The Mandarin term shengnu literally means “leftover woman.” It was coined to describe China’s growing crop of middle-class women who, thanks to new educational and economic opportunities, have been able to rise to unprecedented ranks within Chinese society—at the expense of their love lives. Nearing (or, heaven forbid, passing) the age of 30, these women find themselves materially successful but romantically unattached.
As a female in her mid-20s, living in China with a graduate degree and no significant other, I’ve been particularly sensitive to the term’s use. But while local media and gossipy mothers often use it derisively, my leftover sisters and I have come to embrace it as a badge of honor worn by independent women who know what they want and are unwilling to settle.
And why should we. In 1979, the one-child policy was implemented to curb population growth. Because of culturally engrained preferences for male heirs over female dowries, experts estimate that there could be more than 180 million single men now in China, with up to 50 million failing to find wives over the next 20 years. That’s the population of California and Pennsylvania in the form of single, lonely Chinese men.
We shengnu are in dual position of being supposedly desperate, but in actuality having all kinds of men to choose from. In 2003, Gong Haiyan, a single coed from Shanghai, started the online date site Jiayuan.com (“Beautiful Destiny”) because she was frustrated by the lack of legitimate dating options she found around her. The bare-bones website she initially sketched out has since grown into China’s largest online-dating website, with over 56 million registered users, more than OKCupid and PlentyOfFish combined.
Like Gong Haiyan, I have, in my years in China, had little luck on the traditional meat market, so I decided to see if her internet service, and a few others like it, could be a better matchmaker for me.
Signing up for an account on Jiayuan or any of China’s other big-three dating services starts like most sites: cheesy screenname, recently created email account, vaguely accurate description of age and looks. But just like democracy, dating in China has developed distinct Asian characteristics. Your blood type, face shape, and willingness to have your future in-laws live with you are treated as basic information (O-positive, duck-egg-shaped, to be discussed when the time comes, for the record).
My profile photo also proved to be a sticking point. It was rejected three times, initially because I chose some abstract avatar, then because not enough of my face was visible. “Show the world who you really are,” the site moderator urged. Although that struck me as contrary to everything the internet stands for, I submitted my passport photo and was passed to the next phase.
While most of your profile’s essentials can be filled out with the help of a drop-down menu, the final stage requires a personalized self-introduction. A provided example on Zhenai.com (“Precious Love”) is instructive as to what kind of women the service is appealing to:
Before, in order to focus on my studies, my mom didn__’t let me date. Now, because of work, I don’t have time to date. As time passed, I suddenly discovered I’__d already become one of the “shengnu.”Actually my demands for my other half aren’t that high. He doesn’t have to be that handsome, or that wealthy, but he must be motivated, responsible, obedient, and that’s about all. I have great hopes and visions for my future, but I hope to accomplish them with the person I love…__.
It was flattering but not altogether too surprising that within minutes of activating my profile, my inbox was flooded with messages. The first came from a 26-year-old, O-type (hurray our children, or rather our child, will be a universal donor!), triangle-faced man named “Poisonsc…” But as I browsed through his profile, alarm bells quickly went off. He was a private entrepreneur. He listed his monthly income as 3-5,000 renmindi per month (equal to about $480-800 dollars, an average white-collar salary). He didn’t own a car or a house yet. No wonder he was single.
With the growing numerical disparity and social parity between sexes, women know that not just anyone will do anymore. Owning a car and home are standard expectations before marriage. A candidate’s appeal rises if he has a five-figure monthly salary and stable career (state-owned corporations are best), but falls if that means he has to work overtime and thus won’t be around to whisk his partner off on romantic dates. Modern China’s romance with materialism was epitomized on the popular TV dating game show “Are You The One”, when one contestant famously claimed she’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than smile on a bicycle.
Baihe.com (meaning “Lily”, but also literally “Hundred Matches”) makes it easy to weed out the scrubs. Users can sort users by age, height, education, and income. Though IRL I’d like to think I’ve never judged any person by such narrow criteria, I decided if I was going to date in China, I had to do it with a Chinese mindset. So clicking the obvious choice, I browsed on.
The top hit was a block-headed 30-year-old with a lush head of hair named Heavy. The self-described “Chairman-looking” home-owner had posted half a dozen photos of him frolicking on an exotic beach. He clearly had the right salary-to-free-time ratio.
Like nearly every male profile I browsed, though, Heavy had almost no demands of his partner. He wanted someone between 24-28 years old, 140-175 cm tall, preferably ethnically Han. But income, education, and housing situation—factors that can make or break a man’s prospects—were all listed as “no preference.”
Despite the cold rationalism that seems to surround these sites, all these sites still cling to the sweet romantic notions. It’s about finding your other half. Each user, before finalizing their profile, must check off a box affirming their good moral character and honest intention to search for a spouse on the site, NOT a one-night stand. Bang With Friends, this most certainly is not.
