The Economist has introduced a new Asian feature named Banyan to address “half the world’s people”. This is coming on the heels of its long-time Lexington (American), Charlamange (European), Bagehot (British), and Buttonwood (finance) columns. The banyan tree is supposed to signify Asian values that celebrate spirituality and entrepreneurialism.
Needless to say, I am looking forward to the many insights the magazine will offer through this new conduit. I am personally fascinated by culture, geography, history, and the enduring roles they play in how we organize our respective societies, both economically and politically. Today, while we’re on the subject of Asian values and entrepreneurialism, I thought I’d share a story about China.
For a country as populous as China, it is often surprising how laborious the mating process can be. What many societies take for personal and a rather recreational activity, become a dedicated family pursuit when undertaken in China. While a lucky percentage of youngsters now date in university and at work, a good portion of the Chinese youth lack both the personal charisma and the time to take their personal life into their own hands.
That is where the countless matchmaking organizations and individuals come in. It is systemic and serious, and the process resembles a job interview in more ways than one. There are social gatherings that remotely mirror speed dating. There are also eager parents that cruise matchmaking parks in search of their son or daughter’ soul-mates.
While travelling through China last summer, I witnessed first-hand, the power of a one-person matchmaking enterprise. We’re not talking about Emma senselessly waving her cupid’s arrow and shooting blanks here. We’re talking about middle aged housewives who have taken on the burden of enabling the propagation of reproduction for the next generation (of course, the red pockets and possible financial perks should a match be successful are not exactly trifle).
Traditionally, marriage in China is regarded a commercial transaction instead of a match born out of love. That’s hardly surprising given its feudal and agrarian past. In modern times, such rituals are less prominently practiced in China, but the re-interpretation of such practice has since morphed into a business for industrious housewives.
Why would smart, educated urban young men and women of this day and age rely on a broker for their life-long happiness, especially knowing there are monetary rewards involved? It all goes back to culture. The prevailing attitude towards marriage in China is based on the idea of men dang hu dui, which somehow transgressed decades of communist indoctrination, and roughly translates to the idea that only people of similar backgrounds and social classes are fit for each other. Since a matchmaker is expected to be familiar with all eligible singles and their backgrounds in a community, she becomes a walking and talking black book, China style.
I met one such lady for tea in Shanghai. On average, she said, she introduces anywhere between 2 to 4 couples a day. On her busiest day, she set the record of making 8 introductions. Her most far-flung introduction, she said, took place between two Chinese that resided in Australia and New Zealand respectively.
“A lot of parents try to give me gifts when asking for my help with their child. I tell them no, too much pressure. But I’ll accept gifts if the match is successful. That I can do.”
With swelling pride, she pulled out a thick book. As she flipped through page after page of personal profiles, pragmatic vital statistics flashed before my eyes: a passport like photo, hometown, age (important for women), occupation (important for men), parents’ occupations and incomes, etc. But with so many people, how does she even begin to wave her magic matchmaking wand?
Typically, a matchmaker does not only collect names and pictures, she gets to know the people behind those pages. She would often visit the candidates, getting to know each one of them as well as their families. Only then would she be confident enough to start her “matching”. Does match.com perform such fiduciary duties? I think not.
“I get requests. The woman would be quite particular about the man’s height and the acceptable age band to her. But more importantly, he needs to have a car and a house.”
“But of course, their respective social status also has to match: what their parents do, where they are from originally, all has to be taken into consideration.”
She excused herself during tea to make two further introductions, each one lasting half an hour.
“I have to stick around for a while after the first couple meets so I can wait for the next couple. Last time, the guy from the first introduction was late, and the girl became enamored by the guy from the second group who was early. The first guy wasn’t happy about that.”
What about the success rate? She boasted that she matches at least 7 or 8 couples a year. This is apparently a good rate. But when asked why the rate is so low, she said:
“The girls all want to marry up, they ask too much.”
And the guys?
“They can afford to cherry-pick. There are too many successful and pretty girls around. Competition is fierce.”
picture source: *dkraner