In China, online dating has a traditional twist

Rob Schmitz Oct 11, 2011

In China, online dating has a traditional twist

Rob Schmitz Oct 11, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Back in June while I was reporting from Shanghai, we spent a rainy Saturday afternoon at the local marriage market. Literally a place where parents go to advertise the availability of their grown, yet unmarried, children.

It was kind of amazing to see, but not at all uncommon over there. Given the changes China’s going through, though, this next step was entirely predictable: The rise of online dating.

Our Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz has more on Internet romance with Chinese characteristics.

Rob Schmitz: On a popular Chinese dating show last year, a male contestant invited an attractive young female contestant for a ride on his bicycle. The woman was quick with a response: ‘I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on the back of a bicycle with you.’ The comment sparked a national debate about the priorities of young urban Chinese.

Li Song: As women get better educated and have better jobs, they really expect a lot from the guys.

That’s Dr. Li Song. He’s the CEO of the popular Chinese dating site Zhenai. Like most dating sites in China, the first thing you see when you pull up a profile on Zhenai is your potential date’s monthly income. It makes sense in China: wages are low, competition for good jobs fierce, and the cost of living in the cities has risen to levels rivaling New York.

Shang Koo of rival dating site Jiayuan says China’s young people don’t have time for flirting. And there are certain details that are really important.

Shang Koo: One of our search criteria is where your hometown is or where your ancestral home is. There’s a lot of local dialects, so people would prefer to speak with someone in the same local dialect.

Both Jiayuan and Zhenai are good at taking old Chinese courtship traditions and modernizing them online. For example, in old China, if you were looking to marry, your family would hire a local matchmaker. From the offices of Zhenai in Shanghai, meet the modern matchmakers.

Several young women sit at desks in a cramped office, talking to clients. Zhenai’s user fee is on the high end — around $500 for a six-month membership. But that’ll get you assigned to your very own real-life matchmaker. Just like a matchmaker in traditional China, she’ll do the dirty work so you won’t have to — for example, want to know if your date owns his own home? Zhenai founder Li Song.

Li: These are some questions that people are reluctant to ask directly. So we have our matchmakers to ask these questions for them and other personal questions.

Matchmakers also help you keep your dating schedule straight. Matchmaker Cao Xian is on the phone with a Mr. Wu, a rather busy bachelor from Hangzhou.

Cao Xian: What time do you want to meet Li Jing? After you meet with her, you will meet Miss Fang after she gets off work. Miss Xiao — the taller one, the prettiest one — she doesn’t have time tomorrow, but she wants your email address.

Zhenai has more than 800 matchmakers at call centers throughout China. Most of them at this office are young women in their 20s. Not what you might expect, but Cao says in today’s China, the only people who truly understand young, single Chinese are other young, single Chinese.

Cao: We understand what’s important to them, and we’re very dedicated. The longest call I’ve had with a client was six hours! Sometimes I’ll accompany the couple on their date if I’m worried they’re too shy.

This personal touch helps. Zhenai’s Li says 90 percent of its members decide to exclusively date another member within half a year.

That’s what happened to Huang Tao. Mr. Huang says his matchmaker gave him crucial dating advice.

Huang Tao: She told me not to take the girl to a fancy restaurant on the first date — that would set expectations too high. She told me it would be better to meet at McDonald’s or KFC.

Huang thought about it. In the end, he took his first date to a bakery.

Mission accomplished. Huang and his wife Nuo Ni are now happily married with a newborn daughter. Nuo Ni says she loves her husband because his life doesn’t revolve around money, but family — and it’s obvious he adores her. And in today’s increasingly urban China that’s becoming a lonely place for some, that’s worth much more than a BMW.

In Shanghai, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

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