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Love on the Cloud: The Rise of Online Dating in China

Chinese online dating services have grown increasingly popular as they draw on traditional Chinese dating values such as material security and marriage-focused relationships.

July 17, 2017
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Couples who found each other in Baihe.

Originally published by US-China Today on July 17, 2017. Written by Jialin Li & Anna Lipscomb.

When 30-year-old auto sales manager Zhou Yixin joined online dating at the behest of her cousin living in Beijing, she did not expect to meet her steady boyfriend of two years. Unlike in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where new trends emerge and quickly permeate society, Zhou was considered an early adopter in the second-tier city Yantai in Shandong Province when she began online dating in the early 2010s. 

When Zhou reached her late twenties, she felt an increasing amount of pressure from her family to get married. In Chinese culture unmarried women in their late twenties and beyond are labeled “leftover women” or shengnü 剩女.

Sick of unsuccessful blind dates set up by her parents and unable to stand the social scrutiny of meeting potential dates at bars in her city, Zhou registered on Jiayuan, a Chinese dating website. The site is typically used by young singles between 24 and 35 and is commonly viewed as a tool for seeking long-term relationships and possibly marriage. She found that it was not only easy to use and fit the pace of her busy professional life, but it also expanded her dating pool beyond local men in her city to access potential partners of better quality from other regions. “I cannot deny that there are good guys in my local city,” said Zhou on traditional dating, “but I didn’t find any quality matches after getting to know them.” 

An increasing number of Chinese have turned to online dating and dating apps. Jiayuan and Baihe, China’s most popular dating sites, had around 126 million and 85 million registered users in 2015 respectively (Tinder had about 50 million active users in 2014). In contrast to a slew of popular dating apps in the West that are commonly associated with a casual “hook-up” dating culture, Chinese online dating services are typically used by those in search of lasting connections and relationships — although this gradually may be changing. Chinese online dating services have grown increasingly popular as they draw on traditional Chinese dating values such as material security and marriage-focused relationships, and expand connections beyond the screen with offline events and relationship counseling services.

Compatibility expert James Houran, says, “American culture emphasizes individuality whereas Chinese culture places more importance on the community as a collective. Put more simply, an American asks, ‘How does my heart feel?’ whereas a Chinese individual tended to ask, ‘What will other people say?’” 

The Evolution of Chinese Dating Culture

A propaganda posted espousing the New Marriage Law in China. Courtesy of chineseposters.net

Dating in China has changed significantly with the arrival of online dating in the last decade. According to Houran, romantic matchmaking was previously done almost exclusively through personal matchmakers, whereas now that process is being steadily replaced by dating sites with compatibility matching algorithms.

Matchmaking is a long-standing cultural practice in China. Before 1950, many marriages were arranged by parents who followed the rule of “matching doors and parallel windows,” or méndānghùduì 门当户对 meaning marrying someone who shares a similar socio-economic background. Many had arranged marriages in order to fulfill the “obligation of mid-twenties,” or chéngjiālìyè 成家立业 -- that is to get married, have children and please their families. In that setting, marriage bonds were established based on filial piety, rather than love. 

Significant shifts to China’s marriage and dating culture came in 1950 and 1980 with new laws. The New Marriage Law of 1950 was a radical change that replaced traditional arranged marriages by permitting divorces and requiring that both parties consent to the marriage. The 1980 Second Marriage Law further enhanced marriage freedom and gender equality in China by protecting women’s interests in domestic violence and divorce. In addition to these laws, China’s Open Door Policy of 1978, which began to expose Chinese to outside cultural influences, further destabilized traditional customs. More young Chinese took the initiative, many driven by romantic love, to seek potential spouses in their circles through school, work, social gatherings or mutual friends.

Despite these changes, Chinese parents still have great influence in their children’s romantic lives. The older generation often takes responsibility for arranging blind dates for young adults, but only when they are old enough to be married. Matchmaking often takes place when Chinese parents ask their personal connections — from close friends to complete strangers — to look for other young singles for them. When an ideal candidate appears, two young singles will be set up by their parents to give them an opportunity to get to know each other at private, group or family dinners. However, many young Chinese resent their parents attempts to interfere in their romantic life. 

