Young Chinese at speed dating event
SOCIETY

Swipe High: Inside Shanghai’s Elite Speed-Dating World

A dating platform matches high earners who have everything—except love

-1-

One work day in October of 2020, I was fighting drowsiness at my desk when my friend Liu Can messaged me on WeChat. She sent me a sign-up form for a speed-dating event, and asked if I wanted to go with her.

I initially wanted to decline, but wavered at the memory of my mother on the phone, nagging me to get married. In a few months, I was turning 30. Even though I hadn’t given marriage any serious thought, I always felt a sense of guilt when I visited home and faced my parents’ anxiety and disappointment.

I forced out a “sure.”

Liu Can sent a celebratory emoji and urged me to fill out the application as soon as possible. She emphasized, “Under education, you absolutely must put your graduate school.”

“I got my master’s degree on the job. Should I indicate this?” I asked.

“No need to overdo it. A prestigious education is a basic expectation in this kind of ‘elite’ dating pool.” She forwarded me the event poster, which laid out some requirements for attendees.

Must fulfill at least two of the following:

  1. Degree from an elite school
  2. Overseas experience
  3. Prestigious job
  4. Annual salary of above 300,000 RMB for men, 200,000 RMB for women
  5. Homeowner
  6. Career in IT or finance for men; teaching, medicine, or civil service for women.

I submitted the form without much confidence, expecting the organizers would take a while to verify my credentials. To my surprise, not three minutes passed before the system notified me, “Application approved, please submit payment.”

Still feeling skeptical, I paid the 130-yuan event fee and added the organizer on WeChat.

--

On the day of the event, Liu Can and I arrived punctually at the designated location: a coffee shop in the city center.

We went up to the second floor, where more than 100 people were squeezed into a dark, oppressive room less than 100 square meters in size. We signed in and received our name cards, which displayed a numerical code, along with our age, occupation, hometown, and education credentials.

After some perfunctory opening remarks from the organizer, everyone launched into their “eight-minute dates.” There were two couples per table, and every eight minutes, the two male attendees took their cards and moved one table over to continue chatting; the female attendees stayed in their original seats.

Liu Can and I were seated at adjacent tables. My own tablemate was a girl with delicate features. Liu Can leaned over, murmuring into my ear: “You’re so screwed. You can tell this girl is just what the guys are looking for. I bet you’ll end up playing second fiddle most of the time.”

As expected, during the first few rounds, the men who came to our tables spent a couple of minutes examining our name cards before asking me a few direct questions. Then, in unison, they directed their gaze toward my tablemate.

I gleaned her details from their conversations: 28 years old, graduate of a “Project 211” university, elementary school teacher; 165 cm tall, under 50 kg. She seemed used to this kind of setting—she complied with a smile even when conversation partners asked her to stand up so they could confirm her height. Each time she added a guy on WeChat, she took a photo of his table card.

As the event entered its second half, with dozens of rounds of repetitive conversations behind us, everyone’s exhaustion began to show. The thought of never having another conversation again became increasingly appealing. As I let out a yawn, my tablemate suddenly nudged me and initiated a quiet conversation.

She said her name was Dong Jun, and she grew up in Jinhua, Zhejiang province. I asked, how could she keep up with so many conversations after adding all those guys on WeChat? Dong Jun pursed her lips: “Keep up? That’s why I take pictures of their table cards and do an initial round of filtering. See, I’ve written comments for each person.”

I looked over, and sure enough, she had written under one WeChat profile: Appearance—4, Education—5, Occupation—5, somewhat low EQ, no house or car; eliminated.

“Why add them if you don’t even like them?”

“Well, here’s the thing — some guys don’t come across very well in the moment, but could still end up being good prospects.” She went on to tell me about a colleague who had somehow dredged a high-earning programmer from the depths of the candidate pool. The story’s twists and turns kept me on the edge of my seat.

I asked whether she attended these events frequently.

“Oh, I’d say maybe once a month, but I like to rotate platforms. You know, so many of these dating services have popped up in Shanghai.” Dong Jun showed me the dating platforms she followed—at least a dozen. Although they had different names, they shared a common lexicon: “exclusive, high-class, elite.”

