Early last month, I asked a group of young professionals a question: where can I get to know retired people in Shanghai? “You must visit the People’s Park!” one claimed. “Yes, in the People’s park you will meet the typical Chinese parents who force their children to get married!” one added. “My mum kept arranging blind dates for me, I feel like crying” another one complained. My curiosity got the better of me when I was told the People’s Park is the place where retired Chinese parents would gather and arrange blind dates for their adult children.
I visited the People’s Park the following Sunday. It is a sanctuary with trees, ponds and winding brick paths in the very heart of the city center. In a corner of the park there is a crowded and bustling ‘marriage bazaar’ taking place. Parents in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s gather there to find life partners for their children (fig. 1).
Personal profiles of singles dangle from strings, lie on floor, are held aloft by parents, and most of them are clipped atop open umbrellas (fig. 2). Lining the brick pathways are more than six-hundred open umbrellas.
The personal profiles displayed here are extraordinarily plain – essentially non-visual – pictures and colours are scarce. On a plain A4 size sheet of white paper, a list of personal details, including age, height, household registration area, job, annual income, property ownership, situation of parents (job, health status) are stated outright. The real name and contact details of the person in question are absent, only the mobile number of the person’s parent is provided – to ensure that the parents are the ‘gatekeepers’.
I wondered why these parents don’t go for online dating websites. As far as I observed, it is not because they are unfamiliar with the digital – quite the opposite, all of them have a smartphone in their hands. It is probably because such non-digital meeting is actually more efficient than the online dating. “Here is more reliable, dating websites are for young kids for fun.” one lady in her late 50s said. In the park, parents can immediately arrange a quick face-to-face meeting with the parent(s) of candidates. The parents chat with each other and if they get along with each other and believe their children match, they’ll then arrange a blind date for their children. It’s a way for parents to put their stamp of approval on a relationship before the couple has even met.
Furthermore, the marriage bazaar developed organically over more than a decade in Shanghai. Retired people were meeting at the park to practice dancing, play chess and cards. As a social hub for retired people, the matchmaking arose naturally as one of the most important and popular topics at this corner. The social function of the marriage bazaar cannot be underestimated: to arrange blind dates in a way is an excuse for a massive congregation of middle-aged people who share similar values.
Chinese young professionals may dislike the way their parents are getting involved in their personal issues, but as a researcher, I am obliged to empathetically engage with both sides, and to understand why this new phenomenon has arisen.