Ye Xiaofei received a friendship request on QQ from a young man she didn’t know. She checked his QQ space and liked it, and thought it would be nice to get to know someone who works in IT.

Ye (pseudonym) is 23 years old and works in the oil industry. At first, the young man commented on her pictures and other posts on her QQ page. Ye asked him about his Microsoft Excel skills. They became friends, and a month and a half later, he invited her to have lunch together on a Sunday. That’s how their romantic relationship started.

Her story is common among young Chinese, who are increasingly looking for love online, pressured by society’s expectation to get married young and constrained by work schedules. China’s two largest dating websites, Jiayuan.com and Baihe.com, together have 235 million registered users – more than twice the number of users of the Top 15 American dating sites combined.

Dating apps such as Momo, Tantan and Qingchifan are growing fast and attracting investment. And young people also use general messaging apps such as WeChat and QQ to meet romantic partners.

“We are in the Internet age,” Ye said. “People are more open to strangers. Also, it’s faster to find a person who meets your requirements by sorting through criteria online.”

Online dating in China will generate about 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in annual sales by 2016, up 17 percent from 2014, according to market research firm iResearch. Dating websites make money from ads and membership fees, and also from offline mingling events and premium matchmaking services. Comparatively, most foreign dating sites rely on advertising.

Apart from being a boon for businesses, the rise of online dating is rooted in local matchmaking culture and influenced by demographic and economic forces.

Culture of Matchmaking

China’s matchmaking tradition goes back 2,000 years to the Zhou dynasty. Every village used to have a Red Mother – a woman employed to find good matches among the community’s youth. In 1950, Chairman Mao outlawed arranged marriages, but family elders remained pivotal in selecting and approving spouses.

But in recent decades, urbanization uprooted the traditional community-based networks through which people met their partners, making it more difficult for Chinese to mate.

“More so than ever, Chinese people are leaving their hometowns for educational or professional opportunities in cities like Beijing, and in doing so are forced to recreate their social network from scratch,” said Jiayuan.com CFO Shang-Hsiu Koo in a study by the University of Pennsylvania.

Jiayuan.com was born under similar circumstances. Its co-founder, Gong Haiyan, created China’s leading dating website from her college dorm in 2003. Then 27-year-old Gong was studying for a master’s degree at Fudan University. She had little free time and no luck in finding a mate, and was not interested in the men in her village back in Hunan province. She signed up for a dating website and contacted several men.

She didn’t hear back from any of them.

When she complained to the company that ran the website, she was told she was not “particularly beautiful or charming,” so those men “couldn’t possibly be interested in her,” according to a BBC article. That’s when Gong decided to set up her own dating service. A few months later she met her future husband through the website.

But China faces a crisis absent in other newly urbanized countries. The one-child policy, which was enacted in 1979, and the cultural preference for boys led to millions of sex-selective abortions in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, for every 100 females there are almost 120 males, a ratio that drives up the competition for finding a wife. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by 2020 there will be 24 million more men of marriageable age than women.

According to Baihe.com, China had 180 million bachelors in 2011: half of them were looking for love online.

That doesn’t mean women have it easier. In a culture where so much revolves around family and raising children, 98 percent of the women eventually marry – one of the highest rates in the world. But they need to marry well and to marry on time. Single women above 27 years old are labeled “leftover women.”

So in this pressure-filled environment what role do dating websites play? Author Evan Osnos wrote in the New Yorker that whereas in America online dating “has the power to expand your universe of potential mates; in China, a nation of 1.3 billion people, (it) promises to do the opposite.”

Crucial in accomplishing this are the selection criteria on dating websites. But whereas users of foreign dating sites often try to impress with looks and personality, Chinese sites are more pragmatic. Educational background, monthly salary, height, age and home ownership often weigh the most in selecting a partner. Websites such as Jiayuan.com and Baihe.com allow users to weed out the opposite-sex pool by these criteria, along with others such as face shape, blood type and “degree of filial piety.”

Men are generally expected to have a house, a car and a satisfying salary. Sixty-eight percent of women in developed cities said they would not marry a man until he owns a house, according to a study cited by Foreign Policy. A man without a house, a car and savings is called a “triple without.”

Sour Love

The rise of online dating has led, on one hand, to market fragmentation. Dozens of websites and apps have sprouted in recent years. On the other hand, it has attracted an ever-expanding range of scams.

A study by University College London and Jiayuan.com published in May revealed that more than 500,000 of the website’s accounts were suspected of fraud.

The dating platform was affected, along with its users. In May 2011, Jiayuan.com was listed on Nasdaq with an initial share value of $11. In March of this year, the company’s largest shareholder, Vast Profit Holdings, offered to buy the company back at $5.37 per share. Gong sold her stake and left the company.

Apart from that, relationship sites have natural limits, Michelle Ma, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst, told Bloomberg.

“The industry has been growing over the years, but they will not grow as big as other social networking areas,” she says. “The limitation is that people will leave after they find their partners.”

Ye and her boyfriend whom she met on QQ dated for seven months, after which they split, sending her back into the dating game.

Simina Mistreanu

About Simina Mistreanu

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Simina is a journalist who is passionate about social issues and good stories. So far, she's reported on four continents. She loves dogs and plans to get one in Beijing.

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