Every weekend, the parents of Shanghai’s unmarried population gather to find potential partners for their adult children. Lining the walkways of Shanghai’s People’s Square, they post their offspring’s details on open umbrellas —height, weight, education, and occupation— hoping to attract the parents of other singles. Once a potential match has been found, the marriage negotiations begin. 

Chinese matchmaking traditions go back generations. Prior to the 1950s, parents would choose prospective partners for their children based on matching by socioeconomic class. This practice, known as “matching windows and doors” (门当户对 méndānghùduì), still exists to this day, albeit in a much-diminished form.

Online dating is changing this, and with it, Chinese society. From Tinder-like Tantan (探探) to Momo (陌陌), to marriage-focussed Baihe (百合网), tech companies are taking advantage of increasingly independent young adults. And the country’s demographics.

“Traditionally, parents would have been able to exert considerable influence over both who their adult children dated, as well as the form of dating, itself,” Dr. Sampson Blair, family sociologist at The State University of New York and former visiting professor at East China Normal University, told TechNode.

“This has, quite obviously, changed greatly over recent decades, as young adults have become increasingly more autonomous in this regard,” he said.

A man browses personal listings at Shanghai’s marriage market. (Image Credit: TechNode)

Moving online

Just under half of China’s 1.4 billion people fall between the ages of 25 and 54 years old. Most are men. Within this total, 200 million are unmarried, according to government records.  One study shows that 54 million people made use of online dating services in 2016, a number that is expected to increase by 24 million, or 45%, by 2022. Online dating companies have even more optimistic usage statistics, with each firm asserting they have 100 million or more users.

The generation born between 1982 and 1997 is driving this growth. Making up 20% of China’s population, this group is just reaching (or about to) the legal marriage age—22 years old for men and 20 years old for women.

The ubiquity of smartphones and rapid migration to the online world has also played a significant role. Whether on the metro, in a coffee shop, or walking the streets of China’s many metropoles, the prevalence of smartphones is hard to miss.

“Such usage [of smartphone technology] has become the norm among young adults, so it is hardly surprising that they are now using it to start and maintain intimate relationships,” says Blair.

Today’s youth feel the same societal pressures that weighed on their parents. They are expected to get married and have children just like their parents. However, unlike their guardians—whose choices were restricted by geography and social class—the pool of potential mates has swelled with the rise of the internet dating.

Appealing to tradition

Image Credit: TechNode

According to Dr. Wang Pan, author of Love and Marriage in Globalizing China, new digital matchmaking tools are not so much an innovation, as “a reinvention of the old model.” They provide some liberation, but “continue to carry on the core Chinese marriage values,” she told TechNode.

One such example is Baihe. While other online services take a more casual approach, the company provides a platform for finding a potential spouse. Baihe collects user data that panders to the more traditional aspects of courtship in China. Users are expected to supply their real names, information relating to property and car ownership, educational qualifications, employment details, household registration (户口 hùkǒu) information and Sesame Credit scores (芝麻信用 zhīmaxìnyòng).

The service, founded in 2005, claims to have over 100 million users. It also operates an online-to-offline (O2O) service in which its users can make use of its many physical stores for matchmaking purposes and links customers to businesses in the marriage industry.

“A primary part of Baihe’s business is covering the comprehensive process from matching to marriage, providing a one-stop-shop for love and marriage,” says Baihe founder and CEO Tian Fanjiang. “In the future, the Baihe website will not only be a matching service provider, but also extend to all business areas related to love and marriage, including consulting, consumer services, financial services, and media offerings.”

Baihe-owned Jiayuan.com (世纪佳缘) also focuses on marriage-related services. It claims to have over 170 million users and operates offline stores in 71 cities, making it the biggest online dating site in the country. The website was founded in 2003 by Fudan University student Gong Haiyan after she failed to find a partner through already existing dating sites. One year after launching, Gong found a husband on the website she created.

The data collected by the sites show how unique the China market is. Confucian ideals and parental influence continue to play an important role when selecting a partner and, in the eyes of China’s young adults, love is intertwined with social mobility, physical and mental compatibility, as well as family background.

“Age, educational level, overseas background, dating experience, and family background are important for Chinese clients looking for love,” says Wang, commenting on critical data points for online dating and matchmaking companies.

 The types of information Baihe verifies includes education level, assets, Sesame Credit scores, and real names. (Screenshot from Baihe’s website)

“Why so serious?”

While platforms like Baihe and Jiayuan provide opportunities for those who have their hearts set on finding a potential life partner, Tantan and Momo are designed for more casual dating.

“The biggest difference between Tantan and Baihe is the goal,” a 24-year-old male Tantan user surnamed Liu told Technode. “People who use Tantan only want to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, but people who use Baihe want to get married.”

In his opinion, people use services like Baihe and Jiayuan because of parental pressure to start a family. “Maybe I don’t want to get married yet,” he says when asked if he has used the marriage-focused services before.

Another user of both Momo and Tantan surnamed Li, agrees. “People use them because they are single and with the app, they can meet pretty girls,” he says. “I’ve never seen my friends use Baihe.”

