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Road to Romance

The different faces of dating in the modern Middle Kingdom


The act of finding a partner should, in theory, involve two people. But the days of spotting one’s mate across a crowded room seem over.

In today’s courting sphere, everyone is trying to get in on the action—from online startups and mega-sites to rural matchmakers and seduction superstars. It’s old news that the dating game is worth a bit of money, but that cash varies depending on what people want, who they’re looking for, and how desperate they are to find that special someone. Online, the dating world is a smorgasbord of options catering to each and every taster, but there are, more often than not, a few sour ingredients involved.

While much of the traditions of the past have faded into the Internet realm, rural areas still maintain the importance of tradition and expertise, and modern matchmakers rise to fill this void. But, both of these options are perhaps different paths to the same goal: love, family, life; for the pick-up artists of China, who take their cues from a long line of sleaze, the goal is imminently more attainable.


The days of nagging parents trying to set up their sons and daughters with prospective dates, well, they’re still going strong in China, but now at least urban Chinese have a wealth of electronic means to find their own partner (or engage in casual sex) instead.

Clambering over the ailing computer-based matchmaking site Jiayuan.com, Momo, a mobile- app, has risen to the top of the heap with around 80 million users as of late 2015. As with most large- scale apps in China, Momo has had its brushes with the authorities; after being accused of harboring prostitution services, it has shifted its image away from primarily being a hook-up app to a more wholesome matchmaking option. To be fair, the service was, by many accounts, turning into a handy tool for prostitutes spreading salacious spam. If anything, Momo got off lucky; in May of 2015, the authorities shuttered over 100 websites for involvement in prostitution, regardless of whether prostitution was the intent or by-product of the site. Wholesome, though, is often in the eye of the beholder, and those turned off by materialism might find certain aspects of Chinese online dating unappealing. Apps in China to a greater extent than in the West tend to include sections on people’s salary or earning power, because while it may not be a meat market, this market still demands hard currency. In all fairness, even the precursors to online dating, such as the signs put up in parks— scrutinized by parents acting as matchmakers—still listed salary as a key aspect of a partner’s desirability.

These days, online dating websites such as Baihe.com can even link to third-party credit-rating agencies to get the lowdown on the financial status of a potential match. But Baihe is hardly known for its sensitivity; in early 2014 it managed to enrage web users after a television advert suggested that people should get married merely to shut up their annoying relatives. It even included the line: “This year I must get married, even if [doing so] is just for my grandma”. For single Chinese women over 25, long the target of at least semi-of cially sanctioned scorn for being “leftover women”, the message could not have been more irritating, as it encouraged already quick-to-judge relatives into piling on the marriage pressure and treated the suitability of a partner as almost irrelevant. The not-at-all subtle advertisement cranked the lial-piety angle up several notches by having the just-married woman able to inform said grandma of the marriage as the grandmother lay on her deathbed, her life’s sole purpose seemingly fulfilled.

Those interested in quick flings, however, need not fear. While the world’s most popular hook-up app Tinder is blocked in China, it has a presence in large cities among expats and Chinese interested in dating foreigners—and no, it has not become wholesome. Tinder is Tinder, even in China.

The vast majority of online Chinese daters, however, do not swipe right. Aside from Momo, there is also Tantan, though prospective users might be interested to note that Tantan was embroiled in controversy in 2015, when a Hong Kong based tech blogger stumbled upon massive security flaws. At the time, the app didn’t seem to be encrypting user data at all. When the blogger, Larry Salibra, began poking around the code, he found that aside from certain salacious terms being censored, the lack of encryption meant a lot of data was visible to anyone with a modicum of technical knowledge.

“Much to my surprise, the information sent between my phone and Tantan’s server somewhere on the other side of the Great Firewall deep in Mainland China was completely readable,” he wrote. “I could see the password I had just entered, my phone number, and all the people I was being matched with. And if I could read it, that means any number of other people could as well.”

He went on to point out that info on marital status, sexual preferences, and hobbies were thus exposed, as were details of a person’s phone address book if they opted to provide that information (which was suggested as an option, ironically, to give you assurance that those contacts would not see you were on Tantan if they were fellow users).

It was a particularly sensitive point, given the fact that in 2015 a scandal involving US based cheating-website Ashley Madison had made headlines after the private information of thousands of users was revealed to a voyeuristic public.

Salibra wrote that he emailed the company in March of 2015 and received no response, so he published the info online. Around eight months later, the CEO of Tantan got in touch with Salibra and said that the app was working on the issues he had raised and beefing up security.

But while the Ashley Madison hack made massive waves in the US, the Chinese headlines about online dating rarely register these kinds of privacy concerns at all. Instead, more titillating headlines dominate, whether they are lifting the lid on those who were scammed after the promise of sex, or the eternal wellspring of finger-wagging from the older generations about all that sex the young folk seem to be having.

It would seem that some things, regardless of country, never change.

“Road to Romance” is the cover story from our newest issue, “Romance”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

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