Doing whatever it takes to find a mate

ONE is the loneliest number, and 11/11 the loneliest date. November 11th was Singles’ Day in China, known as “Double Eleven” or “Bare Branches” day—a Chinese term for bachelors. In a country where males outnumber females by 34m and often struggle to achieve the kind of income deemed necessary to attract a partner, those single souls have plenty of company.

Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!

In recent years, Singles’ Day has become largely an online shopping festival. Aware of the size of the single population (and of its relative spending power, in the absence of families to support), from midnight each November 10th retailers offer discounts that attract huge numbers of consumers—single or not. This year according to state media, within the first 55 seconds 100m yuan ($16m) worth of discounted goods were sold online, with a billion yuan spent within 6 minutes and 7 seconds, and 6.7 billion yuan in the first hour.

Figures released by Alibaba, a large Chinese e-commerce retailer, say the most popular product was the Xiaomi brand of mobile phone, with over 550m yuan worth whisked off the virtual shelves. Underwear is always another popular choice, and this year 1.6 million bras sold before noon. When the tills closed, the estimated value of the day’s retail therapy totalled 35 billion yuan.

Besides online sales mania, and a bump in spam text messages from dating websites, there were also singles’ events for those using the occasion to try to find a date. At one singles’ club in Beijing, the Happiness Culture Member’s Club (“The Home of Single Friends”), 150 singles registered with their identity cards for a speed dating event. The evening included the “500-second game,” in which the gents circled a ring of seated ladies and stopped at random, in the style of musical chairs, to have an eight-minute conversation with the person opposite. A simpler variant had both sexes take opposite ends of a bundle of entangled strings, then unravel them through much contortion—no letting go allowed—to discover who the next eight-minute date would be.

The club, one of three in a chain established in Beijing in 2003, targets young professionals in their mid- to late-twenties, though there are also members in their thirties and forties. The organiser of the event, Liu Lei, said such singles’ organisations and websites existed “not because it’s popular, but because it’s necessary,” talking of a “market need” for singles with good incomes but no time to look beyond their immediate circle for potential spouses.

The open goal of such get-togethers is marriage, not just a dinner date. The first and most salient information to be exchanged concerns age, height, background and job. That holds true for the broader dating culture in mainland China, where the pressure is on men first to own an apartment and a car before they can find a wife. At “marriage markets” in China’s bigger cities, it is often a bachelor’s parents who present the relevant details to those parents shopping for a husband for their daughter. Dating websites and matchmaking companies are widespread, alongside odder methods for finding a girlfriend without risking rejection—such as the occasional habit of some single men stealthily to attach sticky paper with their telephone numbers to women’s backs in subway carriages.

Yet not everyone buys into the marriage market. Urban younger generations, especially those born after 1990, have embraced a freer style of dating. For them, an increasingly popular way to pick up a companion is a smart phone app called WeChat, with its geo-location functions that show who is nearby, sorted by sex and accompanied by profile pictures. No strings attached.

(Picture credit: STR/AFP)