Love, or Nearest Offer

Finding a catch in the marriage market – by Alec Ash


Chinese Valentine's day, Qixijie, came and went. Roses were sold, promises told, single beds felt extra cold.

On the day, there were blind dating events for singles across the city. Some ladies who were more self-affirming about their singlehood performed in the Leftover Monologues. And the Global Times dusted off the old saw about materialism and romance in China (even quoting yours truly, to my embarrassment).

But for those who didn't find their soulmate by the end of the Saturday night, there was always a backup option the next morning – marriage market.

China's marriage markets have been done to death by the Western media, and I'm sure you know the routine. Every Sunday in Beijing, in Zhongshan park and Tiantan park, middle aged parents advertise their single children (in both meanings of the adjective) as marriage material, while other parents browse. Key information about prospective husbands and wives are age, height, education level, job, and (especially for the guys) whether you can have a car and a flat.

I went to Zhongshan park last Sunday to have a look for myself. As I've already written about speed dating and Pick Up Artists, I figured it was time to check out the parents' approach to finding love for their children. Here's a quick vignette from the field.


Mr Sun is 67, with a helmet shaped mop of silver hair, half his teeth missing, and a generally ragged look to him. He's an old Beijinger, and lives near the East gate of Tiantan park, where he goes to the marriage market every Sunday to look for a match for his daughter. This time he struck out once again, and at 1pm he got on bus number 60 to Zhongshan park, a short hop away, to try his luck there.

Inside the park, the boulevard next to the moat that hugs the Forbidden City is split into two long columns, where parents have come to advertise their children as marriage material. "Buyers" mill around, while "sellers" sit on fold out canvas stools, fanning themselves in the summer heat. An A4 piece of paper is on display in front of each of them, listing the product specifications.

With dark wrinkled skin, taut on his lean frame that barely props up a loose blue shirt, Mr Sun looks like a lone wolf that has fallen on hard times. He prowls up and down the strip with the other parents, peering down at the adverts. A hemp bag dangles from one hand. Inside is a thermos of tea, a pouch of rolling tobacco and papers, seeds and fruit to snack on, and a black notebook in which he writes down information and phone numbers in a shaky hand.

"Beijing male, born 1987, undergraduate degree, height, 1.73 metres, airline company, has car and flat." Some of the A4 pieces of paper are handwritten, most are printed. Those that go the extra mile are laminated, or kept in transparent slips. "Seeks: Beijing female, height more than 1.60, training college degree or higher, has job."

No good, the guy is too young. Mr Sun walks on.

"Beijing male, born December 1968, 1.78 metres, vocational degree ... works in a danwei [work unit], has two bedroom flat, car, pleasant appearance, agreeable disposition, decent, honest and sincere, respects his parents." This one could be a contender. "Seeks: Female, height 1.62 to 1.70 metres, born 1973-1978 in Beijing, or outsider who has Beijing hukou [residency], family has flat in Beijing, regular looking appearance, agreeable disposition, unmarried or divorced without children, stable job, fixed income."

A pity. If it weren't for the height requirements, it might have worked.

Mr Sun's daughter was born in March 1979 and is 1.83 metres (six feet) tall. She's a graduate from a sports and physical education college in Beijing, and works as a school PE teacher. She's never had a proper boyfriend before, in part because Mr Sun disapproves of her dating casually. Now it's hard for her to find a match, because of her age but also because of her height and strong build, which puts men off.

There are other ways for his daughter to find a man on her own, he knows – he just doesn't like them. "In the eyes of us old Beijingers, bars aren't respectable," he says. "And the internet isn't reliable." His daughter, meanwhile, doesn't want him coming to the marriage market, because she thinks it's old fashioned. Sometimes he passes her a phone number, but she's never once followed up with an actual date.

Mr Sun is undeterred, and has been coming to the markets every weekend for a year. He likes it because he can talk with the parents and get a good impression of their children, although some of them are prone to exaggeration. For his daughter, he's looking for a Beijing guy over thirty five, and over 1.90 metres tall (a rarity). A stable job is also important, as it seems to be to all of the parents here.

But he has also has another condition, which doesn't appear on any of the adverts, and seems virtually absent from the whole market. The prospective couple, Mr Sun feels, should love each other. That feeling can come slowly and later, of course, but without at least a deep shared affection, what's the point of getting married? He's not looking for a new TV for his daughter, he's looking for her life companion.

While I'm doing this interview, off to one side from the main strip, a small crowd has gathered around us. "Another journalist!," one of them psshes in disapproval, "there was a German TV crew here last weekend too!" Young park goers are taking pictures of me on their iPhones. But most are interested in the conversation, and one short Chinese lady in a pink baseball hat pipes up.

"You're too naive," she tells Mr Sun. "I'm here for my daughter too. I have one important condition [for her future husband], he must have a flat in Beijing that is 40 square metres or bigger."

Mrs Meng is about the same age as Mr Sun, is also from Beijing, but looks healthier. She has colour in her cheeks and a cheeky smile with only one tooth gone at the back. She hands me a slip of paper with her daughter's details on it – she's selling. "Female, born January 1984 (pig), height 1.77 metres, studied in Australia ... works in a bank." She even shows me a photograph from her wallet, of a pretty, conservative looking girl, although she doesn't give the photo out.

Next, the ask. The lucky man to snag this catch must: "Have flat, have car, work and life conditions excellent in all areas. Hope to find an outstanding and willing man to take her hand."

While I read this, Mrs Meng and Mr Sun are having a little argument. Mr Sun is trying to explain his point that if the young couple don't like each other, it won't be a happy marriage. Mrs Meng rejects this logic, repeating that if a man's economic conditions aren't good enough, he's not suitable for her daughter. I'll admit this happened fast and their accents got a bit thick, but that's the gist.

Then Mr Sun turns to me. "Do you know about Chinese history? There was a period of confusion." I guess he is talking about the Cultural Revolution, and he nods that's right. "I was very wretched [can] in those days, because I came from a bad family background." It suddenly makes sense – his ragtag, almost beggar-like look, the heavy tan, those missing teeth.

"Because of that," he says – and I got the impression he was talking to Mrs Meng through me – "I know that feelings are also important."

I don't get to ask what Mr Sun's full story is, and I wouldn't have known quite where to begin. He goes back to his browsing, while Mrs Meng brushes him off and returns to her stool. She isn't only looking for a match for her daughter, I realise, but for her own pension plan.

The market bustles on. Phone numbers are sold and bought for promises of compatability. Information is traded like stocks. And Mr Sun walks languidly through it all, looking at this or that notice, sometimes stopping to ask a question or chat – turning up his nose at most, or jotting down the occasional prospect. After less than an hour, he leaves the park and takes the no. 60 back home, to pass what contacts he has gathered to his daughter, who will probably ignore them anyway.

It's a big country, with a market for love as cruel as the housing market, and you'd be forgiven for confusing the two. But there are still traders who believe in love. The right man for her is out there, he's sure of it.

This post also appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books China blog