Liu says that although he would like to meet people at a bar or coffee shop, using an app allows access away from social events. “Real places would be better, but apps are more convenient. You can use it everywhere and anytime,” he says.

More matches, more money

The increase in active users has quickly filled bank accounts. In 2013, the total revenue for the sector was RMB 1.93 billion. This more than doubled to RMB 4 billion at the end of 2017 and is expected to reach over RMB 5 billion by 2020.

“[The] newly-born population during 1982-1997 shows that demand for marriage will remain high in the next 5-10 years. The large population with demand for dating and marriage is the potential for market growth,” market research firm iResearch detailed in its 2018 China’s Online Dating & Matchmaking Sector Report.

Additionally, the average revenue per user (ARPU) has increased steadily over the past two years, rising from $1.77 in 2016 to $1.93 in 2018.

According to Momo’s financial results, the company saw their user base increase from 81.1 million at the end of 2016 to 99.1 million a year later. Tantan, which was acquired by Momo earlier this year, reported similar results. According to the company, over 100 million people have signed up, and their monthly active users exceed 10 million. The app has enabled between three and four billion matches, in which two users express interest in each other, in the three years since it launched. This compares to the eight billion matches US-based Tinder has facilitated since 2012.

Data source: iResearch (Image Credit: TechNode)

Dating with Chinese characteristics

In 2000, it was estimated that 5% of Chinese men in their late thirties would never get married. By 2030, that number is expected to rise to 25%. These statistics may be even higher in the countryside where poverty is rife, and men are expected to accumulate enough money to attract a prospective wife.

Additionally, the rate of separation has soared while the marriage rate has dwindled. The crude divorce rate, indicated by the number of splits for every 1000 people, has increased from 1.5 to 3 in the past ten years, according to government data.

“People are not obliged to get married, they can stay single, postpone their marriages, not have kids or just cohabit without getting married,” says Wang. She explains that the increase in the divorce rate is caused in part by rising gender equality and decreasing stigma associated with separations. Also, simplified divorce laws are helping people leave loveless marriages.

Image Credit: TechNode

“You can see marriage is deinstitutionalized as an increasing number of people choose not to get married or have children. The social pressure of having to marry and give birth to children is not as strong as prior,” she says.

Despite this, Mu Guangzong, a professor at the Population Research Institute at Peking University, insists that young people should avoid the growing trend of staying single.

“Staying single may be gaining acceptance among some people in China, but it will have a negative impact on the birth rate and sustainable social development, and therefore should not be encouraged,” he said in an editorial.

Platforms like Momo, Tantan, Jiayuan, and Baihe are, in their own ways, seeking to address these concerns. Wang Yu, CEO of Tantan believes that young people in China have very few opportunities to make new friends, resulting in social isolation.

“College students basically have no parties and rarely go clubbing. They are too busy, so almost don’t have ways to meet people offline,” he said at TechCrunch Shanghai last year. He says his company offers users a way for more introverted users to meet new people, and in doing so, tackle the concerns of there being too many singles.

Baihe also started to help individuals with little time meet a prospective life partner. The company claims to achieve this by introducing psychology into the field of matchmaking. Like Jiayuan, it was created out of necessity. Founder Wang Lifan noticed the difficulty her single friends had finding partners and decided to start an online matchmaking service. Unlike Jiayuan’s founder, who spent 20 days designing the platform’s first homepage, Wang had graduated from Tsinghua University’s computer studies department.

According to researchers, online dating can also have a profound effect on marriage diversity within an online community. Previously, potential partners would be introduced by family members or friends, sourcing them from their social circles. With the rise of internet dating, people are meeting complete strangers. This significantly increases the chances of pairing with someone from an entirely different background.

This finding is becoming more and more salient in China. According to the Center for China and Globalization, the number of foreigners increased by 50% between 2000 and 2013. Additionally, over 1500 foreigners were granted green cards in 2016, a 160% year-on-year increase. In the same year, the number of cross-cultural marriages swelled by 2.5% in Shanghai.

A tough market

Despite its meteoric rise, online dating has experienced its share of confidence issues. “Maybe I’m just traditional, so I don’t trust those apps,” an individual who requested not to be named told TechNode. The idea of trust is a big issue when using services that gather so much personal information.

In August last year, police arrested 600 people and shut dating apps associated with 21 companies involved in creating bots to interact with male users. The platform encouraged users to buy digital gifts for “girls” with the promise that they would receive special privileges in the form of explicit videos from their non-existent online dates.  

Jiayuan was also at the center of controversy last year when WePhone developer Su Xiangmao leaped to his death after marrying a 29-year-old woman who he met on the platform. Reports later revealed the woman had blackmailed him for RMB 10 million. Netizens expressed outrage that fraudsters were still able to access sensitive online services like dating sites.

Even with the negative press, data shows the usage of these online platforms remained constant, while the use of traditional matchmaking services waned. “Technology has largely displaced the services of matchmakers, as it is much easier, and much less embarrassing, for young people to use dating apps and online services to find a partner,” explains Blair.

“In coming years, I fully anticipate the further expansion of dating apps and social media, as this has clearly become a preferred form of social interaction by today’s young adults,” he says.

Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

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