“Don’t you get tired, packing your social calendar like this?”

“I’ve got no choice—do you know the ratio of high-quality men and women in Shanghai? Three to seven! There are too few quality men here. If you don’t hurry up and find one before you turn 30, the successful ones won’t give you a second glance after you’re 30,” Dong Jun told me, wrinkling her brow.

As I listened and remembered my own age, a sense of uneasiness wormed its way into my chest.

The event came to a merciful end, but Liu Can was still lingering in conversation with a man named Zhou Yang, so I went ahead and left the coffee shop. Right on cue, it started to drizzle. I waited under the eaves, with the occasional gust of wind blowing rain onto my shoulders, and finally felt the stifling atmosphere of that afternoon begin to lift.

-2-

Ten minutes later, Liu Can and Zhou Yang came walking out, shoulder to shoulder. Trying to be tactful, I told her I would get going. But she took my arm and said no big deal, let’s all get dinner together.

We arrived at a stylish Japanese restaurant. Zhou Yang put in our orders with a practiced ease before asking how we knew each other.

“We used to be colleagues, she also got her masters from a 985 school.” I flushed as she finished the introduction—why did she have to bring that up?

“Ah, so it turns out that geniuses are friends with other geniuses!” Zhou Yang responded with exaggerated praise.

Their conversation continued to revolve around the topic of education. Zhou Yang’s parents were teachers, who encouraged him from a young age to make friends with the best students. His seatmates were either the best in the class or the second best. He kept emphasizing that he liked highly educated women, because such women could only be an asset in raising the next generation.

Out of the blue, Zhou Yang asked Liu Can, “Did you also do your undergrad at SJU?”

My chest tightened—Liu Can’s undergrad credentials had always been her secret shame. She and her previous boyfriend had even broken up over this.

Liu Can had also met her ex at a speed-dating event. He had done his undergrad and masters at a renowned university. Not long after they formalized their relationship, they went to a gathering of his classmates, where the conversation wound around to the topic of that year’s record-setting graduate school applications. A classmate had said, scornfully: “You know what’s the worst? Those students from mediocre universities who use rote memorization to get themselves into our postgraduate programs, and come away bearing our name.” The rest of his classmates agreed. Liu Can kept her head down, feigning unusual interest in her meal.

On the way home, her boyfriend suddenly asked if she had done her undergrad and master's at the same school. After receiving a negative response, he then asked her where exactly she had gotten her undergraduate degree. She deflected, “Oh, just an ordinary school, not as great as yours.”

He couldn’t help himself: “It wasn’t a second-tier university, was it?”

Face aflame and moments from bursting into tears, Liu Can managed to squeak out an affirmative. Her boyfriend looked at her in shock, and the pair finished their trip home in silence.

After that, Liu Can’s boyfriend was noticeably cooler toward her, no longer bringing her to meet his classmates. Not long after, the relationship came to a natural end.

Now this story was playing itself out again. I cast an anxious look at Liu Can, only to hear her say, yes, she also did her undergrad at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

Speed-dating events can draw thousands of participants

Speed-dating events can draw thousands of participants (VCG)

--

On the way home, I discovered that I had been added to a new WeChat group made up of attendees from the event. The group quickly became active as participants sent out their formal introductions. Those who weren’t from elite universities were coming back from overseas; they had prestigious careers and healthy incomes, and were unburdened by liabilities. Even their hobbies were uncannily similar: across the board, the women liked reading, travel, and baking; the men liked exercise, travel, and cooking.

One guy messaged me, “Hello there, this is my profile. Very pleased to meet you.”

He followed this with a document: four full pages of self-introduction, from family members to dating criteria, and an exhaustive list of every possible item of interest.

Before I had a chance to finish reading, the next message popped up: “Could you put together an introductory profile of your own and send it along? Thank you!”

I was stunned. In the end, I chose not to send my reply.

