Meet the parents

New dating show stokes debates on arranged marriages


A jilted contestant on the show

In China, urban parks are one of the most popular matchmaking hotspots. As they stroll after dinner, anxious parents try to identify potential spouses for their marriage-age children. They are also ready to advertise their singleton’s looks, education level, salary, profession and assets (in the man’s case, it’s critical that he owns an apartment plus a car).

Worrying about their offspring’s marital prospects remains a major part of Chinese culture and parents still play a key role in decisionmaking about their children’s nuptials. One reason, says the World Bank, which published a report in 2015 on parental matchmaking in China, is because of the lack of a solid social security system. Hence parents are keen to make sure their children are married into a family of equal (if not better) economic status to protect their own financial security after they retire.

And now – in addition to public parks – a new reality dating show has brought parentally-engineered matchmaking to the centre stage. Chinese Dating, a primetime show on Shanghai’s Dragon TV, has recently generated plenty of buzz.

The reality show goes with the slogan “Chinese-style blind dating; feel more secure with parents present”.

The format sees a contestant introduced to five families while the prospective suitor waits in a room offstage (where they can only communicate with their parents by placing a ‘call’ to the show’s host throughout the contest). After a brief introduction, the parents take turns asking tough questions before determining whether the contestant is a good match for their child. Once they have given their approval, the two will meet face-to-face for the first time and begin their dating journey. To maintain gender equality, the format rotates every week so male and female contestants will have an equal chance to vie for the affection of parents of the opposite sex.

Hosted by Jin Xing – dubbed China’s ‘transgender Oprah’ – the show has become one of the highest trending topics on weibo since its debut in late December.

However, a reality show doesn’t always become popular for the all the right reasons. Many viewers complain that the show is “backwards” and “sexist”.

“The men and women don’t meet until the very end and instead, the parents get to decide their future daughter-in-law. Whichever way you look at it, the show just seems like a regression in society values,” one netizen wrote on weibo.

Others say the programme reflects how many Chinese families still expect women to play the caretaker role in the family, even though the number of educated women in the population is higher than ever before.

Indeed, most of the bachelors’ families openly admit that the most important qualities in a woman are ”to produce the next generation”, “take care of the husband” and “manage the household”.

In the first episode, the aunt of a bachelor rattles off a list of qualities a woman should possess to be considered marriage material: “She must have good health; a kind heart; be hard working; good at managing finances. She must also be able to endure hardship and do manual work.”

At this point her nephew quietly adds, “She also needs to be beautiful and elegant”.

“Looks are not important. Good looks are not enough to sustain a family,” his aunt retorts.

Health is an important criteria, though assessing it can be idiosyncratic. Meet another bachelor’s mother, who claims to be a professional nutritionist. Her method for finding a spouse for her son: to feel the hands of the contestants. “Girls with cold hands are no good. Cold hands mean cold uterus. Their future children could suffer from anaemia or malnutrition. This is something that involves the next generation, so I must insist,” she says.

The most controversial contestant to appear so far is single mother and entrepreneur Lin Jiali. Appearing in the first episode, she walks on stage holding a bowl of soup that she cooked herself. All of the parents seemed impressed with her beauty and credentials until they discovered that she’s 40 years old and has a son from a previous relationship. None of the families gave the approval for their sons to date her.

“I hope my daughter-in-law will give birth to two or three kids,” says the (hand-examing) nutritionist mother, implying that Lin is too old.

A lot of netizens claim to be outraged by the new programme and some say it should be renamed ‘Chinese Traditions and Prejudices’.

“The girls are mature, understanding, ambitious, and responsible, but the boys are spoiled, so they never grow up,” one wrote on weibo. “They are selfish giant babies.”

“It is disturbing to see a brave 40 year-old single mother going on a reality TV show to find love only to be rejected and humiliated. She could have been a role model for all the other women: she is beautiful, highly accomplished and unafraid. But on the show she was shamed and criticised from head to toe,” Caixin Weekly thunders.

Still, putting entertainment aside, the pains parents go through to find their children a spouse are very real. One couple has been visiting the public park near Shanghai’s People’s Square every weekend – in spite of the freezing weather. It told Shanghai Morning Post that they were there to find a boyfriend for their daughter, who was born in the post-90s generation. “Every time I see her sitting at home all alone I feel very sad. She doesn’t have to get married right away but I’d like for her to find someone she likes,” the mother explains.

So why advertise in the park? “We don’t trust other matchmaking methods. It is better that we have taken a look first. It gives us peace of mind,” adds the mother.

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