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    How China’s Pick-Up Artists Fell Victim to Their Own Mind Games

    For members of the much-criticized subculture, wealth isn’t enough anymore. You need to have class.

    Not long after I sat down with Quinn for our interview, he ordered us an English-style afternoon tea. When the server brought over the set — a tower of four gilded plates piled with dainty cakes — he paused our conversation and asked me to take a photo of him. He even gave me directions on how to position the lens to create the proper vibe. As soon as I gave him his phone back, he became engrossed in editing the photos. For the remainder of our conversation, he grew increasingly agitated, checking his phone every 15 seconds to see if anyone had liked or commented.

    A high school student in the southern megacity of Shenzhen, Quinn is a privileged child of China’s new money class. In addition to his normal schoolwork, he’s taking a course offered by a local company that promises young men the ability to “control your romantic destiny and achieve ‘romantic freedom’” — that is, a class on how to pick up women.

    The “pick-up artist” (PUA) subculture originated in the United States in the early 1970s. In its earliest incarnation, it mostly sought to teach men techniques for persuading women at clubs and bars to go home with them for casual sex. In China, PUA has become a byword for emotional and verbal abuse, but in the course of my fieldwork on Shenzhen’s PUA community, the majority of the students I met weren’t serial predators, just socially awkward young men who lacked confidence and experience talking to women. Most of them signed up for lessons to expand their social circles, meet more prospective partners, learn how to manage a relationship, or win back an ex.

    The company Quinn enrolled with charges 7,800 yuan ($1,200) for eight weeks of in-person lessons. Rejecting the PUA label, it instead emphasizes “empowering” young men to demonstrate their value and win over the “goddesses” they covet. Some of its students are children from wealthy families like Quinn, but most are men in their twenties who are working hard to make a decent living in Shenzhen. The firm’s clients generally earn around 10,000 yuan a month, enough to put them in the middle class, but not enough to buy a home in the city’s overheated property market — much less realize their dreams of lifelong “financial freedom.”

    The course requires students to sign up for dating apps and social media to hone their skills: Every week, they must chat with and ask out seven to 10 women. The most crucial of these skills is what trainers and students alike self-deprecatingly referred to as bi ge. A homonym for the English word “big,” a literal translation of the term would be unprintable, but it refers to the ability to pass as a man of wealth and class, regardless of one’s actual social position. Pulling off bi ge requires constant curation of one’s social media profile, style, personal choices, and body.

    For example, the company I studied claims to have distilled the everyday practice of editing photos and posting them to social media into a science. After six months of fieldwork, I was able to immediately identify examples of what pick-up artists call “Demonstration of High Value” (DHV) — a nicer term for flaunting one’s wealth to attract women: red wine, travel, golf, and the classic combination of coffee, a bookstore, and some sentimental observations about life.

    Of course, these images are anything but spontaneous; they are the result of meticulous framing and editing, and they reflect the close connections between “value” and wealth in contemporary China’s dating scene. In his study of modern Chinese dating practices, the sociologist James Farrer found that relationships in contemporary China have become inextricably linked to various forms of consumption — a finding backed up by other scholars, including Susanne Choi and Peng Yinni in their book on the lives of migrant men. The result is a dating culture that is highly commercialized relative to the 1980s, when romance mainly took place in public, free, and non-digital settings.

    But it is no longer enough to be wealthy or good-looking. Over the years, male-targeted media have stressed the importance of “taste,” in addition to money: Displays of one’s value mustn’t appear deliberate or overly wealth-conscious, or else the uploader will come across as an uncultured nouveau riche. Instead of simply uploading a photo of an expensive watch, PUA trainees will pair it with a “deep” quote, such as: “Life is like a movie: Whether it’s good or bad, long or short, everyone must leave when the credits roll.” Or, when uploading photos from a spur-of-the-moment, impulsive trip, they'll “inadvertently” show off a Louis Vuitton belt or a Rimova suitcase. Others will upload a photo of themselves posing by a pool that casually shows off their muscles — but again, they’re always careful to pair it with a contemplative caption.

    In short, the ability to engage in wanton consumption in refined ways has become a key measure of male masculinity, or at least the bi ge version of it. Although he is still in high school, Quinn already feels pressure to prove his worth. After excitedly informing me that he’d landed a date, he announced that he had to go home and change. “Tonight I have to wear at least an Omega watch worth 20,000 yuan,” he explained. “My belt has to be changed too. Calvin Klein is definitely not good enough — I have to pick out a Ferragamo.”

    Taste must be curated constantly, especially for those students without Quinn’s resources. Most of the students I interviewed saw aping the tastes of their elite counterparts as a way to attract potential girlfriends, even in the absence of truly elite resources.

    Interestingly, this fixation on self-curation has created a loop, as PUA students increasingly believe that they must prove themselves members of China’s economic and social elite before they can achieve “romantic freedom” — the ability to date any woman they choose, no matter how unattainable. William, a worker at a tech company, told me that he now reads three or four books a month and goes to the gym regularly. In order to bulk up and achieve the perfect body, he generally only eats boiled chicken breasts and other “healthy” foods. Working out and cooking low-fat meals occupies most of his time, so much so that he complained he barely has time to implement the PUA techniques he was learning.

    The more consumerist the dating market gets, the more the PUA dream of “romantic freedom” becomes tangled up with the need for “financial freedom” — or at least a convincing imitation of it. When it comes to taking the instructors’ more onerous and expensive advice, the pick-up artists I interviewed all offered similar justifications: “You have to take a long-term perspective on this matter. In 10 or 20 years, you may reach the peak of your career and achieve financial freedom. At that moment, will you care about the few hundred yuan you spent today? If you want to achieve ‘romantic freedom,’ these investments are worthwhile. If you don’t change your life, if your life is not appealing, how will you persuade women to be with you?”

    As the scholar Lauren Berlant argues in her book “Cruel Optimism,” neoliberal societies are characterized by precarity. Individuals are adrift in a world that seems entirely out of their control, and “optimism” has been reduced to fantasizing about a life of stability and normativity. China’s marriage market exemplifies this phenomenon, as marriage and love have become deeply intertwined with individuals’ desires to promote or stabilize their class identities. Despite the obstacles, PUA students are optimistic they will be able to find a partner and have a happy life, as long as they learn to demonstrate their “high value” on social media and learn the right techniques for communicating with women.

    Yet, excluding wealthy students like Quinn, this illusion is almost impossible to sustain offline. Instead, it has become a source of constant anxiety for prospective pick-up artists. Many of the young men I interviewed believe that they won’t be able to get ahead in China’s highly competitive and consumerist marriage market if they don’t work hard to cultivate a façade of cultural and financial wealth. But when they inevitably fail to live up to the affluent, leisurely, and cultivated lifestyle they present on social media, they feel like frauds and liars.

    Ultimately, online curation cannot bring these young men the bright future they so desperately want. The techniques they learn in class only generate more anxiety. As one trainee told me: “It doesn’t matter how many seduction techniques you pick up, or how well you curate your image, it’ll all amount to nothing if you’re unable to afford a house in Shenzhen.”

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: Jiyi Image/People Visual)