The group remained active during the next few days. Now and then, the group admin passed along information and services relevant to older singles in the city. Even the news app on my phone seemed to know of my perilous proximity to being “left behind.” It seemed that almost every day I was receiving notifications for such articles as “Why don’t men like high-quality ‘leftover women?’” or “After age 30, women lose their dating advantage.”

Just as I was considering whether to sign up for the next dating event, someone from the dating platform reached out to me. The founder saw that I had listed my occupation as “new media” on my registration form, and wanted to ask whether I’d be willing to moonlight as the administrator for their public WeChat profile.

I figured the workload wouldn’t be too heavy, so I quickly said yes.

He kept emphasizing that he liked highly educated women, because such women could only be an asset in raising the next generation.

-3-

On Saturday, I followed the GPS to the company’s office in a nondescript residential building. There I met the founder, Jiang Tian, and Yangyang, the sole full-time employee.

Jiang Tian is an alum of a “Project 985” university. In 2019, after quitting his job, he threw himself into starting this dating platform. At first, he promoted the service primarily among his classmates, before expanding to all elite singles in Shanghai. Just one year later, the platform had over 10,000 members, with total revenue exceeding 1 million RMB.

To use the last event as an example, the registration fees alone accounted for over 10,000 RMB; aside from the venue rental, there weren't any significant expenses. The platform runs at least two such events each week.

Jiang Tian told me that since the pandemic restrictions lifted, more and more people have gotten wise to the commercial potential of online dating. Not only that, but they all independently developed the same target audience: successful singles with great jobs and prestigious academic backgrounds. Running a dating platform was like entering an arena: a constant struggle to come up with novel event formats, and to secure the crème de la crème as clients.

In order to attract clients, each platform promoted its own exclusive events: “Shanghaiese Only,” “Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang Only,” “Overseas Returnee Only,” “IT and Finance Only.” Jiang Tian informed me that within the industry, this is known as “precision pairing.”

To attract more people to their events, the dating platforms like to profile a few exceptional members. Jiang Tian emphasized, “Your job is primarily to write promotional profiles for these select few. I expect you’ll have no trouble with the event publicity, but I really want you to polish these profiles: we want to highlight the exclusivity of our platform and outcompete the rest.”

That night, I sent over a draft. Jiang Tian replied quickly, “Not enough wow factor.”

“But I wrote it according to the member information you provided.”

“It’s not enough to copy the dry facts. You have to understand how to package things.” Jiang Tian sent over a few examples, all from a famous dating platform. Each piece was over 10,000 characters long. I scrutinized one of them in detail. Aside from wondering at how these remarkable ladies and gentlemen could fail to find partners, I was no closer to figuring out the secret sauce.

Finally, it was Yangyang who jolted me awake: “We talked about packaging, remember? Can’t you bolster their academic credentials a bit, round up their income, pad out their job description? If it comes down to it, you could take a piece from another platform and alter a few details, swap out the pictures.”

Realization crashed over me. As it turns out, they didn’t want me to profile an elite client base—they wanted me to manufacture one.

“You really thought all these top-earning mansion dwellers with Daniel Wu’s or Angelababy’s looks need to go on speed-dating events?” Yangyang sent a playful tongue emoji.

Instructions duly received, I followed them to the letter, going through the profile and tweaking details here and there. Sure enough, Jiang Tian approved this version. Later, with more profiles under my belt, I sussed out a few tricks. Writing about female clients, I focused on the “three goods”: good education, good looks, and good temperament, with an emphasis on drama-free social life and harmonious family background. Writing about male clients, I focused on the “three highs”: physical height, high earners, higher ed; interesting and independent, but still warm and considerate of others.

--

After I had gotten to know Jiang Tian better, I started occasionally subbing in as an employee, helping out at the event venues on Sundays. Since discovering that I was moonlighting at this platform, Liu Can also began making more frequent appearances at their events.

“Perfect, now that you’re around you can help me keep an eye on things,” Liu Can said. She and Zhou Yang had stayed in touch this whole time, but hadn’t yet taken the next step in their relationship. “Dating is like looking for a job. Everyone wants to keep their options open, picking the best of the best.”

