When it comes to relationships, Gong Haiyan leads by example.
After finding her future husband online, the 30-year-old set up her own Internet dating service.
And as more and more Chinese turn to technology to find the loves of their lives, the market is expanding at a rapid rate.
Its growth in China was reflected earlier this month, when the mainland held what was believed to be its first Internet dating conference at the Kempinski Hotel in Beijing.
Gong, who attended the event, told delegates representing the online dating industry that Chinese people in particular find the Internet useful when looking for potential partners. "Many Asian people, especially Chinese, are reserved and shy by nature," she said. "It is awkward for us to openly express our adoration to a stranger.
"Even though one meets strangers at parties and get-togethers, most relationships are limited to business or as casual friends.
"Online dating services can meet the demand since registered users of the Web share the same purpose of finding a partner, so the success rate of finding a match is greatly enhanced."
The event, organized by Ticonderoga Ventures in the United States, brought together the leading lights of the fledgling industry in China.
Event organizer Marc Lesnick held the first iDate Conference in Miami in 2003. Conferences in Europe followed shortly afterwards, before the event arrived in Asia for the first time last year in Hong Kong.
"About 35 people attended it, while slightly more than that came to Beijing," Lesnick said. "While it was quite a small event, it was very intense. What happened there, and what we found in Beijing, is very interesting.
"If you invite the owners of online dating services in America to a conference, about 80 per cent of their presentations would be identical. They all know the market there, and it is maturing.
"But when you get the five leading executives in China and put them on a stage, it's completely different. You get five very different views. When you have a market that is this young, you can make statements, and no one can discredit you. They can't prove you right or wrong."
A report released earlier this year by Internet and research consulting firm iResearch valued 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$80.5 million) in 2008.
In comparison, the US market was US$520 million last year, and the European market was US$110 million, both expanding at double-digit rates. And Lesnick said with the markets in the United States and Europe beginning to mature, many overseas companies are starting to pay attention to the burgeoning Chinese market.
Paying for dates
The National Population and Family Planning Commission revealed earlier this year that 117 boys were being born in China for every 100 girls, far beyond the normal ratio of 104-107 to 100.
For Lesnick, the statistic means Internet dating will grow even more. "In China, the most interesting factor is the male to female ratio," he said. "In the US it is around even. But the ratio in China means that there is going to be a big problem in the long-term.
"When these guys turn 20 to 25 and are looking to get married, they are going to find that there is a shortage of women. So, they are going to pay money to get dates and to be set up, so the market will grow hugely."
One of the delegates most captivated by the two-day conference was Mark Brooks, a US-based online dating industry analyst and editor of Onlinepersonalswatch.com.
"I know the American market very well, and the European market somewhat, but the Asian market was a mystery to me," he said. "The US market is coming to a point of maturity now, whereas the situation in China now is how it was there a few years ago.
"People are beginning here to meet couples who successfully met through online dating. People are starting to trust it more, and seeing that it is a secure vehicle for finding the ideal match.
"In a few years, everyone will know somebody who has met their partner through online dating. When the growth does pick up and go through the roof, there will be many foreign firms here."
Brooks said he saw the conference as a groundbreaking moment for the industry in China. "It was like going to a Windows conference in 1995," he said. "This is an incredibly exciting time."
For Gong, who set up Love21cn.com in 2003 in Shanghai, the event was proof that she had made the right decision in venturing into the dating market. Even though she met her husband online, she was not impressed with most of the dating sites that existed at the time.
She said that although she wanted to find a serious relationship and was not interested in wasting her time, many others she encountered on the Web were looking for more casual relationships.
"People will pay for a good relationship because the Chinese value marriage a lot and are willing to pay to find the right match," she said. "Time changes almost everything, but looking for romance, choosing a spouse and getting married remains a core issue in Chinese life.
"But how people acquire that information and make the decision has altered greatly. China's matchmaking service has come a long way from the old, conservative and single mode to the independent, open and diversified mode.
"The evolution also mirrors the tremendous social progress China has made."
Jason Tian chief executive officer of Baihe.com, which claims to be China's largest online dating site said one of the biggest challenges facing the industry in China was when users of Internet dating sites become the victims of crime, such as physical attacks and fraud involving people they have met online.
"Things like this will hurt the industry, and that is one of the challenging things we are facing," Tian said. "But things like this are common issues that happen even without serious online dating websites."
Although online dating services have existed in China for several years, websites that focus on providing serious relations came into operation only about two years ago.
"Before 2004, there were almost no significant players in this area, but things have begun to change," Tian said. "There are more and more players developing new projects, and there is a lot more marketing, so we are seeing a big jump in users.
One user who can vouch for the positive aspects of online dating services is Baihe employer Michelle Liang. When the company first launched its dating service, she offered to become one of the first users. And after meeting Tiger Li through the site, the pair, from Beijing, are planning to get married next month.
"I had never used an Internet dating site before, so I did not have any expectations before I went into it," Liang said. "It was something that I just wanted to try out. I was just looking, really. I was not taking it too seriously at first."
She was required to take a psychological profile test on the site, the results of which proved an accurate reflection of her personality, she said.
"I think dating websites can do a good job of matching people up."
The rise of online dating reflects not only the progress that China has made, but also the problems that come with a changing social environment.
(China Daily by Jamie Thompson June 26, 2006)