Halfway through my meeting with a "love consultant" in Beijing, I realized that if I were single in China, I'd have little chance of landing a "Class A" man. For starters, I'm 31. Worse, I'm college-educated and have a professional career. Unfortunately, someone like me might be considered to be a sheng nü—literally, one of the leftover women.
I was chatting with Xia Li, a love consultant with an online dating company. That morning, one of Xia's clients had called with a dilemma: She wanted her boyfriend to accompany her when she went to pierce her ears, but his mother disapproved. The client, distraught, fretted that she wasn't the most important person in her boyfriend's life.
"Does his mother have different values because she's not from Beijing?" Xia asked her client. Xia, a trim, confident woman in a stylish suit, continued, "Your boyfriend and his mother have been together for 30 years; you two just six months. Talk to him directly, but don't make a big deal of it."
Xia counsels clients who lack dating experience, which sometimes means adjusting their storybook expectations of romance. Most are successful women who have put off marriage because they've been busy with work or school.
We were at the Beijing offices of Baihe.com, a company that's China's version of eHarmony or Chemistry.com. I was sitting on a fire-engine-red loveseat, a not-so-subtle reminder that romance was the business at hand. Fill out a psychological questionnaire, and you can be matched with the person who just might be your soul mate.
But how to woo your soul mate, especially if you're shy or new to dating?
That's where love consultants—real-life "date doctors" like Will Smith's Hitch—come in. China's busy, wealthy singles have begun to seek out advisers like Xia to guide them from the first date all the way, potentially, to the proposal. The consultants arrange dates. They help you update your wardrobe. They play the BFF. They even talk to your significant other (or his or her love consultant) after you've had a spat.
At $450 and up for six months of service (that's equivalent to one and a half month's salary for a new college graduate), Baihe.com's date doctors are too expensive for most Chinese singles. But according to the company, 10,000 members have signed up for professional help with their love lives. Dating is enough of a nationwide mystery that in Shenzhen, the southern metropolis where America's iPods and other gadgets are assembled, hundreds of love consultants employed by the dating site ZhenAi.com dispense advice over the phone.
This kind of consultant-assisted romance reached new heights last year, when a dating site called 915915.com started offering "love apartments" in Shanghai—homes where eight singles live together for a week of live-action matchmaking. It's like The Bachelor meets Real World, but with on-site coaches instead of cameras. The participants, each of whom must prove he or she has $300,000 in assets, make dinner together and play icebreaking games like "truth or dare." And if one fancied a housemate, the coach would help them snag one-on-one time with the object of their desire.
A generation ago, everybody in China had less money, and finding a mate was simpler. Families introduced their adult children to prospective husbands or wives, and if both parties agreed, a marriage resulted. There was no such thing as dating.
Today, Chinese people are free to choose whom they date. But it's harder to meet someone now that social networks are stretched thin. "Everyone migrates these days, especially to the big cities," said Xia, who herself came to Beijing from Xinjiang, a majority-Muslim province that borders Kazakhstan. "Maybe you move to a new place, and don't know many people. You can't meet people on the street or in the subway. It's not like before."
For single, urban women, the odds can be discouraging, even though China has more men than women. This imbalance results from the country's one-child policy, which has caused some parents to use abortion to select for male babies. The national birth rate currently stands at 120 boys for every 100 girls born.
In the cities, however, the gender imbalance skews the other way, because more women tend to move to urban areas. In Beijing, there are half a million more single women ages 25 to 50 than single men. (Rural areas have more men, and they have a hard time finding wives.)
At Baihe.com, most clients who sign up for love consultants are women. No wonder, given that the marriageability clock starts counting down while women are still in their 20s. (When I worked as an editor for a magazine in Beijing in 2009, the company benefits gave a longer wedding leave to employees who had a "late marriage." For women, this meant getting hitched after the age of 23.)
There's more. Ambitious, high-achieving women earn a kind of scarlet letter for being far too talented to make a suitable wife. They're called "Class A" women.