As for Dong Jun, the next time I saw her was at a “High-Earning Men and Long-Legged Beauties Only” event. This event had a higher threshold for entry: male attendees needed to earn more than 500,000 RMB a year, have an apartment in Shanghai, and at minimum a bachelor’s degree; female attendees needed to be over 165 cm tall, under 50 kg in weight, under 28, and have a degree from a 211 or 985 school.

The event was held at a particularly atmospheric bar. Guests could sample fine wines as they mingled, or look out over the Shanghai nightscape. Of course, the entry fee was also higher than at other events.

After I’d helped Yangyang with sign-ins, I unintentionally swept my eyes over the attendee list. I couldn’t help but notice that almost half of the attendees were recruiters, financial consultants, client managers, and the like. I asked in a low voice, “Do you think these people are here not to date, but to expand their client base?”

“There’s no ‘perhaps.’ A few of them sneak into every event.” Yangyang seemed unconcerned.

“And we just let them in?”

“They paid their entry fee, so why wouldn’t we? And who knows, maybe they’re here for both work and dating. There are hundreds of these events in Shanghai each week now, we have to hire some help to fill out the numbers each week—you can’t get mad about there being too many people, can you?”

“Hire some help?” I didn’t understand.

Yangyang pointed out a few guests, delighted to let me in on the secret: “We got these ones to liven up the room. How's that for eye candy?”

I looked over, and sure enough, the guests she indicated were uncommonly attractive, and seemed to be excellent conversationalists to boot. Each one had drawn several members of the opposite sex into their orbit. Yangyang waxed philosophical: “This is the same principle as ‘packaging’ your client profiles. Your average single doesn’t care about the flashiness of your venue, or the quality of service—what they’re evaluating is the quality of your opposite-sex ‘resource pool.’ The better those resources, the more likely they’ll stick around and keep coming to your events.”

A couple is successfully matched at a speed-dating event in Jiangmen, Guangdong province

A couple is successfully matched at a speed-dating event in Jiangmen, Guangdong province (VCG)

-4 -

Since the event was a mixer, Jiang Tian and Yangyang were able to relax in a corner once things got underway, each cradling a glass of wine. I wandered the room, noticed Dong Jun standing by herself, and slipped over to greet her.

“The girls at these things are getting younger and younger,” she sighed, watching the youthful silhouettes before her.

“You’re not so old yourself,” I attempted to console her.

“I’m the oldest auntie in the whole place, I’ll be over the age limit next year,” she responded, poking fun at herself.

I suddenly remembered this event had an age cap of 28—no wonder she was looking so down on herself. To make things worse, the female singles at this event were all quite attractive and young. A few looked like they’d just left university. Naturally, it would be quite difficult for Dong Jun to stand out in this crowd.

“You’ve added so many guys on WeChat. Haven’t you found any to your liking?”

“There were one or two, but they had better options. In Shanghai, you’ve got all these stylish local girls with good family backgrounds. When the men wise up to reality, they’re more calculating than the women.”

“Then what kind of guy do you want?”

“It’s hard to say—my colleagues’ boyfriends, if they’re not local, then they’re working at big companies with salaries in the hundreds of thousands. I wouldn’t want to do any worse for myself.”

I can understand Dong Jun’s attitude. At our company, when the women are making chitchat, the topic of boyfriends often comes up as a mode of tacit comparison. Those who reveal any shortcomings tend to come off a bit worse in the end.

As the two of us chatted, a man came over and sat down across from us. After the customary greetings, he politely asked whether he could add me on WeChat. Flustered, I agreed. I thought I must’ve heard wrong. After adding me, he chatted for a bit longer before getting up and saying his goodbyes, still the picture of politeness.

Dong Jun shot me a cryptic look, saying, “That guy seems to be getting up in years, I expect he’s in a rush to get married.”

As it turns out, they didn’t want me to profile an elite client base—they wanted me to manufacture one.

