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Love in China: Matchmakers, moms and the Internet
Updated: 2006-02-13 09:13

The gateway to marital bliss in Beijing has a frosted glass door with two candy-apple red hearts and lots of computers.

Pairs of single men and women hold a
8-minute-talk face to face in Shanghai's
Zhongshan Park on October 22, 2005. Nearly 5,000 local young professionals, all in a love hunt, convene for a mass match-making activity held in the park. [newsphoto]

Introducing the Beijing Military and Civilian Matchmaking Service, one of a growing number of Chinese companies that are wedding high technology with low-tech tradition to spawn romantic unions.

Bi Zhenxie, a 25-year-old real estate agent who has never had a girlfriend, was on his first visit, filling out a form with his personal details and what he wants in a mate.

"I'm so excited," said Bi. "I just work, go home, then work again. Now I'm beginning to consider having a family because I'm getting up there in years. The pressure is on."

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.

For centuries, families relied on village matchmakers. Then came traditional Chinese unions sanctioned _ and sometimes arranged _ by companies for their employees. Today, the search is fueled 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 Military and Civilian Matchmaking 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 was set up in 1986 in the southern city of Guangzhou. Today, there are more than 20,000 registered agencies, according to the government's Xinhua News Agency. Fees can run to thousands of yuan (hundreds of dollars) _ a fortune in a country where the average person earns just US$1,000 (euro835) a year.

But "it is the most convenient and fastest way to solve their marriage problems," said Wang Weiming, general secretary of the Matchmaking Industry Committee of the China Social Work Association. "The modern matchmaking industry will grow and will not die out as long as human beings exist in this world."

"Love is no longer the same as before because of the changes in society," said Ren Wen, one of Beijing Military and Civilian Matchmaking Service's employees, who are called "teacher" by clients.

"People are more independent. They want to think for themselves," Ren said. "They're also more independent financially, so they have greater and higher requirements." With her hair piled high, a pearl necklace and coral-red lipstick, Ren looks like a traditional matchmaker but navigates her desktop computer with practiced smoothness.

"It's a good deed. I like helping people to find their mate," she 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. I want to see what options I have," Tian said. But for some parents, a low-tech approach is easier _ and a return to the days where 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 in a do-it-yourself hunt for a partner worthy of their offspring.

They come with glossy photos of smiling sons and daughters, and swap stories of children so busy with careers that finding a spouse has fallen by the roadside. Some camp out on the ground and set up handwritten personal ads touting the virtues of their children.

"This is an effective way to do things," said Guo Shufang, a slight, 65-year-old woman.

The retired office worker has come to Beijing twice from the northeastern city of Dalian, looking for a wife for her 31-year-old son, a software engineer. "You check out the potential candidates, you talk to their parents, you try to arrange for a meeting,'' Guo said.

Duan Guoyi, 57, a retired construction company driver, had a photo of her 28-year-old daughter, who worked in Ukraine for five years. Duan said the park has yielded one or two men, though neither got far with the daughter.

"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, Chen 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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