Let me start by talking about my village.
Yinhe, which literally means “Silver River,” is in Danfeng County, in the northwestern Shaanxi province. I have no idea, however, how it got its name.
Though there is a river nearby, I have never seen any silver. The 35-kilometer long river flourishes in the summer and is desolate in winter. Once past our village, it is known as the Wuhe river, but what it is called further downstream, I do not know.
It is said that its waters finally flow into Wuhan, capital of the central Hubei province, where it joins the mighty Yangtze.
Yinhe is the same length as the river; at its widest, the village is spread across five kilometers and measures about 500 meters at its narrowest. The houses here dot the foot of the mountains that line the winding river. It is possible to walk for miles without seeing a single house. In the 1990s, the village population hit its peak: 2,000 residents.
For almost 20 years now, I’ve been a matchmaker. Around these parts, since most matchmakers are women — and I am a man — people think I’m joking when I tell them what I do.
I don’t want to do it but people keep asking me to find them matches. Being a matchmaker doesn’t put food on the table nor does it require special skills. It’s not like being a doctor or a bricklayer. To be honest, it’s mostly all about just helping out.
It makes me happy to see a young couple get married, have kids, and laugh with each other. It’s like completing a mission that will last a lifetime.
That’s life: You help people and they help you.
Though I’m almost 60, I’m pretty healthy for my age, which I attribute to an accumulation of virtue. Heaven is always watching.
I’ve forgotten how many marriages I have arranged over the years. There used to be three or four matchmakers in the village but some died and others aren’t keeping too well. Now, I’m the only one left.
These last few years, being a matchmaker has been particularly difficult, primarily because young people are more demanding and have strong personalities, so the success rate is lower. Moreover, there are plenty of men but few women — the imbalance is severe.
In this business, there’s an old adage: “Strong matchmakers protect fiercely and are ruthless as go-betweens.”
If you are afraid of offending people or if you prefer glossing over issues, you won’t be successful. Young people now are especially hard to talk to, unlike the old days, when matchmakers could manage most of the necessary arrangements.
However, 2020 was different. I brought together three couples — two young and one a little older. To be honest, it wasn’t easy. In fact, it felt like a movie.
Zhang Guoqing chops wood in Yinhe Village, Shaanxi province, Feb. 7, 2021. Courtesy of Chen Nianxi
Home is where the heart is
Xiaoxiao is a bank teller in Danfeng town. He is presentable and works 9-to-5 in a job others envy. However, in this quiet backwater, his salary is low.
He’s worked there five years and was already 28 when I first met him. People say once you hit 30, you’re not young anymore. Xiaoxiao was eager to find someone and so were his parents.
But the road to marriage is full of obstacles.
Take the simple matter of buying a house. Do you buy one in your hometown, in the town, or in the county? It’s hard to decide, since you don’t know where your future wife will be from or what she will require.
If she wants a house in the county, then you bought one in the town for nothing. If a house in town is fine, then buying one in the county was a waste. For most people, there are millions of options, but you can only spend your money in one place.
On the third day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar — late in Jan. 2020 — Xiaoxiao came to my house on his motorbike with his father. They brought two cartons of cigarettes and two bottles of liquor. There’s another saying in the countryside: “Good things should come in pairs” — so gifts follow this tradition. That’s a basic custom among matchmakers.
Xiaoxiao’s father and I are the same age and we grew up together. He’s an intelligent man and knew well the importance of giving his son a good education. It’s why his son is among the handful of people in the village who attended university.
If a man already knows what he’s looking for, things are a lot easier for the matchmaker — they just put the word out and follow up on any leads. No matter how excessive the woman’s requirements are, there’s always room for negotiation.
Then there’s the man who has no goals at all. It’s just the same as hunting — If you don’t know where your prey is, how will you know which mountain to head up? Xiaoxiao falls in this category.
That whole morning, Xiaoxiao played on his cellphone. I could see his mind was elsewhere. His father and I discussed the women in and around the village for a long time, but we couldn’t think of anyone suitable.
On one hand, Xiaoxiao was 28 and there wasn’t anyone of an appropriate age. On the other, the women in the village leave to find work as soon as they finish junior middle school or high school, so it’s impossible to determine if they have boyfriends in the city.
After much deliberation, I made a decision — we would cast a wide net.
On his motorcycle, Xiaoxiao and I set out toward Shuanggang. In the past, Shuanggang was a separate village, but it eventually merged with Yinhe. Wang Liang there had a 24-year-old daughter named Feng.
