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China’s ‘marriage market’ where mom sets you up on your first date

SHANGHAI, China — In a country of 1.3 billion people, it’s not always easy to meet Mr. or Miss Right.

That’s why on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, parents congregate in a corner of People’s Park, a sanctuary of palm trees, ponds and winding paths in the heart of this busy Chinese city.

Lining the brick pathways are hundreds of pastel umbrellas on which these well-meaning parents have clipped information about their sons’ and daughters’ age, height, weight, occupation and level of education. It’s known around town as the “marriage market.”

The parents chat with each other about the attributes they — or rather, their children — are looking for in a mate. If the parents hit it off, and believe they’ve found a good match for their offspring, they’ll arrange a blind date and hope for sparks to fly.

This phenomenon developed organically more than a decade ago in Shanghai and has since sprung up in other parts of China, said Zhen Trudy Wang, a former Caijing magazine reporter in Shanghai who now works for a public relations firm. People were meeting at the park anyway to practice dancing, badminton and martial arts. Parents talk, and the matchmaking arose naturally.

“Matchmaking” is actually a more accurate term than “market,” which implies that money is exchanging hands, noted Wang. Rather, it’s a way for parents to put their stamp of approval on a relationship before the couple has even met.

“In Chinese culture, the in-laws are very important,” she said. “So if the in-laws like you at first sight, it’s really helpful.”

A bride poses among flowers in Tongli, a preserved ancient village in eastern China. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

A bride poses among flowers in Tongli, a preserved ancient village in eastern China. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Some Chinese youth are more amenable to being set up by their parents, because they grew up in a household that values obedience, said Wang. The parents who instill obedience tend to be the ones who take this more active role.

Usually, their children are in their late 20s and 30s. This generation of highly educated professional singles is stereotyped in society as being too choosy to pick a partner, whereas people in their early 20s don’t have the same hang-ups and are getting married earlier, said Wang. The unmarried women in particular are called sheng nu or “leftover women.”

Other methods to meet a mate in China include online dating websites, such as the Chinese version of Match.com, called Jiayuan.com. Wang said she met her husband online, much to the distress of her mother, who didn’t think it was a trustworthy venue.

China’s also been bitten by the reality television bug. Dating game-style shows are popular entertainment in China, though no one expects them to lead to any long-term commitments, said Wang.

It’s impossible to say whether the matchmaking corner in People’s Park is producing any loving couples, but there are some anecdotes. Wang said her cousin met her boyfriend while she was walking through one such site with her friends, and she caught the eye of his mother.

The alleyways of Tongli town in China serve as a backdrop for a bridal photo shoot. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

The alleyways of Tongli town in China serve as a backdrop for a bridal photo shoot. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour


This report was produced from a trip to China arranged by the National Press Foundation.

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