November 11 has gradually become China's Singles' Day when those who are yet to find a partner make particular effort to meet a mate.
But in the country's more developed cities, where young people increasingly put making money ahead of finding love, worried parents are arranging dates for their single children whether it is Singles' Day or not.
In Beijing, Zhongshan, Yuyuantan and Zizhuyuan parks are all busy venues for parents seeking mates for their offspring.
On one sultry summer's afternoon this year, one father was sitting in Zhongshan Park holding a framed personal ad reading: "Male single, 35, handsome, height: 1.76m, engineer in a joint venture with a bachelor's degree. "
An interested mother approached, read the ad attentively, before asking: "Can he speak German?"
Puzzled for a second, the father cautiously asked why.
"My daughter works at a German company, and might be assigned to Germany. No German, no chance," the mother replied, heading off to inspect the signs and information folders proffered by other hopeful parents nearby.
Hundreds of anxious parents flood to the parks to explore the dating scene for their busy, picky, single children who, by traditional standards, should already have started a family.
Lin set up a blind date for her daughter, who is approaching 30, after having visited the park twice. Lin's daughter met her prospective husband at a McDonald's near her home. Things did not go well, and after half-an-hour the date was over. Her mother's hopes of a blossoming romance lay shattered.
Li Mingshun, executive director of the China Marriage and Family Society, attributes the phenomenon to children focussing on their careers and having less free time than a couple of decades ago.
One woman, who identified herself only as Tong, complained that her son hardly gets a chance to enjoy the money he earns because he is too busy working.
Under such heavy pressure, many white-collar men and women see finding a husband or wife as too much trouble.
Forced to choose between a successful career or a family, Kate Chen, secretary for the chief executive officer of a foreign electricity company in Beijing, says, "You want to get married sometimes because you feel lonely, especially when you're ill. But once you get married and start a family, the bills just get bigger and you can't afford to lose your job. What if you got fired?"
As usual, despite parents' best intentions, their efforts are mostly unappreciated.
"It's ridiculous! Parents shouldn't ever butt into their children's love affairs, it's really none of their business," said one 26-year-old woman office worker.
Traditionally, for parents, helping children start a family is their ultimate goal in life, while getting married and having children is a duty children are expected to fulfil.
Economic development has changed young people's views of marriage. Some take the conscious decision not to get married, or get married and decide not to have children, choices many in the older generation would regard as crazy.
Tang Can, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says that in earlier times society demanded people get married before having a sexual relationship. "Now cohabiting is tolerated by society at large. Because people are more demanding about what they are looking for in a spouse, they are waiting longer for the right person," he added.
Wei Liu, 45, is a broadcaster who has her own apartment and a car, but she hasn't had a boyfriend in years.
"Like other women in my social circle, I have certain demands for a potential mate. He doesn't have to make much more than I do, but he must be doing at least as well as I am, and has to be compatible with me, both morally and spiritually," says Wei. "He should also own an apartment instead of us buying one together. Remember what Virginia Wolf said? Every woman should have a room of her own."
In contrast, some men are hesitant to marry women who have more money or a higher education than they do. Kate Chen, 29, was engaged, but her fiance dumped her when she got her master's degree in sociology from a university in Britain.
Chen's ex-fiance said he could be friends with a woman who was more qualified than him, but he could not marry her. "I just cannot stand today's women who need men to be financially capable, emotionally attentive, and spiritually romantic. That's mission impossible," he says.
"I really envy my parents, their lives were so much simpler."
Just two decades ago, people could find a spouse within a familiar community, or through a bachelor's society organized by the Labour Union and Women's Union. Today, people hardly know each other even when they live in the same community.
Because the familiar community has disappeared. "Only parents can really help their children," says a frustrated mother, who has already visited Zhongshan Park four times in the last two months, believing her "future daughter-in-law is out there, waiting to be found."
Same scene in Shanghai
Parents seeking mates for their children are not limited to Beijing. Shanghai also has its own parental matchmaking scene.
The rapidly rising divorce rate in Shanghai has worried many parents. The Shanghai Municipal Civil Administration recorded 27,376 divorces in 2004, about 30 per cent more than in 2003.
Not trusting their children to make the right choices, parents are trying to take the courtship process into their own hands.
Many rely on the discreet tradition of go-betweens, but Shanghai Women's Activities Centre, or Jinguoyuan in Chinese, a government-sponsored agency, has come up with a more direct method that is fast gaining popularity among eager parents.
At one recent event, hundreds of parents, some coming from neighbouring cities and townships, attended a matchmaking gathering arranged by Jinguoyuan. The meeting room, with space for up to 120 people, was full long before matchmaking officially started at 7 pm.
Many more who couldn't get into the room crowded the building's lobby, corridors and stairs to network for their eligible sons and daughters.
Those outside formed huddles in the car park, chatting and, of course, exchanging photographs of their children.
One fortunate parent, surnamed Yuan, who managed to squeeze into the room, said he was looking for a "suitable" bride for his 27-year-old son, who is studying for an MBA (master of business administration) degree in Boston, the United States. "My son doesn't know I'm doing this," he said.
He is not alone in taking the clandestine approach.
One mother says her son would never admit he has a problem, "but I know better," she says. "None of the girls he brought home to introduce to us seemed right."
In the old days, parents would have the right to pick a bride for their son. But the gathering shows that things have changed a lot.
Chen Zhanqing, organizer of the meeting, told parents that they should never try to "force" their children to marry.
"We are providing a platform for you to exchange information you can pass on to your sons and daughters," she said. "Let your children make the final decision."
(China Daily November 11, 2005)