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Digital dating reflects massive social change and pressure

(Shanghai Daily)

08:13, January 21, 2013

(Shanghai Daily/Zhou Tao)

Key Words: love; marriage; date; digital dating; pressure
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Wandering through the main gate of Shanghai's People's Park, visitors might think they have stumbled upon a bustling flea market. Rows of colorful stalls line the walkways, which are crowded with old couples elbowing each other to examine the thousands of offerings.

But the "goods' hawked by the seasoned ladies are not scarves or souvenirs, but rather single men and women.

Welcome to the People's Park "marriage market," where thousands of adults - mostly aging parents - come every day to scan the sea of personal ads, meet with matchmakers and chat up other parents eager to find a partner for their overworked, unwed children.

These marriage markets are a logical extension of the traditional Chinese matchmaking culture, where family elders drive the screening for, and selection of, their childrens' future mates.

At the same time, however, there is an entirely different market in operation, one where millions of exchanges happen daily, and the "shoppers" are the singles themselves. This is the world of Chinese online dating, a nascent industry that has taken off and is expected to break 2 billion yuan (US$318 million) in annual revenue by 2014, according to a recent report by Analysys International.

What is interesting about this industry is not only its rapid growth in a conservative society that frowns upon courting more than one person at a time, but also its potential to change the social norms that are part of dating both online and offline.

That is not to say that online dating has changed the values and criteria of Chinese singles completely.

On the contrary, the primary players in this space - Jiayuan, Zhenai and Baihe - clearly advertise themselves as marriage websites focused on helping singles find their future life partner.

While the mean age of marriage is rising, marriage is still nearly universal among the Chinese. More than 99 percent of women between the ages of 35 and 39 on the Chinese mainland have been married at least once, according to a study by Gavin W. Jones at the Asia Research Institute.

The traditional emphasis on finding a partner with a similar educational pedigree and economic standing is still followed in the digital world.

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