Valentines Day is a time for couples to celebrate romance by exchanging chocolate and overpriced flowers. Not so in China. Qixi, the Chinese lovers’ festival held on Thursday, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar calendar, is an occasion marketed heavily towards the new generation of middle class, urban-dwelling, singletons.
Millions of 20 and 30-somethings across China will go out on Friday on the lookout for love. It is an endeavour the ruling Communist Party – not usually known for playing Cupid – wholeheartedly encourages. Thirty-six years since the one child policy was introduced and China has one of the world’s fastest ageing populations. The UN estimates that by 2050, the number of Chinese seniors aged over 60 will reach 440 million, bigger than the population of America.
At the same time the fertility rate is dropping. According to the sixth national census, the fertility rates of China’s three north-eastern provinces, Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning respectively are 1.03, 1.03 and 1.0 births per woman, lower than Japan and Korea, whose ageing population has already endangered their economy.
On the mainland, this has caused the labour market to shrink. In 2014, the country’s working-age population, defined as those between the ages of 16 and 59, dropped to 915.8 million, according to Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics – a drop of four million in a year.
By encouraging young people to tie the knot and, more importantly, have children, the government is trying to limit these worrying economic side effects – decelerating in economic growth and rising labour costs. In order to find love, social status and parental approval, Chinese singles are taking matters into their own hands by devising new – and sometimes unorthodox – methods to connect with the opposite sex.
In Beijing and Shanghai, mass blind date events, held in parks and stadiums, are on the rise. They draw crowds of several thousands of people, who flock to connect with other singles in search of a spouse, sometimes coming on behalf of their relatives.
They are chaotic, overcrowded affairs, which can last for entire days, stretching into the night, and a modern spin on China’s old marriage markets: parent-only gatherings, where the CVs, photograph and degree certificates are traded.
Zhu Shenyong, 38, is the founder of Huiai Family Institute in Shanghai, a new type of industry that has sprung up to teach people how to date and stay happily married.
“Why is dating on the rise? I think there are three main reasons. First, people are getting worried, they want to find someone and settle down as soon as possible. People born in 1980s and 1990s, want to have a child by the time they are 30. When I teach about love, they tell me ‘I don’t want training, I want a boyfriend or girlfriend!’
“The second reason is due to the fast pace of modern life. The third reason is that people are focused on work and lack the opportunity to meet other people,” said Mr Zhu.
Earlier this month, 30,000 people attended a blind date event held at a water park in Hangzhou city, north of Shanghai. Prospective beaux were asked to measure the busts of female daters in order to get to know them better. Others had a tug of war. While women were instructed to remove their make up to discourage men from making shallow judgements.
“I think the social pressure is amplified by the media. Like today is Qixi. Lots of websites are posting messages saying people who are single should feel bad today. Similarly, those mass dating events with 10,000 people will also get people nervous and add to the psychological pressure,“ said Mr Zhu.
Some daters prefer the old-fashioned approach of relying on family networks to make romantic introductions. Xiong Ge, 26 from Shanghai is one of them.
The Xiong family recently moved to Morocco to relocate the family business manufacturing plastic moulds. Mr Xiong visits China for at least a month each year. This year he manages to cram in six dates.
“The pressure to get a girlfriend mainly comes from parents. They are pretty anxious. My parents were already married at my age. Whenever I see my friends and relatives, they always ask me when am I going to get married.”
“My main problem is my social circle is too narrow. There’s nothing I can do. I didn’t turn to WeiXin [a social media app] or online dating sites because I’m looking for someone to get married with, not hook up with.”
However, for other love-seekers mobile dating apps have opened exciting new possibilities. Lian Ai Me Me Da (or ‘Love Kiss Kiss’), which launched in 2014, allows its member to hire fake girlfriends and boyfriends, that is, attractive young stranger who will engage in couple-like activities with you – such as, meeting your parents, cooking dinner at home and watching a film on the sofa.
For just 100 yuan per hour (£10) Diu Diu, a pretty 21-year-old student from Nanjing city, will play tennis with you. For 300 yuan per hour (£30 per hour), 26-year-old office worker Ou Chen will sing at KTV. At this time of year, daily sign-ups are in the hundreds.
“Lots of people think this service is new and interesting. Some members sign up because they want to pretend to have a girlfriend of boyfriend, while others are looking for marriage. Around 80 per cent of the people who want to hire a girlfriend to spend Qixi with are from the post-90s generation.” Lian Ai’s owner told Lu Wei told local site China News on Tuesday.
“It’s more than purely renting relationship, we are creating a social platform for young people,” he added.