But while sites try to ensure pureness of heart, there’s no escaping the internet’s inherent ability to con, especially in a country that trades on its ability to mass produce fake Chanel purses and pirated DVDs.
When I began my online search, the Chinese Lunar New Year was fast approaching. It’s a time when virtually everyone in the country returns home, gathers with their loved ones, and is ruthlessly interrogated about their personal lives. Accordingly, internet message boards light up with ads seeking and offering rental girlfriends and boyfriends. Taobao, China’s version of eBay, for a while banned the search term altogether.
“Busy at work, no time to consider relationships,” reads a typical message. “Can anyone help me cope with the parental pressure?”
Though joke and scam posts are rampant, I decided to respond to one that at least sounded thorough. User 19760923b was a 32-year-old male, Master’s degree, 180 cm, 75 kg, “probably considered good looking” seeking a 25- to 30-year-old female for an eight day “rental” to northeastern China.
“I’m just a regular office worker, not anyone rich, so anyone looking to get rich or become a mistress please don’t apply. If you’re too ugly or too fat, it will tip my parents off, so sorry, you won’t be considered.” What a charmer.
19760923b promised the rental wouldn’t be required to sleep in the same room or perform any kissing and fondling, though she “must be willing to hold hands.” He offered 300-800 Renminbi per day, negotiable. The deal also included train tickets to and from Beijing. If necessary, he’d be willing to also accompany his rental girlfriend to her hometown.
Using a mix of my latent Chinese class skills and Google Translate, I wrote a brief note expressing my desire to fake it. Within a couple of hours, I received an email: “Thank you for your reply, but I don’t think you will be a good match to bring home.” Even to play a sham girlfriend, the rejection felt real.
But my heartbreak was soon eased. A bounty of new “flirts” and “winks” were waiting in my inbox. One man in particular, using the name “Single-Minded,” had sent 13 messages in a span of 35 minutes. Though back home such over-eagerness would be ruthlessly mocked over a round of drinks with girlfriends, in China, it felt reassuringly sincere.
“Your subtle smile makes my heart jump,” cooed his first message. “I love to smile too. I hope we can smile together. Can I get to know you more?”
Mousing through his profile, I learned he was university educated, a car and home owner, and employed in finance by a Fortune 500 company. I was already imagining my mother’s approving nod.
In his next note, he waxed even more poetic: “In the whole world, who knows how many millions of people pass us by, but fate made me stop and look at your photo. I hope you will look back at me.”
His clear, unobstructed profile photo showed an athletically built man in his early 30s, with hair gelled into the snow cone swirl common among aspiring C-Pop stars. He was also wearing what looked like a lumpy holiday sweater knit by his grandmother. A sign of filial piety, I hoped.
As I clicked to respond, a screen flashed open offering me a series of ready-made responses. There was the generic, “Thank you for your interest. Please tell me more: ^.^” Or the flirtier, “If you read my message, write back so I know you reciprocate O(n_n)O.” Or the straightforward rejection: “Thank you for your interest. I don’t think our circumstances are a fit. Good luck, hope you find your soulmate.” I wondered if 19760923b had copied his response from here.
But as I considered what level of emoticon flirtation to use, I realized Single-Minded’s messages had also been computer generated. A row of tabs suggested dozens of opening lines, categorized from “funny” to “cute.” Worst of all, my Single-Minded suitor had chosen from the “standard” section. He didn’t even use a creative scripted response!
Outraged, I aired my sense of betrayal to a male Chinese friend. Far from sharing my indignation, though, he bashfully confessed that at the age of 25 and just entering his first official relationship, he too had used a move learned from an American teen soap. How else, he asked, were young people, sheltered by overprotective parents since birth and often right through their adult lives, supposed to know how to hit on girls?
If, as they say, Chariman Mao abolished arranged marriages in 1951 after his own unhappy experience with the practice during his first marriage, the system that’s replaced it hasn’t made finding a genuine connection any easier for Chinese men and women. In the end, I got rejected for the role of a rental girlfriend, used an algorithm to pick out men by their income and blood type (which I later discovered in Asia is associated with certain personality types similar to zodiac signs; type-Os are ambitious, self-confident, and recommended to eat extra poultry and fish), got wooed by a succession of swirly-haired men with scripts, and continue to be harassed by all three dating companies trying to sell me additional matchmaking services. But I am still no closer than before to finding my soulmate.
And probably even further from finding a one-night stand.
More from China:
In China, Tigers Are Being Farmed Like Chickens
‘Southern Weekly’ and the Limits of Censorship in China
Beijing’s Pollution Problem Is Becoming Hard to Ignore