--

The man messaged me that same night, saying that I seemed down-to-earth and he wanted to take the next step in getting to know me. He said he was born in ’84, and was currently a tech operations manager. He followed up with a flurry of questions, from parental occupation to current salary, not letting a single query go unanswered. His interrogation only intensified when he heard that I had a younger brother.

Half an hour later, he gave his final assessment: “Even though you’re from a rural village, and you have a younger brother, your brother is married, so he probably won’t come to you for financial support in the future. I find you more or less satisfactory—the most important thing is that you look like you’re ready to settle down. Not like girls these days who think they’re all that, with their heads in the clouds, picky with their men, wanting this and that.”

He continued yammering about the crimes of modern women until I cut him off. “How could you tell that I’m ready to settle down?”

“You were the most plainly dressed one in that whole room. You weren’t wearing any makeup, and you looked gentle and innocent.”

He continued his tirade without waiting for my response. “I don’t know what’s gotten into women these days, they’re all so materialistic. When they make some money they go out and eat and drink it away, buy cosmetics, swap boyfriends like it’s nothing, then when their looks have faded they find some poor sap to take on their baggage.”

His resentment reeked of prejudice against women, so I probed further by asking whether he had dated before. Sure enough, he said that his previous girlfriend had ended things back when he was in worse financial circumstances. Afterward, he threw himself into making money like his life depended on it, finally buying an apartment in Shanghai last year as his salary plateaued above 500K. Only then did he consider the question of marriage. He decided he would get married within six months and have a child within a year. “After all, my parents are getting older. Their one desire is to see me get married and have children.”

“I don’t want to mess around with any more of those meaningless love affairs. You just said you’re almost 30. You’re getting older as well, so you should hurry up and start thinking about marriage. You know how it is—once women hit 30, it’s a lot harder for them to have kids.”

I didn’t continue the conversation after that, instead sharing a laugh with Dong Jun about the man’s ridiculous behavior. Dong Jun wasn’t surprised at all. “I wanted to warn you. You have to be careful around older men. Most of them have been burned before, and no longer believe in love. If they didn’t need a woman to have kids with, they might not want to get married at all.”

Even though I thought her words were a bit harsh, I didn’t disagree.

-5-

But as clear-eyed as she was, Dong Jun still ran into trouble on the dating market. The last weekend in December, Yangyang received an unexpected message from her, saying that she had been swindled out of 100K by a male attendee at the “High-Earning Men and Long-Legged Beauties” event. She asked the platform to compensate her for her loss.

Yangyang rushed to talk it over with Jiang Tian, preparing to take Dong Jun out that night and get the full details. As it happens, I was also helping out at the event that evening, giving me good reason to come along.

When I first saw Dong Jun in the coffee shop, I almost didn’t recognize the haggard, pale girl before me. Furious, she laid out her accusations: how the male guest had pretended to be part of the financial elite, a mature entrant to the millionaire club; how he had been so solicitous and caring, tricking her out of 100K under the guise of an investment opportunity.

I faintly remembered that on the day of the event, Dong Jun had been engrossed in a conversation with a tall, handsome man. He wore a black windbreaker and had a domineering look about him. The two of them left together once the event was over.

As scams go, this one wasn’t all that sophisticated. I was stunned that someone as shrewd as Dong Jun could be so careless. But Dong Jun stubbornly defended herself. “He showed me his work ID, his paystubs, and even brought me to his workplace.”

“IDs and paystubs can both be faked. Did you ever personally witness him entering the premises?” Jiang Tian asked.

Dong Jun shook her head. “He said outsiders cannot be brought into financial institutions without good reason, so he only took me into the lobby.”

“How could you so easily trust your finances with a stranger?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“How was he a stranger? My colleagues and friends had all met him, and said he was a catch.” Dong Jun wasn’t giving an inch.

Jiang Tian didn't want to keep arguing, and suggested reporting the matter to the police. Dong Jun kept waving off the suggestion, saying it was too humiliating—she didn’t want her colleagues and friends to find out.

“Then what do you want us to do? You can’t expect the platform to compensate you for your own carelessness, can you?” Jiang Tian’s tone hardened.

