China's Singles Turn to 'Dating Camp' to Find Love

In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, new services help unmarried men and women find a partner who captures their heart -- not just Mom and Dad's approval.
datingcampbanner.pngPeople attend a matchmaking event in Jinshan beach, south of Shanghai July 20, 2013.(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

As a single, educated Chinese woman approaching 30, Nancy Ji felt tremendous stress from her parents to get married. So at 28, she hastily tied the knot with a boyfriend. "My parents put a lot of pressure on me. They nagged me about being single every day, and it was very annoying. My boyfriend appeared at the right time, and he had the right economic profile," Ji says. So they got hitched.

But it didn't take long for the marriage to fall apart, and three years later Ji filed for divorce. Part of the problem, she realized, was how she went about finding a partner. When she was younger, Ji's requirements for a spouse were focused on practical matters, like income, family background, height, and education. Romance wasn't part of the equation. "My parents told me to get married first, and that love can be nurtured later," says Ji.

Marriage based on economic status is normal in China. A lot of Chinese women -- and their parents -- even consider a house and car as prerequisites for potential boyfriends. But these financially driven relationships do not always end happily. A new report by the Ministry of Civil Affairs shows that the number of divorces in China jumped 8 percent last year, and, for the first time in 10 years, the increase of the divorce rate has outpaced the growth of the marriage rate. In Beijing and Shanghai, almost 40 percent of couples now divorce, a figure approaching those in Western countries. Meanwhile, people are getting married later in life. As a result, more members of China's "post-80 generation," referring to those born in the 1980s, are opting for love and attraction -- rather than practical considerations -- in finding a partner.

In China, this idea represents a break from tradition. Joy Chen, a Los Angeles-based author of the best-selling book Do Not Marry Before Age 30, says Chinese culture emphasizes honor, duty, and responsibility in relationships -- not love. These days, though, priorities have shifted.

"Suddenly, in the last 10 or 15 years, there's been an explosion in China of talking about love," Chen says, "Everyone wants true love, but people don't know how to get it."

For Wu Di, this cultural shift presented a business opportunity. A family and relationship counselor in Shanghai and the author of I Know How You Were Leftover, Wu launched a three-month "dating camp" two years ago and charged 4000 RMB (about $650) per student. Together with her partner Bob Liu, a salsa instructor, she offered dance courses, workshops and salons to teach singles how to date and fall in love. Hundreds of people signed up for the camp, Wu says, mostly Shanghai white-collar workers in their thirties who had never dated in their life.

In her weekly workshops that have attracted thousands, Wu lectures about how to negotiate with a partner, how to confront parental demand to get married, and even on subjects like sex and birth control. Salsa dancing is a big part of the training, Wu says, because dancing loosens up shy individuals and the music puts them in the mood right away.

"Chinese people don't know how to date. It's been like that for thousands of years," Wu says. "Young people have higher expectations for marriage now. They want attraction, and their parents don't know what that is."

Wu isn't the only one with that idea. Last year, Alex Edmunds, a 26-year-old Princeton graduate living in Beijing, founded Coucou8, an online dating site that hosts affordable small group events like dinner, cooking classes, hiking, and afternoon tea for singles over the age of 26. Edmunds says that at Chinese dating events, conversations focus on income, wealth and whether or not a person has a Beijing hukou, a permit that qualifies a resident for social services like education and health care. This contrasts with the Western style of dating, which Edmunds defines as an organic interaction based on mutual interests where singles get to know each other before focusing on practical matters.

"Young people have higher expectations for marriage now. They want attraction, and their parents don't know what that is."

At the inaugural Coucou8 event, Edmunds found that the Chinese men were low-key and passive, often staring at their phones rather than getting to know the women in the room. So he decided to break the ice by bringing in a host and introducing American-style drinking games. Membership has grown by 10 attendees per month since April.

Shako Liu is multi-media journalist based in Los Angeles.

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