Sunday afternoon at the marriage mart
By Pallavi Aiyar

BEIJING - A sea of spring-fresh tulips rent deep gashes of red across central Beijing's Zhongshan Park. It's a Sunday afternoon on the cusp of summer. Little emperors, the only children of China's increasingly affluent urban populace, chatter happily as their indulgent parents ply them with ice-creams and balloons. Their family idyll is punctuated by the panting of health-conscious joggers and other devotees of exercise who collectively transform the park into a hive of activity.

The most curious of the crowds that throng the park, however, is a large, thousand-plus, conclave of the elderly, milling around the willow-lined banks of the moat that runs along the park's northern edge. The senior citizens stare at each other appraisingly, looking one another up and down slowly. Some sit on low stools, their faces crinkled up in frowns. Others stand up, leaning against trees. What they all have in common is a piece of frayed paper, either held up in clutched hands or laid out flat on the ground.

Listening in on the murmured conversations that thread the congregation, it is possible to make out references to a series of numbers. "One point six," says a smartly dressed woman in her fifties. "One point seven five," comes the reply.

Gradually, it becomes obvious that this peculiar gathering is a bazaar of some kind. There are buyers and sellers and the specifics of the commodities available are detailed on the mysterious pieces of paper that the majority of those assembled hold up for display.

It is also evident that the commodities being advertised are neither vegetables nor household goods. This is in fact a marriage mart; a unique public gathering that mixes aspects of the collective culture of communism with the resurgence of the traditional parental role in arranging marriages as well as the more modern capitalist doctrine of consumer choice.

Held every Sunday afternoon, the market is a forum for parents who have come to despair of their educated, career-driven offspring ever finding an appropriate life-partner on their own and have thus decided to take matters into their own hands.

"Boy - 28 yrs, has own apartment in Fuxing district, no mortgage, Communist Party member," advertises the piece of paper offered up by one bespectacled father.

A forlorn looking mother sits a few meters away from him holding up a scrap that states, "Girl, 35 yrs, 1.6 meters tall, PhD, University teacher".

Some of the ads have photos attached, but it is more usual for a photograph to be offered only after initial contact with a prospective in-law has been made.

"Rat preferred", one of the posters announces somewhat bafflingly to the uninitiated. What is being asked for is however, not a long-tailed, sharp-clawed rodent but a groom born in the "year of the rat" according to the Chinese zodiac.

A large crowd gathers around one pot-bellied gent whose piece of paper describes a 27-year-old, 1.8 meter tall, IT professional with a job in a state-owned company who does not smoke or drink and is very handsome. The boy "does not even know how to play mahjong", the ad continues, indicating his aversion to gambling. "Cow or pig preferred," the notice concludes.

Walking through the market is a dangerous business for anyone with even a relatively youthful appearance. Parents swarm thickly around younger people, many of whom simply happen to have stumbled upon the gathering. Nationality appears to be no bar. Your correspondent is quickly approached by several people anxiously asking if I am "available". When I shake my head in regret they quickly change tack and inquire about prospective single friends I might have.

"I don't mind if the girl is Chinese or foreign. She must have a good heart and be in a good job," says a white-haired lady called Chen Quande. Before I move on she leaves me her mobile number in case I come across someone suitable for her 36-year-old policeman son.

Sunday afternoon marriage marts, several of which now exist in all major Chinese cities, came into existence only three or four years ago, explains Professor Wang Zhenyu, a leading sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

They had their origin in the habit amongst the elderly in China of collective exercise in parks; a legacy of the Maoist period, when group calisthenics was encouraged. "While exercising together some parents talked about the seeming inability of their single kids to get married and within a few months these informal discussions grew into large gatherings," Wang says.

Such public expressions of interest in finding spouses for children would have been unthinkable a generation ago, she says. "Marriage in China was traditionally a very private affair and advertising a child would have caused a lot of loss of face."

In any case, during the Maoist period arranged marriages were seen as relics of a feudal past to be shunned, and parents were expected to stay out of their children's private lives. This was a space that was instead occupied by the danwei or work unit, whose help and permission needed to be sought before a couple could get married.

However, with 30 years of economic reform, attitudes and circumstances have changed. Preserving "face" is no longer considered as important and a certain market mentality in all transactions has become acceptable, Wang says. Moreover, the role of the danwei in the personal lives of employees has waned.

Parents, free again to help their children find a spouse, often feel that meeting potential in-laws in person is a more reliable way of introducing their children to an appropriate match, compared to posting advertisements on the Internet or more conventional media.

However, Wang says there is not much proof that marriage marts have a better success rate than professional matchmaking companies that use extensive data bases to bring well-matched lonely hearts together. In fact, modern youngsters are often irritated with their parent's interference. Dates that result from Sunday afternoon deals struck in the park by eager parents often end in disaster.

Thirty-one-year-old Lance Zhang recalls his dinner date with a girl his parents urged him to see, having met with her parents at a marriage market in south Beijing's Ditan Park. Although Lance, a marketing official with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, initially refused, not having much faith in the efficacy of blind dates, he eventually agreed out of respect for his parent's wishes.

The parents had seen a photograph of the girl and told Lance that she looked like a super model. "But in fact when I met her she was the exact opposite of a model. She was rather large and very below-average looking," he says. It transpired that the girl's parents were in the habit of showing off someone else's photo to lure in prospective matches.

Lance has decided that this is the last time he agrees to meet with any girls his parents unearth at a park. Although disappointed, his parents remain undeterred and continue to attend the Sunday afternoon gatherings.

If the number of those assembled at Zhongshan Park on this particular afternoon is any indication, Lance's parents are not alone their perseverance. The crowd continues to swell and pulsate tirelessly as evening approaches.

More easily fatigued than the determined parents, I slowly begin to wend my way away from the park. A lady who gives her name as Ms Cao runs after me. She begins by asking for my help in finding a suitable boy for her 28-year-old daughter. When I agree to see what I can do, she takes my hand and whispers, "I feel embarrassed to say this, but I'm also looking for someone for myself. My husband passed away a few years ago. Someone between the age of 55 and 60 will do. I'm open to foreigners as well."

Pallavi Aiyar is the author of the book Smoke and Mirrors: China Through Indian Eyes, (Harper Collins, April 2008.)

(Copyright 2008 Pallavi Aiyar.)