“This person had to pass through your screening to enter the event. You couldn’t have failed to audit his credentials thoroughly, could you?” Dong Jun wasn’t giving up.

In reality, I had long since discovered that the platform’s auditing process existed in name only. It could easily be the case that aside from the entry fee, nothing the man provided was real. Jiang Tian and Yangyang exchanged a guilty look, finally offering: “How about this: let’s go make the police report, and then we’ll handle the remainder of the communication. We will do our best to keep this matter from affecting your life.”

Because all of the scammer’s details were fake, it was nearly impossible to open an investigation. The police could only tell us to go back and wait for any updates. Jiang Tian feared that Dong Jun would make a ruckus and impact the platform’s reputation, so he had no choice but to compensate her 60K upfront, with an agreement to pay the rest once the scammer was found.

After this incident, Jiang Tian upgraded the platform’s security. Now applicants would be asked to upload photos of their IDs and diplomas. He also added a disclaimer to postings: “The platform cannot be held responsible for the veracity of client messages. Please take appropriate precautions.”

Dong Jun never attended another event. Jiang Tian inquired with others in the dating industry, and none reported having seen her. Dong Jun used to love sharing her life through WeChat Moments, curating it like a business card. But after she got scammed, she closed her Moments feed.

Participants play an icebreaker game at a speed-dating event in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province

Participants play an icebreaker game at a speed-dating event in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province (VCG)

-6-

As Spring Festival approached, Jiang Tian saw an opportunity and pounced. He began promoting “One-on-One High-End VIP Services.” With the purchase of a VIP card, the platform would assist clients in arranging one-on-one dates with partners selected according to their personal criteria. There were three tiers of VIP card, with the highest tier selling for 30,000 yuan and the lowest for 10,000. The higher the spousal criteria, the more the platform charged.

The first client to purchase a VIP card was named Zhou Hui. Her bachelor’s and master’s degrees were both from 985 institutions, she worked in middle management at a publicly traded internet company making 600K a year, and she had a home and car in Shanghai. The most remarkable thing was that Zhou Hui had come up one step at a time from a rural village to get to where she was now.

Because she had been so immersed in work, Zhou Hui had never put much energy or thought into dating. At 36, she had yet to experience a single romantic relationship. Since she had put off marriage for so long, her relationship with her parents was rapidly deteriorating. By this point, they could start arguing at the drop of a hat.

I was responsible for writing the copy for VIP clients’ introductory profiles, so while Jiang Tian talked things over with Zhou Hui, I sat to one side quietly observing her. Zhou Hui’s physique was bulky, and the lines around her eyes were fairly deep—perhaps the result of long hours and lack of self-care. But her words revealed her to be a rational-minded career woman with formidable capacities.

Zhou Hui’s spousal requirements were very simple: Male, 211 credentials or higher, under 40, of average appearance or better, stable job, willing to marry within a year.

I immediately thought of the man who wanted to be married within six months. He even happened to be a similar age. Yangyang asked me message him. I couldn’t have guessed that upon hearing Zhou Hui’s age, he would recoil like a cat with its tail stepped on: “What? You want to introduce me to an old woman of 36? What could you possibly be thinking?” To fully communicate his anger, he deleted me on WeChat a few minutes later.

Luckily, Yangyang had gotten in touch with another male client who didn’t mind Zhou Hui’s age—but he did need to see a photo first. Jiang Tian was already prepared for this: he had asked me to retouch her photos, smoothing the skin and adding filters. As a result, she looked substantially younger.

When the two finally met, the male client stuck around not even half an hour before finding an excuse to ditch Zhou Hui in the coffee shop. When Yangyang and I went to pick her up, we discovered that she had been sitting there alone for over an hour, a cup of stale coffee in front of her.

Zhou Hui looked miserable. “Sometimes I think, what’s the use of all this striving for a girl like me? Maybe I should’ve been like the others, who made themselves look nice when they were young, and got married off by the time they were 24, 25.”

