YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Chinese Society Undergoes a Revolution in Romance

Major changes in economics, politics and social life have led harried and lonely workers to find creative ways to choose a mate.

April 23, 2006|Evan Osnos | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING — The ad on a popular Chinese website left nothing to chance: "Seeking girlfriend: born 1979 or later; education no less than high school, no more than a master's; no shyness; no severe near-sightedness; height over 162 cm, under 175 cm."

In the avalanche of changes in China today, none perhaps is more personal and universal than the revolution in romance.

Less than a generation ago, most Chinese couples met at work or in the village or neighborhood -- occasionally, simply, a "relative swap," pairing the son and daughter of one family, say, with the daughter and son of another.

But as the Chinese shed the bounds of their villages and traditions, they are embracing the ability to pick their mates with unprecedented precision. That change captures the essential evolution in Chinese economics, politics and social life today: the soaring power of choice.

"It is hard to find even a university student in the countryside, much less a PhD," said Li Zhihui, a 31-year-old doctoral student, scanning the crowd of women at a recent speed-dating event where attendees had been encouraged to bring their diplomas.

With an estimated 300 million rural citizens expected to move to Chinese cities over the next 15 years, the largest migration in human history has produced a once-unimaginable array of options -- in information, products, ideas and sex.

"In this day and age, some people are still too passive," said Gong Haiyan, 30, founder of, a Chinese matchmaking website that targets upwardly mobile singles. "They think Mr. Right will come to them, but that happens very rarely."

That sense of urgency drew 200 men and women to a Beijing hotel one recent evening. Primped and alert, they faced each other at rows of tables -- men on one side, women on the other -- and embarked on brief, intense speed dates. It was a well-coifed cross-section of today's Beijing: engineers and marketing managers, scholars and self-styled entrepreneurs. Onstage, a host in a maroon dress urged a brave few to introduce themselves to the room.

"My name is Chen Changsheng. You can probably tell from my name that I was born in a revolutionary era," said a man in a navy suit and tie, angling for a laugh at his name, Chinese for "glorious," a remnant from the Communist Party's heyday.

"I am looking for a young, pure and honest girl," he said. "I work in the pharmaceutical industry. My income is more than five figures."

Wu Xinlu listened politely. Clad in white knee-high boots, she opened a compact, glanced at her makeup and snapped it shut. Like others, she finds herself increasingly tethered to a cubicle and, at age 30, she has decided it's time to find someone permanent.

"People are so busy at work, they don't have time to think about love, until they calm down and notice the holes in their lives," said Wu, whose parents met while working in heavy industry during the Cultural Revolution.

For thousands of years, China's notions of romance have changed in step with politics. Confucian thought elevated marriage to the building block of stable society, but it did nothing to curb the power of matchmakers, dowries and meddling parents over the wishes of the betrothed.

When Communists took power in 1949, Mao Tse-tung, who had been unhappily married at age 14, thundered against arranged marriages as a vestige of feudalism. During the Cultural Revolution, party zealots went a step further, denouncing courtship as bourgeois.

Since China embraced reform in 1979, citizens have sought new control over their intimate affairs. Work unit leaders lost the power to sign off on marriages, divorces, births and even contraceptive methods. Divorce laws eased enough that the divorce rate climbed fivefold from 1979, to nearly 20% of all unions today.

But changes in education, wealth and urbanization have ushered in new romantic hazards as well. For a generation of young Chinese women, access to more education and independence than ever before is clashing with Chinese men's traditional notions of gender roles.

"For girls like me, with a degree from the U.S., a position at a good company, a lot of men feel scared. They worry that I don't have the skills for a family and that I will be too ambitious," said Vivienne Zhang, 28, of Shanghai. She has tried speed dating but notes that women at such events often outnumber men 2 to 1.

"I don't care about a car and house that much. I can afford those by myself," she said.

Fu Qiang, 36, a journalist from China's rural Inner Mongolia province, faced a culture clash when he moved with his girlfriend to Beijing.

"Life in Beijing was too competitive for her," said Fu, whose parents met three decades ago when his father, an injured soldier, fell in love with his doctor. "My girlfriend was excellent at home, but she was not confident enough to be in a big city."

Fu donned a stylish pinstripe suit for the hotel event, organized by, but as the night wore on, he had yet to find a good fit.

Los Angeles Times Articles