When Zhou’s parents played matchmaker for her, she felt that if she didn’t like the guys chosen by her parents, it would lead to arguments where her parents blamed her for being “too picky.” Dating apps in China instead empower the individual where life is catching up with the law. On dating apps, Zhou says, “We have the autonomy to decide if we feel good about and would like to meet this potential date in real life.” 

Finding “The One” on Dating Apps in China

When Jiayuan’s founder Gong Haiyan was a Masters student at Shanghai’s ultra-competitive Fudan University, she came up with the idea for the website in the hopes of helping her busy college friends find love. Privy M8 (M8), a new American matchmaking platform currently targeting young Asian-American professionals, was inspired by the experiences of the founder and CEO Stephen Christopher Liu, who met his wife through mutual friends. Baihe started out as a networking site called “Hey You” but transformed into a dating site after executives realized that the most active users were young singles. Despite the common stereotype of dating apps being used for casual hookups, these apps are typically used by people who are looking for lasting connections. “We’re looking for people who are more relationship-driven,” says Liu. “We are matching for long-term relationships.”

The Momo app allows you to find potential matches nearby.

While dating apps and sites have made it easier for users to find a large number of highly-targeted matches and thus widening the dating pool for Chinese singles, negative effects have also arisen. Chinese dating preferences are relatively material-driven, and many users, especially women, expect to marry someone who is financially secure and successful. Chinese dating apps accordingly ask users personal questions, such as “annual income,” “housing” and “the type of car you own.” These questions are not only important for the future life of the potential partner, but also for the “face,” 面子, or public image of their family. 

Houran points out the potential unintended consequence: in the age of dating apps, people are pickier and more selective, compared to offline dating. “People now may more easily develop unrealistic expectations for what they seek in a partner,” he says. 

Monogamy, marriage and material values are not valued across all Chinese dating apps. Momo was launched in 2011, one year before Tinder — though it is often called China’s Tinder — and today has 180 million registered users in China. It is widely recognized as the “yuepao tool” 约炮 by users, meaning “hookup” in Chinese Internet slang. “My principal motive was to try to have sex with wide variety of girls,” Chen Xiaozhe, 27, told The Guardian in 2014. Momo said in a 2014 Fortune article that about 5% of the 900 million messages a month sent across its network are about ‘hooking up,’ but the more than 60% of messages that are traded between two people might be leading to the same discussion. There is also coucou8.com, a website that focuses on organizing offline events to offer members a chance of developing relationships, and Blued, a popular LGBT dating app in China that now has twice the market value as Grindr (now owned by Chinese company Beijing Kunlun Tech), the world’s most well-known gay dating app.

When online dating companies such as Baihe and Jiayuan began in the early 2000s, they were still seen as taboo, and many young Chinese were hesitant to adopt this new approach of dating. “Many couples who met online would not like to admit that they met online,” Zhou commented, “maybe because they worry about gossip from other people.” People who meet online are sometimes perceived as “desperate,” that they are eager to get married and online dating is their last resort. There also exists prejudice that portrays online daters as unsociable and perhaps awkward in real life. Liu Xiaotang, a 39-year old HR manager from Beijing, says, “To avoid the social stigma, I would normally answer ‘we met through mutual friends’ when I got asked, so that I don’t have to bother to explain in detail.”

Based on stigma that online dating was not safe or reliable, Jiayuan and Baihe did not experience explosive growth until 2010, when a dating show called If You Are The One swept across China. The show, which is similar to the American dating show The Bachelor, matches single women from Jiayuan and Baihe with single men. The great success of this show gave tremendous exposure to these two sites. It also helped dispel rumors about online dating.

The Business Behind the Apps

Chinese dating apps depend on users who pony up subscription fees and purchase offline services in the name of finding love. According to a report by Analysys 易观, the majority of users are 25-30 years old, located in tier 1 or tier 2 cities, possess a bachelor’s degree and earn a middle class income of about $290-1,160 monthly. According to Wu, by the end of 2015, 72% of users accessed Jiayuan primarily as a mobile app, reflecting a trend to go mobile in the market as a whole. As of July 2017, 8.52% of Jiayuan’s 170 million registered users were paid users.