By tradition, an ideal match is one where the husband surpasses his wife in every respect—is taller, has a better job and education, and comes from a more esteemed family. In other words, "Class A" men should marry "Class B" women. As one Chinese male friend explained to me, for a woman, having too much success is a much greater liability than being a few years "too old."
Of course, it's possible for "Class A" women to attract men who are "better" than they are. But sometimes the most sought-after bachelors simply prefer younger "Class B" wives.
One Baihe.com love consultant, a former Miss Beijing named Tammy Tai, ticked off the list of qualities that one of her top clients, a multi-millionaire investor, is seeking in a wife: "Someone who's an artist. Pretty. Not successful," said Tai. "Someone who takes care of others."
"So, having a career is … bad?" I asked.
Tai, a published novelist who is considered an accomplished professional, looked at me as if I were a child. "I used to date this guy," she told me. "He said, 'Who cares about your job?' Most guys don't care."
Lastly, some singles—both men and women—lack dating experience. People devote themselves to graduate school or a demanding job, and before they know it, it's time to get married—even though they've never had a serious relationship.
That was the situation Amanda Zhang found herself in two years ago. She'd spent most of her 20s getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature, then she moved to Beijing to work as a translator. And though Amanda was a chatterbox with her close friends, she didn't meet many people outside the office.
One Sunday morning, Amanda and I got together at a teahouse in her neighborhood. A waitress hovered by the indoor rock garden as—in the Chinese manner—we repeatedly deferred to each other over which tea to order.
"When I turned 28, I thought, 'I still don't have a boyfriend?' " she remembered. "I was so old and had no sense of security."
Determined to find a boyfriend, Amanda signed up for a love consultant from Baihe.com. A year's VIP service cost $1,300, but the chance to meet quality men with an expert's help was worth the high price.
Knowing that Amanda was an innocent when it came to dating, her consultant gave her a basic run-down on how to relate to men—men and women express their feelings in different ways, men sometimes act the way they do because they fear rejection. Then she sent Amanda off on a series of dates. Unfortunately, there were no sparks for several months.
Finally, last April, Amanda was introduced to John. For one of their first dates, John had planned to impress Amanda by taking her to a big, expensive restaurant. His consultant pointed him to a casual spot instead, explaining, "Maybe she doesn't want a da nanzi"—a macho man.
Dinner went well, and the two went on more dates over the following weeks. Born in the Year of the Rabbit, John had wanted to be paired with women who were sheep or dogs in the Chinese zodiac. Four years younger than John, Amanda was a sheep. John also liked her because she said exactly what was on her mind.
A month into their relationship, however, Amanda and John started to have doubts about one another. "I didn't call her often enough," said John, who'd accompanied Amanda to the teahouse. "She wanted a call every single day."
"If a guy doesn't call you enough," Amanda said, giving John a playful shove, "a girl thinks she's not that important to him."
John didn't recognize that he and Amanda were having a simple misunderstanding. To him, it appeared that the two of them were too different. What else could one expect, he said, when he had been an engineering major and Amanda had studied humanities?
Meanwhile, it was clear to Amanda that John had to be in charge.
But the new couple didn't confide in each other about these worries, nor did they trust the advice of friends. Instead, they each called their date doctors. "I knew the consultants talked to each other," said John, "so I told my problems to my consultant, and she told hers to her consultant."
Amanda's consultant calmed her and explained that John wasn't signaling that he didn't like her. Men were simply more career-oriented, and if John didn't feel secure in his job, he couldn't pay much attention to dating.
John's consultant told him to get an attitude adjustment.
Three months after they first met, John picked an auspicious date, July 4, and asked Amanda to stay home. He went over to her place with an arm full of lilies. Knowing what was about to happen, she greeted him in a traditional Chinese dress, a white qipao embroidered with flowers. John popped the question, Amanda said yes, and the two went ring shopping.
Because their setup resulted in marriage, they would each owe Baihe.com $400. But the newlyweds don't mind. "I found something worth a million dollars," John told me.