JIANGSU, East China — When Dong Miaoxiang was in his mid-40s, his wife had an affair, divorced him, and left him to raise their 12-year-old daughter on his own. Not until he was approaching 70, long after his daughter had left home and started a family of her own, did Dong think of remarrying. Even then, he estimates he met at least 40 women, none of whom caught his fancy. That was until he met Liang Jin’e.
“It was love at first sight. We hit it off immediately,” says the now-72-year-old Dong, who lives in Suzhou, a major city in Jiangsu. “I never gave up looking,” he tells Sixth Tone during an interview at the couple’s local community center. “But if you don’t fight your way through the wind and rain, you’ll never see the rainbow at the end of it.”
Liang, 67, is more reserved than Dong, but she says she was taken by his youthful exuberance: “To get to my age and still be as romantic as when I was young — that makes me really happy,” she says. Liang’s first husband died in 2008 after a prolonged battle with colon cancer. Afterward, she went to live with her daughter’s family but, like Dong, worried about being a burden.
Liang decided she needed a companion, but meeting new people isn’t easy for divorced or widowed seniors. In China, many are also wary of scammers targeting the elderly, while others worry that existing relatives won’t accept newcomers to the family so late in life. Still others believe that one’s later years are best dedicated to ensuring the prosperity of descendants rather than personal fulfillment.
For those willing to take the plunge, though, help is at hand. Local communities abound with so-called hongniang — “red aunties” who act as matchmakers for China’s singletons. For those of a certain age, hongniang can provide an antidote to the solitude of the twilight years, drawing on informal friendship networks to supply single seniors with huanghun lian — “twilight love.”
One such matchmaker, Yu Zuoliang, is the very definition of a morning person. On Sundays, the 86-year-old is up by 5 a.m. As the dawn half-light creeps over the dusty roads of Shenyang, a heavily polluted industrial city in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, Yu makes his way to Beiling Park, a green oasis in the northern part of town. There, he sets up a simple folding table, lays out a stack of forms, and waits.
Throughout the day, seniors mill about around Yu’s table. Accompanied by a small army of retired volunteers, Yu listens patiently to their grumbles, comforts the lonely, and notes their names, addresses, hobbies, and requirements for a prospective partner. In the afternoon, he moves to two more parks before heading home to go through the forms and begin pairing people off.
Yu is a rare example of a male marriage agent — as he calls himself — but he doesn’t charge his clients anything for his services. Over the past 16 years, he has brought together more than 350 couples, the majority of whom are either married or living together. All of them are middle-aged or elderly, and most had been previously widowed or divorced.
Cao Jianhua (left), 62, and Zheng Longxiang, 73, hold hands at home in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, June 1, 2017. Zhong Changqian/Sixth Tone
Yu thinks that young people understand neither the isolation of the elderly, nor their need for late-in-life companionship. “If no one calls, you just sit listening to the TV — it doesn’t cure your worry or loneliness,” he says. A partner makes life interesting and worthwhile. “This kind of love is not something you can see or touch,” Yu says. “It’s like air. Without love, life gets unbearable.”
This loneliness is familiar to Yu, whose parents arranged his marriage to his first wife in 1949. Despite a tumultuous relationship, they did not divorce. In 1986, Yu’s wife passed away. He was 56 years old, and the solitude quickly began to eat away at him.
“For four years afterward, I went off to work in the factory, came home, made dinner — but after that, there was just nothing. I felt so fed up,” says Yu. “It was so repetitive. I was so lonely that I even thought about killing myself.”
According to China’s most recent census, more than 43 million people over the age of 65 are widowed, divorced, or unmarried. These figures are also set to grow significantly in the future. By 2050, the combination of an aging population, longer life expectancy, and the lingering effects of the one-child policy mean that around 1 in 4 Chinese will be 65 or older. That’s about 330 million people, or the entire population of the United States today.
Such statistics are a source of concern for policymakers, but though plenty of headlines highlight the challenge of providing health care to China’s aging population, much less attention is given to the emotional needs of the elderly. Some scholars say that the erosion of traditional family structures and the lack of physical and emotional closeness with other family members contribute to the loneliness plaguing older people. Studies even link the shift toward nuclear families with rising suicide rates among the rural elderly population.
Across the nation, 80 percent of elderly singles harbor hopes of remarriage, according to the China Academy of Social Sciences. Lu Meichan has devoted herself to this cause: After meeting her second husband on a regional TV show for single older people, she has spent the last 11 years at the service of Suzhou’s solitary seniors.
Lu’s community matchmaking events, held either in her local community center or in the local municipal culture center twice a month, draw dozens of curious singletons. Moving through the crowd, she meticulously takes down the attendees’ details in a closely guarded red notebook. Later, at home, she goes through her notes page by page, pairs off couples she thinks will make a good match, and puts them in contact with one another.
To date, Lu’s guiding hand has brought together 86 couples across the city. “I don’t like the terms hongniang or ‘matchmaker,’” says Lu, who also doesn’t charge for her services. “What I do are charity events.”
Dong Miaoxiang (right), 72, and Liang Jin’e, 67, pose for a wedding photo at the civil affairs bureau in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, June 1, 2017. Zhong Changqian/Sixth Tone
In January, Lu introduced Dong and Liang, providing the spark for a whirlwind romance. The couple’s first date was at KFC, followed by dinner at a restaurant on the campus where Liang took adult college courses, and then another wintry rendezvous at a nearby tourist spot. On Valentine’s Day, Dong gave Liang a cake decorated with red roses. An erudite, well-read man, he wrote her poems professing his love.
Two weeks ago, only six months into their relationship, Dong and Liang got married. “Despite our age, this is just the right time for us,” Dong says, beaming. “Even though we’re old, I think we still have the right to love.”
However, most elderly couples eschew formal marriage in favor of cohabitation — a practice commonly known as shihun, or “trial marriage.” In most cases, this is for practical reasons: Chinese marriage law stipulates that the spouse’s family is entitled to a share of the inheritance unless a written agreement says otherwise, and this regulation frequently leads to disputes between the surviving partner and the descendants of the deceased. As a result, cohabitation among unmarried seniors is a relatively common phenomenon, even as it remains stigmatized among young couples.
Adult children are not always supportive of their parents dating. Wang Cheren, 70, liked Hu Lanzhen the first time he laid eyes on her, but he faced an uphill battle to win her heart. First off, Hu — a well-traveled woman of 65 with a full social life — was unsure of the quiet, unassuming man who was so fond of her. Meanwhile, Wang’s daughter, who lived with him in Suzhou, initially refused to let the couple move in together.
“It’s because his daughter knows he’s so trusting,” Hu says. “She’s always telling him not to get taken advantage of.” The couple now live together in another part of the city. Cohabitation suits them, at least for now.
Wang Cheren, 70, holds a love letter he wrote to his partner, Suzhou, Jiangsu province, May 31, 2017. Zhong Changqian/Sixth Tone
As Hu describes how they met, Wang wears a somewhat glazed expression, making him seem absent from the conversation. He perks up immediately, though, when asked about the love letters he wrote to Hu, shuffling off into the bedroom to retrieve a small stack of papers inscribed with florid characters.
“I’m the one who loves you most; how can you make me this sad?” Wang reads aloud. “When I need you most, you are unmoved. I’m like a kite whose string is broken. Without you, there’s not much to be happy about in the world. But after I marry you, my loneliness will disappear.”
Additional reporting: Li You and Zhong Changqian; editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Dong Miaoxiang (left), 72, and Liang Jin’e, 67, hold up their marriage certificates at the civil affairs bureau in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, June 1, 2017. Zhong Changqian/Sixth Tone)