But that trip was amid the pandemic and the roads between villages were blocked. That’s why I went to see Feng first. Since they lived in the same village, we did not have to travel far.
Wang has no sons, just one daughter. A single daughter should “recruit” a husband who can live with her family, if at all possible. This was Feng’s approach until she turned 24.
Since she was still single, her family didn’t dare make too many demands — whether her husband would live with them or not, either was fine. As a matchmaker, I have to keep track of every family’s situation.
Wang and his daughter both knew of Xiaoxiao, but thought he was from another village. He did not know them at all. Feng is not bad looking — she is tall, has rosy lips, and white teeth. The two of them hit it off the very day they met.
That night, Wang’s wife made a big batch of noodles. Secretly, I felt elated. I’d never expected it to go this smoothly.
By March 2020, the couple planned on getting engaged, so we discussed the bride price and the house.
At the time, Feng was in Guangdong province, where she worked at a clothing factory. She called home and told her parents she was happy to leave the arrangements to them, since the factory allowed her little time off.
Xiaoxiao’s parents and I were happy. Most matchmakers may seem like go-betweens but they’re actually on the man’s side, having to think of everything on their behalf, and of course, administer basic fairness. Only by being impartial can a matchmaker garner a good reputation.
The bride price was a simple matter: the standard amount in the village was 200,000 yuan ($31,500). But negotiations stalled over the house.
While Feng wanted to buy one in Xi’an, Shaanxi’s capital, Xiaoxiao did not. Feng said she would leave it to her parents. That was her way of refusing — after all, what young person nowadays lets their parents make their decisions?
In reality, she was adamant: If he didn’t buy a house in Xi’an, she would call off the wedding. This was non-negotiable.
I asked Xiaoxiao to give me 200 yuan in phone charges and told him to leave it to me. Xi’an is 300 km from Yinhe and neither family ever worked there, nor did they have relatives or connections. It seemed futile. Even I wouldn’t agree to a house there.
Despite spending all the 200 yuan on phone calls with Feng, I was unable to convince her. I spoke to her parents too, who said they were too old to change her mind.
Finally, Xiaoxiao’s family took a 300,000-yuan loan to make the down payment for the Xi’an house.
For a while, things were back on track. For me, the job was done but I knew both families were unsettled. As they prepared for the wedding, I had a feeling that their marriage might end in divorce.
Of late, there have been more divorces than marriages. Prime among the reasons is that marriage has become a transaction as well as a ladder for some people.
A winter view of Yinhe Village, Shaanxi province, Feb. 7, 2021. Courtesy of Chen Nianxi
A bride for Old La
There’s a custom in the countryside: “Don’t visit a matchmaker during the sixth and 12th months of the lunar calendar.” Yet, on the 10th day of the sixth month — late July, 2020 — Old La came to my house.
Old La got his nickname because of his occupation when he was young. His surname is actually Liu, a name common in the village. When Old La was just a kid, he was recruited into the village’s model opera group. At the time, he was called Young Liu and was a good singer.
Our village has a long history. The earliest inhabitants came from the south during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). When the rebellion failed, they fled down the Yangtze until they arrived in this little corner of Shaanxi.
When I was very young, I remember people of all ages singing the flower-drum opera, during and after work. At the time, an opera song always lingered in the air.
When Old La began singing, the group performed Peking opera, which is particularly challenging and requires a lot of practice.
One winter evening, he was practicing the opera “Wujiapo,” alone. As he reached the crescendo, he was so immersed in the part that he seemed no longer himself — he had become the heroine.
At that moment, a candle next to the bed he was close to fell on a quilt and set it on fire, leaving him with severe burns before he even realized what was happening. It also left many scars, hence the nickname Old La, meaning “Old Candle.”
Old La’s wife died young, and he lived with his daughter, who now studies Chinese opera in Beijing. Alone at home, he often sang sad songs of reminiscence, injustice, and disappointment. He came to me in a hurry, hoping I could help him find a wife.
This was a hard job. But as a matchmaker, people trust you, so you should take on the task no matter how difficult. Generally speaking, second marriages are more challenging, since both sides have children and parents who may complicate things.
One match came to mind: Juanzi, a woman who ran a restaurant in a town nearby. I didn’t know where she was originally from, just that she was single. While eating at her restaurant once, I overheard someone say that they’d help her find a husband, to which she just smiled.