Yangyang and I looked at each other, unsure of how to comfort her. It was undeniable that, if her gender had been swapped for “male,” her profile would've made her a hot commodity on the dating market. Nobody would’ve found fault even if she were a few years older. But reality was much crueler.

Just then, Zhou Hui’s phone rang. It sounded like her mother, calling to ask how the date went. They only got a few sentences in before starting to fight. Even with a table between us, I could hear her mother snarling, “Is there something wrong with your head, is that why you haven’t married? If there’s something wrong with you then get it treated, don’t make us lose face along with you!”

After hanging up, Zhou Hui gave us an embarrassed smile, saying it had already been two years since she’d visited home. All the relatives and neighbors knew that she was still unmarried at 36, and her parents felt they couldn’t look anyone in the eye.

Zhou Hui's feelings were in disarray, and our undertaking wasn’t looking so promising either. She told us that over the course of her life, she had watched over and over female colleagues get pushed to the side once they started having children. It was only through continuous overtime that she managed to stake out her place among the men, becoming the sole female leader in her company’s management. She didn’t dare to relax even now, and sought perfection at work, leading her colleagues to privately call her an “unmarriageable old spinster.”

Yangyang and I both felt deeply for Zhou Hui, so we redoubled our efforts to find her a suitable match. But to no avail: the highly eligible men couldn’t accept her age, while the worse-off ones weren’t to her taste. Just as we were reaching the end of our rope, a male client reached out, saying that a friend of his was anxious to get married soon.

The man was Zhou Hui’s match in all respects, with similar work, income, and education. Though he was already 38, he looked young for his age. Most importantly, he was more than pleased with Zhou Hui’s circumstances.

Overjoyed at this gift from heaven, we immediately arranged a meetup. It went off without a hitch. The pair decided on the spot that they would continue seeing each other, with a view toward getting married.

The first VIP pairing having gone so smoothly, Jiang Tian was bursting with pride. Yangyang and I, conversely, felt great happiness for Zhou Hui.

It was undeniable that, if her gender had been swapped for “male,” nobody would’ve found fault even if she were a few years older.

--

We couldn’t have anticipated that, not long into the new year, Zhou Hui would get back in touch with us to say that there had been an issue with the man.

During the Spring Festival, he had brought her home to see his parents, who urged them not to delay in getting married. Zhou Hui felt a bit rushed, but knowing the slim chances of finding a satisfactory match, she acquiesced. Then, when it came time to make wedding arrangements, the man brought up a new condition: he hoped that after marriage, the two would continue living apart, coming together when they visited their parents. In addition, given their age, he wasn’t planning to have children.

Zhou Hui knew of many “weekend spouses” in her circle, and felt that such an arrangement could be freeing, not necessarily a dealbreaker. But she felt that if they weren’t going to have kids, there was absolutely no need to get married. “What’s the point of a marriage without children?”

In the end, the two parted on bad terms. Zhou Hui didn’t request any refund from the platform, but neither did she continue dating. She began looking into the possibility of traveling abroad to freeze eggs so her fertility wouldn’t decrease with age.

Yangyang made some vindictive speculations on Zhou Hui’s behalf: perhaps the man had some sort of STD, or simply didn’t like women. Jiang Tian countered that Zhou Hui didn’t have the purest motivations for marrying either—since what she truly wished for wasn’t a husband but a child of her own blood.

We all understood that, whatever each of them hoped to gain from marriage, it certainly wasn’t love.

-7-

After comparing her options for several months, Liu Can ultimately decided to stick with Zhou Yang. She knew that his choosing her was also the result of evaluating the pros and cons. In particular, her master’s degree from a top school held considerable weight.

“Education is a proxy for intellect, and the next generation’s intellect is largely passed down from the mother,” Liu Can said, mimicking Zhou Yang, but started laughing before she could finish.

I discreetly asked her whether she had come clean about her undergraduate background. She shook her head no, chasing it with a breezy dismissal: “It doesn’t matter. If he eventually finds out and can’t deal with it, then we’ll just break up. I used to care too much about his prestigious education and career, but only after getting together did I realize that, if the two people can’t enjoy eating and talking together, then a partner’s success is only window-dressing for others.”

