Chinese fall hard for imported holiday of Valentine's Day

Updated: 2008-02-14 19:34

Changing values

A customer selects roses at a flower shop ahead of Valentine's Day in Chongqing municipality, February 13, 2008. [Agencies]

No one remembers exactly when Chinese began to celebrate Valentine's Day, but until the 1980s, love was not a topic for open discussion among the Chinese, who translated "Valentine's Day" into "Lover's Day" or even "Mistress' Day", with a mixed feeling of curiosity about this Western novelty and a disdain for public exposure of private life.

Thirty years ago, no Chinese couple would show the least intimacy in public and even holding hands was taboo. Not to mention factors other than love: to be rich or to have a relative aboard, for example, were taken as "defects".

In early 1981, China's first classified ad appeared in a Beijing-based newspaper, with a 40-year-old school teacher looking for a wife. Ding Naijun, from the southwestern Sichuan Province, posted a photo wearing dark glasses and declared his monthly salary was 43.5 yuan. Today, that's a pittance -- about US$6 at current exchange rates -- but it was about the average income level of the time.

More than 270 women responded. Within a year, Ding had married a 28-year-old teacher from the northeastern Jilin Province. Their only 'dates' were monthly letters.

In the 1980s most lonely bachelors proudly declared their status as members of the Chinese Communist Party and occupations as drivers and seamen and listed "love for literature" and "non-smoking" as a plus.

Today, those putting up classified ads are almost always bragging about their big apartments, expensive cars and overseas education -- things that appear too good to be true for many who are seriously looking for a spouse.

Behind their fears are some phenomena that have sprouted with China's booming market economy and three decades of opening up, in particular, corruption, which can lead to an obsession with money and keeping a mistress.

Maybe it's not a coincidence after all that the Chinese translated "Valentine's Day" as "Mistress' Day".

In several cities, private detectives (whose work remains illegal in China), are asked by desperate housewives to tail husbands who shopped and dined with mistresses over the holiday.

This year's Valentine's Day, in particular, was overshadowed by the exposure of photos that purportedly showed Hong Kong actor and singer Edison Chen in bed or other sexually suggestive poses with several female stars.

The photographs, copied from Chen's computer when it was serviced last year and later distributed over the Internet, sparked a media frenzy in Hong Kong and the mainland alike.

Despite public anger at the pop idols involved, many on the mainland just shrugged off the scandal as "disgusting" and "that's life".

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