Why More Chinese Singles Are Looking for Love Online

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Grace Liang / Reuters

Participants talk to each other during a matchmaking event held by an online dating company at Ditan Park in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2011

"It's the accuracy of the photos compared to real thing that's the biggest problem," says Power Li, a 32-year-old civil servant. "You see a girl on the website who you quite like the look of, but then when you ask her out you find they look nothing like their online photos."

Ah, modern love. With a steady career and his own house and car, the 32-year-old Beijinger is settled, successful, upwardly mobile and part of a new craze sweeping china — online dating. Li says his subscription to online dating site Jiayuan.com offers the perfect solution to the one area of his life where he has yet to find success. "I'm always busy at work, and my social circle is very small," Li says. "It would be too awkward to ask my colleagues out. So the internet offers a much broader circle of people, and many more choices."

Power is just one of millions of Chinese people who are turning to online dating as a solution to relationship woes in a society where the social pressure to find a partner can be oppressive. Chinese parents commonly expect their sons or daughters to be married by the time they're 30. There is even a word for those who are 'left on the shelf' in their thirties: shengnan and shengnv, literally a "left-over man" or "left-over woman."

The pressure to find a mate at all costs has been blamed for rocketing divorce rates, which reached a new peak in 2010. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, close to two million couples registered for divorce last year, or 1.5 divorces per one thousand people. It's still low compared to, say, the U.S., where there are 5.2 divorces per thousand, but the figure in China is rising fast.

Dating pressure is also driving a major boom in online dating, as millions of China's singletons log on to find love, particularly for men. According to research by the National Women's Union and Jiayuan's competitor Baihe.com, China currently has 180 million bachelors, up to half of whom are thought to be looking for love online. And after three decades of the 'one child policy', a societial bias towards male progenies has meant that for every 100 females there are 119.45 males, an imbalance that is driving competition for partners among males. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by 2020 there will be 24 million more men of marriage age than women.

Those numbers mean big business. It's estimated that online dating sites attracted three million paying customers last year, who collectively spent more than $150 million. Like their foreign counterparts, websites like Jiayuan.com, Baihe.com and Zhenai.com allow subscribers like Power to create online profiles, browse listings of thousands of potential partners around the country and attend offline mix-and-mingle events with like-minded singles for a monthly fee. For a little more, the websites offer targeted match-making services and will arrange dates for members without the time or inclination to browse through the multitudes of profiles of singles. "Revenues are rising fast. We expect to take in 200 to 300 million RMB ($30 to $45 million) this year," says Li Song, founder of Zhenai.com, one of China's three largest dating sites. Li says a six-month membership – more than half the average wage in Beijing — buys users the services of a professional matchmaker to arrange dates and provide feedback and advice to the client. "So far, we helped more than 2 million members find steady relationships," he claims.

But online dating websites are not the only players angling for a piece of this booming business. Chris "Tango" Wu, a 26 year-old self-styled "professional pick-up artist," spends his time teaching his many and varied pick-up tricks to single male students eager to learn how to meet women. His students pay a premium rate to attend Tango's intensive training sessions that last from 3 days to a full week and feature classroom-style lectures followed by practical experience 'in the field.' Business, says Tango, has never been better. "I had to take down my advertisement for my most recent class because it was so popular," Tango says.

That his services have been so successful came as no surprise to Tango, who sees rising standards of affluence, combined with the social stigma of being a single thirty-something, driving demand for creative solutions to problems of the heart. "When a man has enough food to eat, water to drink and air to breathe, the next thing he needs to find is a woman," Tango says. "A man in his 30s would be willing to pay you more than half of his savings —sometimes even his entire savings — if you can teach him how to get a girlfriend."

Since starting his online dating subscription almost a year ago, Power Li has gone out on a number of dates — "more than 5" he offers coyly — with women he met online. But, he says, he is still looking. "I did meet several girls that I thought I'd like to get to know better, but I have to wait for feedback from them to see if any of them liked me," he says. "So basically, I'm still searching for my future wife."