though seemingly worlds away from the online realm, rural romance is a little more traditional. Theres an old adage of the feudal age: “Marriage should be arranged by parents orders and the matchmakers words.” While this stage of history is over, it turns out that old matchmakers die hard. And, when one considers the lack of online services in Chinas more rural regions, this would obviously be where matchmakers shine.

Theyre sort of like marriage middlemen. Matchmakers help their clients find potential mates and take a wide range of roles in the marriage process, and its not surprising that this sort of service brings with it a relatively high income in these impoverished regions.

Its important to note that “matchmaker” is not exactly a job title; its a cultural mainstay. Whoever performs the act of getting a couple together and seeing it through to the end could be called a matchmaker, but it is still an important position. Even without money changing hands, the matchmaker holds an important position in the wedding party.

In reality, its not all that different from a dating website. Interested parties tell the matchmakers their requirements and their conditions and when the matchmaker finds someone suitable, a blind date is arranged. Thats all pretty standard eHarmony stuff, but the rural matchmaker takes things further. The matchmaker will then introduce the two families. If that goes well, then the matchmaker organizes an engagement dinner. After that, its all over but the crying.

But, sometimes, the sparks just wont fly; even then the matchmaker gets something out of it. As the saying goes, “successful or not, treat the matchmaker to dinner”. Its usually the male side that has to pay off the matchmaker at the end of a bad match—perhaps a few hundred yuan for the phone bills, maybe a nice dinner, candies, booze, cigarettes. Whatever it is, the matchmaker doesnt leave empty-handed.

Despite the matchmaker service being viewed as a dying practice, its already evolved into a business in some areas. Some matchmakers run restaurants where theyre often taken by their clients after a set up. “Of course we know about that, but thats the rule,” says a bachelor surnamed Sun in Liaohua, Liaoning Province, who has been led by a matchmaker to the same restaurant four times.

However, there is more myth and poetry to this position than first appears. This process was apparently derived from tradition, namely the “six ritual steps” or liuli (六禮), and each step requires a matchmaker. In tradition, the matchmaker would propose to the girl on behalf of the young mans family, in the process obtaining the girls shengchen bazi (生辰八字), which translates to “the date of birth and the eight characters of the horoscope”, for divination. Presents would be sent to the betrotheds family along with a date for the wedding. The wedding, for the matchmaker, was payday, the place where the matchmaker could receive her hongbao from the grooms family. Its a long way to go for a very tenuous paycheck.

Today, things are a bit simpler, but matchmakers also have an extra duty: negotiating the dowry.

In truth, like most bribes, its disguised as a gift. According to custom, the hopeful groom should give the brides family betrothal gifts before the wedding as reflection of the familys wealth and sincerity. Just a few decades ago, this was easy—a man only needed to prepare the “four big items” (四大件) for his marriage: a bicycle, a wristwatch, a radio, and a sewing machine. But, with modernity, those have transformed into jewelry, house, car, and cash. This can be quite a task for people with relatively low incomes, and with Chinas gender imbalance, families will do whatever they can to keep their children from becoming “leftover men”.

According to Beijing Youth Daily, over the past 20 years, there were more than 120 males born for every 100 females, and this imbalance has caused inflation in the price of a bride. Poor rural families, where young men cannot afford such dowries, are suffering the most.

As such, its a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of no fortune will be in want of a matchmaker. Matchmakers, with their rolodex of women in need of a husband, represent these unmarried men to negotiate with target women about the dowry, helping them to control the budget, kind of like love brokers.

But, lets not forget, matchmakers are also the profit-makers. As a result, hopeful young grooms can add a hefty “thank-you-matchmaker” hongbao to their list of wedding expenses. A century ago, the fee could be as low as a few dozen kuai. Today? It could be tens of thousands.

The young men, of course, arent the only ones in the equation. Prospective brides are lumped into different categories based on their appearance, age, family wealth, and education. The end result of that equation is the price of a rural bride. Take education background as an example: according to a report from the Chinas Youth Daily, in a village in Henan Province, women with a bachelors degree are worth a 150,000 RMB dowry, those with a three-year college education are worth 120,000 RMB, and those who graduated from vocational secondary schools deserve 100,000 RMB. The imbalanced gender ratio has also led to unbalance supply and demand in the marriage market. In certain places, a divorced woman without any education can still attract many suitors.

Matchmakers often share information and use their connections to share a take of the wedding booty. Sadly, though, this isnt behind the scenes work that ends with one matchmaker taking a single gift. Matchmakers try to involve as many people as they can in the matchmaker process. The China Youth Daily reported in 2014 that in Handan, Hebei Province, there was a marriage involving a total of 18 matchmakers.

“You should feel lucky that you can still find a girl for a blind date,” is what rural matchmakers often say to seal the deal.

Sexual discrimination gave birth to the gender imbalance, and now that gender imbalance is taking a toll in the form of matchmaker inflation. Its unclear what most matchmakers think of this, but theyll probably tell you—for a price.

- SUN JIAHUI (孫佳慧)


“Practice makes perfect!” 32-year-old Michael Yu emphasizes to his students outside a bar in Sanlitun, Beijing around 10 pm on a Saturday night. The four students, ranging in age from 28 to 35, all wear sneakers and have conspicuously moussed hair. This is their fourth class and each of them have to get at least three girls numbers and set up a date with at least one of them.

Yu is a “pick-up artist (PUA)”, a profession whose proponents claim to be masters of seduction, able to attract any women they want.

As a PUA with more than three years experience, Yu worried during his class that his students would be shy, afraid of rejection. Michael is not his real name. He likes to stay anonymous because his professional colleagues made a bit of a stink with a newspaper in southern China a while back, causing some pretty wide-ranging criticism of those in his line of work. “People say we shouldnt manipulate women or materialize them. I dont agree. Many men are frustrated because they dont know how to get along with women.”

