Back in May, I went to a speed-dating event at a café in Shenzhen, a city in southern China’s Guangdong province. The 100 or so people in attendance included everyone from Hong Kong businessmen to migrant laborers who had just arrived in the city. Most of the women, meanwhile, were over 30 years old; one of them, a woman in her 60s, even took part gamely alongside her 20-something daughter.
During each eight-minute speed-dating round, three women and three men sat around a table, ostensibly to get to know one another. Each time, however, the most conventionally attractive woman in the group inevitably became the object of the men’s affections. They jostled for her attention and largely ignored the other two women. As I was getting ready to leave, the male participants were standing in front of the room openly sharing whom they liked best. It was disquieting to say the least: The men had this air of restless excitement, like emperors selecting their concubines.
China has 200 million single people, of which “empty-nest” youth — unmarried people in their 20s and 30s who live alone — now number over 10 million. In September, three Chinese government departments jointly released an article advocating state support for fostering romantic relationships between young adults as part of higher education.
However, these days, more and more young Chinese are embracing individualized lifestyles, a trend that extends into their romantic and sexual lives as well. These social changes are colliding with deeply ingrained dating norms, resulting in complex responses to traditional ideas of romance and gender roles. Let’s examine some of these changes through examples from five further dating events in Shenzhen — events that I organized myself.
Generally speaking, I have found that women of a certain age are now far more proactive than men in seeking a partner. As their 30th birthdays draw closer, many women fear becoming so-called leftover women. At the same time, though, society lauds single men this age for achieving independence and self-sufficiency. As a result, men in their mid- to late 20s tend to focus on developing their careers at the expense of their love lives, just as women start searching in earnest for someone to marry.
In China, women tend to have lower social status than men, a phenomenon that profoundly shapes women’s approaches to relationships and their self-esteem once they become involved with someone. Though many take initiative in finding a romantic partner, their requirements often reinforce male privilege: For example, faced with a daunting but imaginary age limit of 30, women flock to dating events, but most still want their ideal partner to be more professionally successful than them.
Most 20-something men, meanwhile, tend to believe that the time spent on dating would be better spent building up a stable income and a status-rich job. Of course, the pressure to conform to this prescribed ideal of masculinity harms men as well as women. But on a deeper level, it means that young, eligible men are more likely to be apathetic toward dating, while their female counterparts are more likely to face outright rejection from their male peers.
To complicate matters further, recent high-profile marriage scams have made many men think twice about leveraging their financial status to attract a partner. In September, 37-year-old tech entrepreneur Su Xiangmao killed himself after his ex-wife, Zhai Xinxin, demanded 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) from him as part of a divorce settlement. The case led to widespread accusations that Zhai had married Su solely so that she could later divorce him and lay claim to part of his estate. Now, professionally successful Chinese men are realizing that money alone does not guarantee a fulfilling, emotionally authentic relationship.
The pressures of dating have also made men less likely to go to great lengths for love. In a query that garnered over 5.4 million views and 1,000 replies on Chinese question-and-answer site Zhihu, one user asked whether men are now less willing to put effort into wooing women. A number of users complained about the huge investments of money, time, and emotion involved, claiming the traditional view that men should make the first move was outdated in a world where sham marriages proliferate.
Both men and women are jaded, if not openly distrustful, when it comes to committed relationships nowadays. Against this backdrop, the comparative ease and convenience of no-strings-attached sex provide some consolation. But on this front, too, men and women are held to different standards. Chinese men tend to look down on sexually active women, painting them as promiscuous and immoral in contrast to the stock image of the chaste, warmhearted, maternal traditional spouse. This disjuncture finds its outlet in a fixation on female virginity, as men seek casual sex partners with experience but girlfriends who eschew hookup culture.
But these days, Chinese women under 30 are largely tolerant of premarital sex, especially if they grew up in big cities or moved there partly to shake off the somewhat-restrictive kinship ties of rural families. Many women are proactive in learning about sex and don’t necessarily see hookups as taboo. Openly sexually active women still face the same social stigmas, but hope to find a sophisticated partner who can communicate with them on an intellectual level and connect with them on an emotional level. They decry the fact that many men either set aside no time for a relationship or are loath to partner with strong-minded, sexually liberated women.
Double standards abound among young single Chinese. Men are opting for quick sexual gratification over slow-paced, time-consuming relationships, while prizing chasteness among future wife candidates. Women, meanwhile, are caught between a burgeoning sexual awakening and the lingering desire to find a partner “better than them.”
Despite China’s growing awareness of sexuality and gender issues, finding a romantic partner is still tangled up with old-fashioned ideas. The main reason that young Chinese are quick to hook up but slow to find love comes down to confusing and often contradictory demands of their own sexual identities and those of potential partners. No wonder so many choose casual sex instead: After all, it’s much more fun than tackling the real obstacles to a fulfilling relationship.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Young people participate in a game during a matchmaking event in Guiyang, Guizhou province, Nov. 11, 2017. Huang Tao/VCG)