New features to capture this affluent and accessible market are constantly being rolled out. Jiayuan created a feature called live love-quizzes or yuán fèn quān 缘分圈 (similar to status sharing on social media). Baihe, Beijing Normal University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences founded the first dating and marriage institute in 2006, which uses an advanced system that assesses compatibility based on lifestyle, personality and values. Offline services have also been developed by Baihe and Jiayuan such as matchmaking agencies, photography services, relationship counseling, wedding planning and catering, personal finance and physical stores. Users on the Jiayuan website they can access and send e-mails for free to over 50 relationship experts, many of whom are therapists, social workers and psychologists. But it is really the research institute that extends the dating experience beyond the screens. “We strive to turn our service from “‘once a lifetime’ 一生一次 to ‘in all one’s life’ 一生一世,” said Zhuan Yirong, Baihe’s vice president of marketing. 

While many apps in the West may be free to use and the owners rely on premium services and add-ons to make money, Chinese dating apps tend to monetize through subscription fees and offline services. The membership fees on Chinese dating sites tend to range from $2-130 per month depending on the level of service, with premium features that enable users to send messages or, some users who pay $130 to be promoted to the front page of profiles. Liu Xiaotang, 39, from Beijing, thinks the charges are “reasonable” and “affordable” considering the success that she and others have had from dating apps. According to Zhuan, Baihe also generates revenue from franchise fees paid by partner companies that are given permission to use Baihe’s brand and resources to provide offline services such as counseling, wedding photography or catering.

In order to address these user concerns about privacy and online safety, companies have developed features to try to protect users. Beyond usual measures such as firewalls and manual verification, Baihe was one of the first Chinese dating sites to begin enforcing real-name registration in 2011. In contrast with Western dating apps from which users can use an alias, users on Baihe must register with their real names and phone numbers, and are encouraged to upload information from their Chinese identification cards. Baihe has been criticized for not retroactively including existing members. Chinese dating sites and social media networks require this, which also makes it easier to clamp down on potentially politically subversive behavior online. More than 6 years ago, Jiayuan also launched a five-star review system to enable users to rate and review other users. The feature is unique to Jiayuan and does not yet exist on other Chinese or western dating apps.

Success stories displayed on Jiayuan's website.

Swiping Right into the Future

Slim and beautiful, Baihe’s newest “agent” gets attention. Her job is simple — to help singles overcome the worries and fears about taking the first step in relationships, as well as to help them practice and improve their communication and relationship skills.

However, there is a catch — she is not human. Cast as a 26-year old woman, she is a “relationship-practicing robot” whose development was announced by Baihe and Chinese artificial intelligence company Turing Robot at the end of 2016. She will serve as the first robotic relationship expert in the world helping users practice building and maintaining a relationship with the opposite sex and simulating being on a real date.

According to iResearch data, only 19.4% of Chinese singles choose to be proactive in pursuing a relationship, while over half of singles prefer taking no action or letting nature take its course. Many young people have no clue about how to approach a relationship. The relationship-practicing robot helps new customers addresses this issue. It is part of the constant innovation seen in online dating sites and dating apps, as companies add new features and develop new technologies. 

“A ‘relationship-practicing robot’ is a bridge that help singles overcome the fear of opening up,” says Yang Jing, a Baihe project manager with knowledge of the program. “While it may take time to come into the heart of your crush, you can cultivate a proactive attitude rather than a passive one. Find a relationship is just an AI-training away.”

 

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Events

August 30, 2017 - 4:00pm
Los Angeles, California

The USC U.S.-China Institute presents a talk by Douglas Fuller from Zhejiang University. Fuller's new book, "Paper Tigers, Hidden Dragons," provides an in-depth longitudinal study of China's information technology industry and policy over the last 15 years. 

August 31, 2017 - 4:00pm
Los Angeles, California

USC US-China Institute director Clay Dube will ask Julie Makinen of the L.A. Times, Jonathan Karp of the Asia Society, and May Lee of CCTV what it takes to report on complex and ever-changing China.