Whatever each of them hoped to gain from marriage, it certainly wasn’t love.

--

Seeing that there was money to be made, Jiang Tian wanted to scale up the platform and attract more clients. Simultaneously, he feared that lowering the barrier to entry would dilute the elite reputation of his business. He floated his proposal to a few clients, but facing opposition from the vast majority, he had no choice but to drop the idea.

The platform continued hosting its twice-weekly events, attracting wave after wave of new clients; the high-end VIP services continued to have occasional takers. The clients we promoted became more and more rarified: some had become CEOs at a young age, while others drew flocks of admirers with their looks, and still others were scions of hotel chains. I no longer questioned the veracity of these profiles; however you look at it, Shanghai is far from lacking in these hopelessly out-of-reach types.

In 2020, one 36-year-old male client made close to 10 million RMB by speculating in the stock market. He thought that if he could only find a successful and attractive wife to start a family with, life would be close to perfection.

He purchased the platform’s highest tier of VIP services and met with 40 women in one week. But as outstanding as they were, he never failed to find some fault: if it wasn’t a flaw in their appearance, then it was an issue with their personality. Even an innocent remark could become evidence of gold-digging. He stressed that he should be matched with a more perfect partner, but had trouble describing what “perfect” might look like.

During a gap between meetings, he shared his dating history with us. He said that his most unforgettable experience was still his first love.

At the time, they had just finished college, and the two of them squeezed into a rented room of around a dozen square meters. Their most frequent meal was cabbage and tofu; meat was a rare indulgence. One time he splurged by taking his girlfriend to KFC and ordering two chicken sandwiches. After inhaling the sandwiches far too quickly, the two of them hiccuped their way home. As soon as one person’s hiccup ended, the other one’s would start, and they drew odd looks from passersby the whole way back.

“Nowadays, if I take a girl out to KFC, I imagine she’d break up with me on the spot.” After that tender recounting of his first love, he was already back to his customary cynicism.

A young woman checks out the personal details of attendees of a high-end dating event in Dongguan, Guangdong province

A young woman checks out the personal details of attendees of a high-end dating event in Dongguan, Guangdong province (VCG)

-8-

In mid-April, Yangyang unexpectedly quit, saying that she wanted to leave Shanghai to go live in her boyfriend’s city. Up until then, she had never revealed that she had a boyfriend; neither had she rejected Jiang Tian’s offer to help her find one.

She said, “You know, I wasn’t fully committed, as I thought he wasn’t successful enough. I thought I could do better. To be honest, I started working here to see if I had any better options. But every time I saw marriage negotiated like a business deal, it killed my interest. In any case, my boyfriend and I have three years of accumulated feelings between us—I know that our marriage will be based on love.”

Yangyang is gone, but she already knew precisely what she wanted. The same can’t be said of most daters, who carry on without a clue.

I once saw a client share a Shanghai property deed in his Moments, with this accompanying text: “In life, there are three important things: choosing the right field of study during the college entrance exams, choosing the right time to buy property, and choosing the right partner in marriage.”

But perhaps what he didn’t know was how exactly to make that choice.

--

Yangyang was replaced by a young girl of the “post-00s” generation, not yet out of college. The first time she witnessed the battleground that is speed-dating, she asked me in disbelief, “Do you post-80s and post-90s folks really need to put in this much effort into getting married?”

I laughed. “If we don’t put in the effort, we can look forward to being leftover men and women.”

She wasn’t convinced. “What’s the hurry? Happiness is all that matters. I wouldn’t do speed-dating if you beat me to death. There is so much fun to be had in the world, so why do people force themselves into marriage?”

In that moment, looking from her confident naïveté to the roomful of anxious, vigilant faces, I couldn’t tell which side was reality.

Translated by N. J. Y. Gan

Names of people and places were changed to protect the identity of the subjects.

This article originally appeared in Chinese in 人间 The Livings, NetEase's nonfiction storytelling platform. It has been translated and reprinted with permission.

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May ‎ is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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