The quickest way to a man's heart may be through his stomach, but the quickest way to get to know him, or her, is through the Internet.
That is according to an iResearch report that puts the number of people who used online dating services in China last year at a whopping 10 million.
With the number of Internet users growing by leaps and bounds, singles who want to connect with one another are expected to grow from 6.5 million in 2004 to 29 million in 2008, said Hou Tao, an executive of the Shanghai-based research firm.
One of them is a young woman who turned to Love21cn. Using a false name, she said she had only four dates during her college years, but as many as 50 men approached her in the month after she posted her ad on the matchmaking site, which was founded by Fudan University postgraduate Gong Haiyan.
Gong claimed that since the birth of her site in October 2003, 400,000 members have signed up, of whom 26,000 have rung wedding bells.
Sites like hers are trying to solve the problem of "information disparity" and provide an open space for finding a potential spouse, she said.
"We target those who are in search of spouses, not just ordinary friends, and we serve mainly clients with higher education," she added.
Much of the online population is young and well-educated, which is the ideal demographic for matchmaking sites such as Love21cn.
However, Gong admitted that it is hard to charge for annual membership. Much of the site's revenue derives from additional services such as moving ads to the front page, at 10 yuan (US$1.23) per day, and a few offline services.
The iResearch report puts the online dating market at 37 million yuan (US$4.5 million) for 2004 and 91 million yuan (US$11.2 million) for 2005, and predicts it will grow to 653 million yuan (US$81 million) by 2008.
That makes it a magnet for venture capitalists from overseas.
Baihe, an online dating site, was injected with large doses of venture capital in 2004, and Love21cn has been approached by firms such as IDG and Cypress Ventures, Gong said.
International online dating sites match.com and friendfinder.com have already entered the Chinese market. Some are partnerships with local companies.
For comparison, the US market was US$520 million for 2005, and the European market was US$110 million, both expanding at double-digit rates, the iResearch report said.
But that does not mean the road to finding a spouse online is paved with flowers. "There are risks in the virtual world," cautioned Xu Anqi, a researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "For one thing, some people are not truthful in presenting their own data."
But Xu admitted that in this era of competitiveness, online dating provides an efficient alternative to traditional matchmaking, and in the online world, information is abundant. As long as one exercises precaution and takes dating and marriage seriously, Xu said, one is much likelier to find the perfect match.
(China Daily February 27, 2006)