Chinese single men, around 180 million, greatly outnumber single women. Getting a partner can involve a lot of competition.

Of course, this kind of professional pickup artist wasnt invented in China, coming to the country around 2008. Still, China learned pretty fast from those already in the field: Ross Jeffries, who first applied NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) to seduction; David DeAngelo, author of Double Your Dating who encouraged being “cocky and funny”; Neil Strauss, the former New York Times reporter who wrote The Game about “The Mystery Method”.

Local pick-up artists are a bit different from the Western world. According to Chengdu-based PUA, Xiaoxiaohu (nickname), for example, the first step of the “mystery method” is “peacocking”—using flashy clothes to attract a woman, but theres debate about whether this works in China. “There is no fixed style. Some PUAs also encourage men to use peacocking,” he says.

Nevertheless, the PUA promotional line is usually the same: “You dont have to be successful to be with a successful woman.” They take pride in reversing that stereotype.

Yu tells his students—referred to as “AFC”, an important moniker in the PUA world meaning “average frustrated chump”—that neither wealth nor appearance play a critical role. “Getting along with them, making them feel comfortable and curious and setting ‘traps are important,” he says.

In the last three lessons, Yu guided them in fashion, opening lines, and life stories. Theres such a wealth of acronyms and secret codes that one would be forgiven for thinking its some sort of clandestine organization or cult: IOI (indicator of interest), KINO (kinesthetics, touching), ASD (anti-slut defense), DHV (demonstration of higher value), and LMR (last-minute resistance).

The students have different goals. Some want to find a life partner, some want to become a professional PUA.

Before the students set off for the hunt, Yu checks, “Short jokes prepared?” Students nod. “Remember, do not tell everything on the first date. Be generous and be mysterious and dont forget to leave traps.”

The “traps” are things left unanswered after a conversation. For example: “My friend is in trouble, shes with the police now. It was nice talking to you.” This, Yu claims, makes the woman realize three things: first, that he is not a lonely predator; second, that he has female friends; and third, that he has an exciting back story.

Yu, 1.73-meters, wearing a white T-shirt, white sneakers, black frame glasses, and a grey hooded coat, was quite confident during his conversation with TWOC, even when he talked about his past failures. “They dumped me because I did not take control of the relationship in time,” Yu said. He used to work in a state-owned firm as an accountant but is now a full-time pick-up artist.

“I joined the PUA forums and started learning from different masters, imitating their conversations, and practicing in different venues—bars, bookshops, shopping malls,” he said.

One achievement he was particularly proud of was getting his ex back. Most of his previous students, according to him, also manage to find girlfriends quickly, but when being asked if they lasted, he replied, “Thats not important.”

So far, 55 students have taken his class in Sanlitun at 6,000 RMB a pop; the package includes both theory and real-life guidance. Like other PUA teachers, Yu summarizes his experiences and posts them on, an online PUA website with over 200,000 registered users, to attract more students.

There are various courses on offer. A fee of 3,000 RMB might cover a one-month package or just a three-day boot camp. No certificate is needed and the only requirements are how many women you have nailed and your storytelling skills.

“Once the students start dating, I stand by my phone to offer real-time suggestions,” Yu says.

PUA, as one might imagine, is controversial. Julien Blanc, a US-based pick-up artist was banned from entering the UK and Singapore after video showed him grabbing Japanese women on the street in Tokyo. China has been no different.

As the number of pick-up artist services have increased across the Middle Kingdom, so too have the different branches, some of which seem to have gone a bit too far. One of them is called “rapid sex” or “sutui” in Chinese. Liu Nian, representative of this branch, first became known by promoting his experience on, an online Q&A platform similar to Quora. Now he makes over 300,000 RMB a year, Vista Weekly reported.

Liu charges 8,000 RMB for a four-day course, teaching his students how to control facial muscles because he argues that every sexy moment comes from muscle control. Liu also offers his services for taking high-end photos, which feature organized men sitting or standing in fancy offices or restaurants. The price? Around 5,000 RMB. But, the bedrock of Lius philosophy of “rapid sex” is persistence, ignoring protestations.

Despite the normal arguments that this is bullying, manipulation, and quite possibly sexual harassment, much of the controversy has centered on promiscuity—rather missing the point, consent-wise. There is, however, no such controversy among the PUA community.

Jacob, a pick-up artist with, another online platform with annual revenue of over 50 million RMB, doesnt mind people saying PUAs and their adherents just want to “get laid”.

“If a man says he wants a steady and traditional relationship after a PUA class, then it must be because society holds negative attitudes toward us PUAs…No matter what people say, its hard to believe that young men want to settle down (before they experience enough),” Jacob says.

Fang Zhikai, 28, claiming to be a former student of Tango, Beijings most famous PUA, told TWOC that he could not help thinking “practicing” is just “using” girls to accumulate experience and add confidence to pick up more girls. “I was told not to worry because the more I experienced the more likely it would be for me to find true love. But from what Ive seen, not a single PUA or my fellow classmates have settled down,” Fang says.

While pick-up artists study different ways to get women into bed, the same option exists for women, though wildly different, and are viewed as pretty sexist themselves. Women, so they say, seek men who are well-educated, handsome, and it doesnt hurt if theyre extremely wealthy. In Beijing there is a moral education center for women teaching women how to do cosmetics, calligraphy, appreciate art, play golf, chess, and distinguish “blue chip” men, as well as how to spot a liar.

Its hard not to notice the differences between these two groups—but its not exactly hard to spot the similarities.