BEIJING — Several hundred people are gathered in Zhongshan Park, just next to the Forbidden City, in the heart of Beijing. Carefully lined up along pathways framed by high red walls and venerable cypresses, they are surprisingly subdued. Each of them — all adults of a certain age — stands behind a small piece of paper placed on the cement slabs. Several tap their feet to fight against the cutting cold of this winter afternoon.
The pieces of paper (small posters really) are protected by laminated pockets and pinned to the ground by stones. They contain inscriptions, either printed or handwritten. Some are decorated with photos of young people. The gathering is a market of sorts. Only the items on offer, it turns out, are people — single people, to be precise.
The "singles market" is organized by parents hoping to marry off their adult children. The posters are in fact advertisements, written by the parents to catch the eye of customers. Li Qian is a 30-year-old employee at an accounting firm, one of the announcements reads. She was "born to a cultivated family" and gifted with a "fine and delicate face," it explains.
Others highlight the person's assets, such as a car or a "two-room apartment close to the second ring road" — a well-off neighborhood. The selection of suitors is equally demanding. One flyer makes it clear they're seeking a "kind" man "measuring between 5'6" and 5'9"." He must be a native of Beijing, own a car and have "a stable income," it goes on to say. Another family is looking to match their son with a woman born after 1986 — but not in 1988 — because the zodiac sign that year (dragon) could be in conflict with that of her son's. He was born in 1982, year of the dog.
These desperate matchmakers meet in the 600-year-old park every Thursday and Sunday afternoon. Similar "markets" exist elsewhere in the capital, and in China's other major cities. The strict tradition of arranged marriage, which governed male-female relations in China for millennia, including during the Maoist era, has certainly become more flexible since the 1980s. Children now have more liberty to marry someone of their choosing. And yet, in a society still bathed of Confucian culture, elders continue to interfere in the love life of the next generation, either by using "veto power" to challenge a match they deem financially or socially unsuitable, or by pressuring young people — who are getting married later and later in China — to hurry up and find someone.
One of those parents is Li Jianhua, 60. He wears a baseball hat with a hood over it, and has his sign pinned on his coat. His goal is simple: to have a grandson or granddaughter. "At 37 years old, it's time for my son to get married. But at work he only interacts with other men," the frustrated father explains. He says he introduced several women to his son, but to no avail. "Here’s one that I found. But he didn’t even contact her," he said, showing off a charming portrait on his cell phone.
Li Jianhua isn't the only parent who decided to take matters into his own hands. A mother with a fleece hat and red gloves admits that she came here without her daughter's knowledge. The daughter, she says, would be "very upset" if she knew about it. The woman also says she regrets having been so protective in the past. "We forbade her from dating boys when she studied at university, expecting her to land a stable job. But now she's too busy," the mother says. "She's 29. She’s my only child and it will soon be too late for her to have a baby."
Two other women — one from the city of Tianjin, the other from the Shanxi province — have gotten to talking and are hoping to set up their respective children, both 34. One of them takes a moment to reflect on the evolution of Chinese customs. "In the past, one had to accept the husband that they imposed on us without saying anything. And after, he had all the rights," she says. "Today, young people can refuse to go so far if our suggestions don't suit them. They are freer, but then they have more trouble finding their other half."
The posters are in fact advertisements, written by the parents — Photo: Spezz
Regulars at the singles market appreciate the fact that it costs nothing, unlike marriage agencies and numerous specialized websites. They also like the direct contact it allows them to have with other parents. Under a tree, three women exchange pieces of paper, on which they scribbled information and phone numbers, before putting them carefully in their handbags. One of them, in a khaki down jacket, is suddenly doubtful: She wants to check the physical appearance of the young woman intended for her son. The cell-phone photograph seems to reassure her, as does the fact that her potential daughter-in-law earns nearly $1,500 per month.
Even if parents no longer have absolute power, they still wield a lot of influence. "Even today, children cannot make a choice without the consent of the family," says psychologist and dating consultant Zhou Xiaopeng. A 2014 poll by the dating site Baihe found that 76% of young people opt for a spouse who conforms to the criteria of their parents. More than a third of respondents said they'd even be willing to give up a frowned-upon relationship. "It’s linked to tradition, says Zhou Xiaopeng. "Respect must be shown to parents by complying with their views. When they are displeased, the children can suffer the consequences."
The psychologist says that in public, Chinese people don't want to be seen as kowtowing too much to their parents. At the same time, many "seek academic success or marry to make their families proud," so much so that some don’t hesitate to rent a false spouse from a specialized website for the week of Chinese New Year, in order to avoid the harassment of their loved ones, she says.
Because marriage must above all contribute to material success, the parents' criteria are very strict. One takes into consideration the wealth of the family being married into, their place on the social ladder and their geographic origin. A city girl shouldn't, for example, marry a country boy. Elders see these "rules" as necessary to assure the financial and social well-being of the next generation, something that's easier said than done in a country where the cost of real estate has become exorbitant in the big cities.
This suffocating control is reflected in reality TV shows. The channel Dragon TV, based out of Shanghai, launched a wildly successful show of this type in December. In each episode, five young men and their families are brought face-to-face with just as many young women, also accompanied. The elders, of course, call the shots. In one episode, Zhang Lu, a 27-year-old daycare director, implores the women in his family to choose a pretty wife for him. But his aunts say the prettiest ones are lazy. "His wife must be hardworking, hardworking!" she shrieks.
In real life, this kind of tough talk isn't always appreciated. "Young Chinese people have less and less tolerance for interference by their parents," says sexologist Li Yinhe, even if they generally end up submitting.
Wu Ning, a 29-year-old woman from Zhejiang province, has been living through this kind of ordeal for three years. Her 60-year-old parents live 30 kilometers away in a rural area. They have two daughters, neither of them are married. The mother organizes meet-ups with men every month and calls every few days to put pressure on her.
The young woman "detests" the obligatory side of these dates, which never amount to anything. One suitor was "effeminate," she says. Another thought of himself as very funny but wasn't. A third ran through his achievements for more than an hour without asking her any questions. None have been to her liking. And yet, she also has difficulty rejecting the matches flat-out because, despite everything, she wants to reassure her mother. In the meantime, pressure keeps building. Now her mother is pushing for her to find a job closer to home, so as to better organize her love life, it would seem.