Parents Play Cupid at China's Matchmaking Markets

As a single woman, I would be absolutely mortified if my parents pimped me out for marriage in Chicago’s Grant Park by plastering my picture and bio on a public flier for all to see.

Which is why I find it fascinating that in China, it’s become regular practice for parents and professional matchmakers to gather in parks to do just that — advertise unmarried children in the hopes of finding them a spouse.

It’s all so very — public.

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Parents and matchmakers read advertisements at the Shanghai Marriage Market. (Photo: Erica Bray)

The tradition has evolved into weekly markets that have been described as “Match.com meets farmers’ market.” Parents, sometimes unbeknownst to their sons and daughters, flock to public parks at designated times, armed with a short written summary about their child in the hopes that other parents with single children might spot a potential love connection. The goal is to arrange a first date.

Driven by the cultural pressure to find a good spouse, coupled with the uneven ratio of men to women (118 : 100), these weekly markets attract big crowds. But China’s most eligible singles aren’t even in attendance. Moms, dads, or market matchmakers do all of the legwork.

Even with a proliferation of online dating and professional matchmaking services in China, these markets allow families to cast wider nets. And that’s clearly going to be important for the fellas. A study out of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill predicts that China’s gender gap will continue to widen and that by the year 2020, there will be 24 million more men than women.

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A crowd at the Shanghai Marriage Market (Photo: Erica Bray)

While I was traveling in China, curiosity motivated me to visit two of its biggest weekend matchmaking markets: Matchmaker’s Corner, which takes place in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven park, and the Shanghai Marriage Market, which takes place in People’s Park.

Each was crowded with middle-aged and elderly Chinese, who were carefully reviewing the numerous bios and pictures scattered across the designated areas of the parks. Some of these “advertisements” were lined next to each other on the ground, held in place with heavy rocks. Others were clipped to clotheslines, hanging alongside resumés and faces of other eligible singles. Parents or matchmakers “representing” the candidates stood nearby, ready to answer any questions.

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Matchmaker’s Corner (Photo: Erica Bray)

It all seemed very old school. No slick booths. No gimmicky banners. Just lots of information. Some of it handwritten. I kept thinking that the millennials represented here would sooner create an online profile than write up a flier. But the audience here was older and clearly accustomed to their generation’s ways. Like exchanging phone numbers instead of emails, and talking instead of texting. I certainly appreciate the beautiful efficiency in this approach.

People moved about slowly, carefully studying the traits articulated on each prospect’s flier. I learned that some of the most important qualifications for a man were home ownership, a good salary, and a car. Yep, salaries are advertised loud and clear. And men who don’t own a home are much quicker to be dismissed.

As for women, I learned that single females over the age of 27 are considered “leftovers,” and are subsequently considered less desirable mates. In Chinese culture, pressure still exists for women to marry young. This, even as a growing number of women are postponing marriage to pursue careers, is something that can be intimidating to some Chinese men and further complicates the dating dynamic.

For both sexes, age, height, education, and family values were also important – and often advertised on the flier, if not discussed by matchmaking parents.

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Summaries at Matchmaker’s Corner (Photo: Erica Bray)

At both markets, a gentle hum of conversations filled the air, with people assessing prospects and taking notes. At Matchmaker’s Corner, one elderly gentleman even approached me! Did he think that I was there scoping out a Chinese husband? Or did he think I had someone in mind for his son? I don’t speak Mandarin, and he didn’t speak English. So he pointed to a flier he clearly owned and gave me a triple eyebrow raise as if to say, “What do you think about my son? Eh? Eh? Eh?” I just smiled politely and moved on. Although, it would have been more fun to point to myself and say “leftover” in Mandarin.

It was fascinating to observe this matchmaking phenomenon. As I strolled through these parks, with potential love transactions blossoming around me in a chatter I didn’t understand, I imagined what it would be like if something like this were part of the social fabric of America.

Then I thanked God that my parents don’t have this option.

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