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Hi-tech, tradition create romance in China
Updated: 2006-02-13 09:12

The gateway to marital bliss has a frosted glass door emblazoned with two candy-apple red hearts and lots of computers. Introducing the Beijing Military and Civilian Matchmaking Service, one of a growing number of Chinese companies that are marrying high technology and low-tech tradition to spawn romantic unions.

Romance and marriage have changed drastically in China after 25 years of breakneck economic growth and looser social controls. In a country now wide open to Western influences, even Valentine's Day is making inroads, with chocolates, dinner dates, flowers and cards all becoming popular expressions of affection on the occasion -- dubbed Qing Ren Jie, or Lovers' Day.

For centuries, families relied on village matchmakers. Then came romantic unions, sanctioned -- and sometimes arranged -- by government companies for their employees.

Today, the search is driven by personal choice, sped up by the convenience of the latest technology.

''China is now free and transparent. Everyone has the freedom to find their partner,'' said Wang Peng, a divorced 43-year-old who was making his first visit to the Beijing service.

''Now people can meet face-to-face, talk about their feelings, exchange ideas,'' said Wang, a businessman with carefully combed hair. ''They can find a common language and be together.''

The first state-sponsored matchmaking agency opened in 1986. And today, more than 20,000, private or government-supported, are registered, according to the government's Xinhua News Agency.

Fees can run to hundreds of dollars -- a fortune in a country where the average person earns just $1,000 a year. But money is not an obstacle, says Ren Wen, an employee at the Beijing service.

''People are more independent. They want to think for themselves,'' she said. ''They're also more independent financially, so they have greater and higher requirements.''

Those must-haves have expanded from good character to include good job, home and prospects. And, unlike 30 years ago, many young people are increasingly willing to wait for their ideal instead of jumping into marriage.

With her hair piled high, and wearing a pearl necklace and coral-red lipstick, Ren looks like a traditional matchmaker but navigates her desktop computer with practiced smoothness. She and her colleagues are called ''teacher'' by their customers.

''It's a good deed. I like helping people to find their mate,'' Ren said as she clicked on her mouse to get more information for Tian Li, a 48-year-old widow with a husky voice and a shy smile.

''I think I'm fairly attractive,'' Tian said. ''I want to see what options I have.''

But for some parents, a low-tech approach is easier -- and harks back to the days when they had some say in their children's lives.

In Zhongshan Park, off Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, hundreds of mothers and fathers gather twice a week for do-it-yourself matchmaking.

They bring glossy photos of smiling sons and daughters, and swap stories of children too busy with careers to find a spouse. Some sit on the grass and set up handwritten ads touting their children's virtues.

''You check out the potential candidates, you talk to their parents, you try to arrange a meeting,'' said Guo Shufang, a slight, 65-year-old retired office worker.

She has come to Beijing twice from the northeastern city of Dalian to look for a wife for her 31-year-old son, a software engineer.

Duan Guoyi, 57, a retired construction company driver, said her efforts at the park have yielded one or two suitors for her 28-year-old daughter, but neither got far.

''She told me one was too fat, the other was too quiet,'' Duan said. ''She's not worried, but I am.''

''The older you get, the harder it is,'' she said. ''The economy has changed the way that people talk about love. Now, money, cars, homes come first.''

For Chen Yuannong, a 44-year-old office worker, career came first, but after she was divorced, loneliness set in.

At a friend's urging, she signed up at the Beijing Military and Civilian Matchmaking Service. She met several men within a week and later married one.

''I carried hope in my heart that I would find someone suitable,'' Chen said. ''He is a kind man. Our life is good now.''

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