She was around 50, attractive, and seven or eight years younger than Old La. The diners would call out “Juanzi, Juanzi,” and she’d answer them with a smile. Her temperament was really good, and it was easy to see she was even more beautiful when she was younger.
I spoke to Old La about the situation. He only said:“OK, OK, OK.”
The whole tale might take me three whole days and nights to narrate. So, to cut a long story short, despite several things going awry during the match-making, in the end, Juanzi agreed to marry Old La.
Old La gave me 1,000 yuan for my hard work, but I only took half. According to our customs, I should have accepted it all. But I couldn’t, because I still had work to do. I said to him, “Don’t come looking for help from me in the future about the son.”
Old La replied, “I won’t bother you anymore.” As he walked away, he was singing the lines of Zhuge Liang, the famous military strategist in the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”: “I used to live a life of seclusion and carefreeness in Wolong Gang.” After he’d gone, I said to myself, “your days of crying are still ahead of you.”
I knew this match wasn’t finished. Juanzi has a son, currently in prison for assaulting someone in a fight. Juanzi’s requirement was that once he was released, Old La would buy him a house, to which he agreed. I was the guarantor.
Privately, I asked Old La, “Can you afford a house?”
Old La said with a smile: “Life — it’s like a play. Who knows what the next story will be, or where the plot will turn?”
Second marriages are always full of complications and variables. For such marriages to succeed, a bit of luck is needed.
A river in Yinhe Village, Shaanxi province, Feb. 7, 2021. Courtesy of Chen Nianxi
Moon among the mountains
Wufeng is the most famous mountain in Yinhe, known for its revolutionary history even by people who haven’t heard of the village. Its peak juts abruptly into the sky, while the sound of the wind rustling the branches of its pine trees echoes for miles.
In the past, there was a temple on the mountain, where incense was often burned. However, because the mountain is so high and there are no paved roads, no one has been up to burn incense for more than 10 years. Now, only its ruined walls remain.
Huazi’s family lives on the slope opposite Wufeng mountain. The villagers all say he has been blessed in a previous life because he got married so easily, and for such a low price.
On the 17th day of the tenth lunar month — early December — Huazi and his wife got married. As the matchmaker, I sat at the top table and drank the night away. As far as I can remember, I haven’t been drunk in 10 years.
Huazi and his wife were high school classmates and married out of love. But when it came to it, they did it all through a matchmaker. As such, I acted as their middleman for an easy job.
A well-known 10-person band from the neighboring county played at the wedding. Their repertoire included wedding classics like “Welcome Song,” “Hundreds of Birds Worshiping the Phoenix,” and “Bridal Sedan Chair.”
The road to Huazi’s home on the hillside ended at the foot of the mountain, and it was a two-km walk up a steep path from there. A strong young man would be drenched in sweat if he carried even one sack of rice on his back to climb the hill.
Huazi’s wife didn’t ask him to carry her, choosing instead to walk one step at a time, while carefully lifting her wedding dress. His wife is from the city and had never walked so far along a mountain road. It was evident that she had made a big decision. It is rare to see a woman so determined to marry a young man from the mountains nowadays.
I remember another young couple — from around 30 years ago.
Yinhe once had a small mushroom business. The hills on both sides of the village are covered in oak trees, which are ideal for fungi. Both men and women worked at the mushroom factory nearby. Most were from the city and some were locals; all of them were young.
Zheng Guo was from Yinhe, while Xia was from another town. The two met and fell in love. That October, the head of the factory presided over a grand wedding for them. Old Zhang, the village head, made a pot of corn wine and everyone drank merrily.
The next spring, Xia became pregnant. Those days, during spring, no one had much food left in their houses. So, Zheng went into the hills to dig up some sweet potatoes for Xia. But by spring, the vines had dried up and they were hard to find.
After climbing hill after hill, Zheng finally found some by the edge of a cliff. But he slipped and fell, breaking his leg.
Because of the amount of blood he had lost by the time he was found, Zheng’s leg had to be amputated. Moreover, the wound never fully healed and he developed a bone infection. In 2000, Zheng died.
Some say Zheng and Xia never got to live their idyllic life, while others say their days together were filled with happiness.
On the night of Huazi’s wedding, I walked home, alone. In the distance, the silhouette of the mountains was black, and I could hear the Yinhe River coursing its way through the hills. After a while, the moon slowly appeared, lighting everything up. I stopped and bowed deeply to the moon.
I wished the moon would bless all couples everywhere with peaceful and long lives.
As told to Chen Nianxi.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: View Stock/People Visual)