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China’s Union Organizers

Times Staff Writer

The middle-aged men and women gather in small clumps around the pavilion in Zhongshan Park like molecules in motion, drawn together by the magnetic force of their placards and photos, the odd smile, a flirtatious nod that hints at fading charms.

“Graduate degree, 5 feet, 2 inches tall with a Beijing residency permit,” says a fiftysomething woman. “I’m sorry, I’m looking for someone who’s 5 feet, 6 inches,” a man about the same age responds before walking off.

These earnest hunters aren’t in search of soul mates for themselves. They’re looking for husbands and wives for their grown children, most of whom have no idea they’re here. In fact, many would blanch at meeting anyone their parents recommended.

The parents say they’re aware this is a low-percentage game. It’s hard enough out here under the tall cypress trees finding compatible future in-laws, let alone hoping that the offspring will hit it off.

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Still, they return week after week to parks across China, driven by the anxiety of watching the younger urban generation marry later, devote more time to careers and give little apparent thought to starting a family -- at least on their parents’ schedule.

Depending on the weather and people’s schedules, attendance can range from a few dozen to the upward of 6,000 that showed up late last month at a park in Nanjing.

Known in slang as “bare sticks,” more than 500,000 singles between 30 and 50 live in each of China’s two main cities, Beijing and Shanghai, according to government figures. That is a fivefold increase from 1990. In China, the average marrying age in 2001 was 24 for men and 23 for women, although experts say it’s closer to 30 in big cities such as Beijing.

It’s the fate of Chinese parents, the park-goers say with a weary sigh, to do whatever they can for their children and future grandchildren, in a culture centered on clans, generational continuity and ancestor worship.

“China has 1.3 billion people,” says Bai Qianling, a woman in her early 60s out looking for a suitable match for her very tall 27-year-old daughter, a former volleyball player now doing brand marketing. “Why is it so hard to find one reasonable person?”

It’s a question many of the parents ask themselves as they come together along the Forbidden City’s Tongzi Moat to kibitz, lament and indulge in a bit of bragging in the midst of this mass matchmaking. “It’s a big auction,” says Fu, a woman in her 50s who gave only her surname.

There are also a lot of data to pore over, Fu adds. In addition to the height, wealth and education of various strangers’ children, there are other things to match, such as blood type, food preferences and the Chinese animal signs. On the assumption that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, you also need to size up the other parents, something you can’t do with Internet matches.

Those touting eligible bachelors are often mobbed, especially if the candidates have good jobs and degrees from a prestigious university. Proffered daughters outnumber sons by as much as 10 to 1, a function of ticking biological clocks (the parents’, that is), male egos (many want young, nonthreatening women, sociologists say) and the growing tendency of educated Chinese women not to settle for just anyone.

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Those hyping daughters appear almost apologetic at times as they detail their offspring’s prestigious jobs, education, good looks. Some parents are so stressed by the experience that they burst into tears when talking about their daughters. “It’s really pretty tough,” says Zang Ling, 54, a retiree looking for a match for her 24-year-old daughter, a hospital administrator. “I’ve been twice, and it’s not very easy hunting.”

Some offspring get angry when they discover their parents advertising their weight, birthmarks and other private details in public parks. Notions of privacy have changed a bit since the days of the Cultural Revolution, when the parents themselves were young and committees oversaw even the most intimate aspects of life to ensure they conformed with socialism.

“I’m not happy with this,” says Lu Jiajia, 27, a graphic artist whose mother has tried to set her up several times. “I told my mother not to go to the park. I don’t need her help.”

Others, however, tolerate or even welcome the help after having had trouble finding someone themselves. “I have a pretty small circle of friends and no one in sight I could even imagine as a boyfriend,” says Chen Lu, 23, a nurse. “If my parents found someone, I’d probably take a look at him.”

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Socialists say even as society changes, younger Chinese are still more willing to accept parental involvement than their Western counterparts, a reflection of China’s culture of close-knit families. Traditionally, marriage was seen as a union of two families, not something left to the whims of individuals.

“Marriage is for the parents, the society and future generations,” says Chen Yiyun, head of a matchmaking and counseling website called Green Apple, a name meant to evoke young people. “It’s not about happiness or love.”

The one-child policy also has changed the equation, reducing pressure on daughters to leave home and free up the spare room even as it eliminates siblings’ friends as a way to meet future spouses, experts say.

Chinese parents and teachers generally discourage dating in high school or college, believing that interest in the opposite sex detracts from studying. A decades-old law forbidding marriage among university students was repealed only in September.

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Then once employed, a strong work ethic and weak labor laws leave many toiling long hours at small companies, further limiting opportunities to date.

In October, parents were abuzz when an 80-year-old woman showed up at Zhongshan Park looking for a wife for her 51-year-old son, an extreme example of how Chinese parents often remain a force in their children’s lives well into adulthood.

“In the U.S., when kids become 18, their parents consider them adults and shoo them out of the house,” says Chen Xinxi, a researcher with the National Women’s Assn. “In China, parents of single children don’t want them to leave home, no matter how old they are.”

Another element of the equation is that for many parents, hunting in the park beats playing mah-jongg at home. It gives them something to do and provides a common topic to discuss and obsess over, even if it doesn’t go anywhere.

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“At first I didn’t tell my son I was coming, but now he knows I’m here,” Chen Yunchun, 59, says as he whips out a picture of his 28-year-old, Chen Yue, a safety inspector. “And if he doesn’t like it, he can lump it.”

Green Apple’s Chen says that she has advised many parents not to intervene but that most refuse to listen. For many, it’s more about satisfying their own insecurities and easing the loss of face in having unmarried children, she says.

China’s tradition of arranged marriages and parental approval goes back thousands of years. “How do we split firewood?” reads a line in China’s oldest poetry text, the Book of Odes, from the 7th century BC. “Without an ax it can’t be done. How do we go about finding a wife? Without a go-between it can’t be done.”

After the communists took power in 1949, arranged marriages were banned as feudalistic. Mao Tse-tung set an example by marrying three times without an intermediary or the approval of his father, whom he disliked.

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Old traditions die hard, however, and well into the 1970s, work units often assumed the role of matchmaker for many ordinary people. This was particularly true for promising young Communist Party cadres, who sometimes received “suggestions” from work leaders on an appropriate partner. The advice was often hard to ignore given that your work unit, or danwei, had the final say on marriage, divorce, travel, housing and children, a power relinquished only two years ago.

As China opened up in the late 1970s, people’s view of marriage changed. Increasingly, money and social status counted again, along with personal happiness. Zhu Junfang, an illiterate coal miner, posted the first marriage advertisement after the Cultural Revolution in the June 1984 issue of the Women in China monthly magazine.

“I was a pioneer, the first of millions of advertisements for love,” Zhu says. His efforts eventually attracted Li Ping, a woman six years his junior who was fleeing her parents’ efforts to arrange a marriage she opposed.

Many in the park remark how much easier it was to find someone in their day, when everyone around them got involved and expectations were lower.

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“There was much more of a community in the old days. Everyone helped you out,” Fu says. “Now the whole society is greedy. It’s all about money.”

As she speaks, another woman wanders by. “Are you single? What’s your story?” she says to a foreigner. “Oh, you’re not available? Well, would you know someone in Australia, then? My daughter lives in Sydney, and I’m trying to fix her up.”

Ding Li in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


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