Parents call the shots on dating show

The show is hosted by Jin Xing (far left), one of China’s most popular entertainment personalities.
The show is hosted by Jin Xing (far left), one of China’s most popular entertainment personalities.PHOTO: CHINESE DATING/WEIBO

Chinese Dating, a new television dating show in China, sees parents vetting potential partners for their children

BEIJING • You are a young Chinese man whose father tells you the most important skill his future daughter-in-law must have is caring for her home and family. Your mother rejects a 40-year-old woman as your potential mate because she may be too old to bear children.

This is not pre-revolutionary China, but a new television dating show.

Since Chinese Dating made its debut in late December, it has drawn viewers and generated lively discussions on China's social networks. A Weibo page for it has been visited 177 million times and its first three episodes had more than 200 million views online.

Dating shows are not new in China. The top-rated If You Are The One turned several contestants into celebrities through their provocative statements, such as "I'd rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle."

What is different about Chinese Dating is that it gives parents power over their children's choices, a power that many viewers say reflects Chinese society today.

"The presence of the parents, who are the decision-makers in many young people's marriages, and their blunt opinions contribute to the show's appeal," said Ms Zhou Xiaopeng, a relationship counsellor on dating website Baihe.

"People like it because that's the reality, that many young Chinese people's decisions on marriage are influenced by their parents."

She said the weekly show evoked China's tradition of arranged marriages, in which family elders hired matchmakers to find spouses for their children.

Although arranged marriages were discouraged after the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911 and banned by the Republican government in the 1930s, Chinese millennials, often portrayed as the excessively indulged and protected products of the one-child family policy, now find themselves yielding to parents who are ready to provide them with everything, even a spouse.

Ms Zhang Yashu, a 25-year-old from Shenyang, the capital of the north-eastern province of Liaoning, who appeared on the show last month, said none of her previous boyfriends had satisfied her mother.

"My mum means well. She wants me to find a good husband - by her standards," she said in an interview. "I don't feel a rush to get married, but my parents are worried I won't be able to find a good husband, especially as their friends' children are settling down."

Her parents had introduced her to several men, but none of the meetings sparked romance.

Fortunately, she found someone she liked on the show and her parents liked him too.

The show's host is one of China's most popular entertainment personalities: Jin Xing, a transgender woman.

If that challenges Confucian traditions, the show's format hews more closely to them.

The basic format lines up several young men or women against five sets of parents. The parents' children are in another room, where they can watch the proceedings through a monitor and communicate with their parents by phone. Only candidates approved by the parents are allowed to meet their children.

For male candidates, parents' biggest concern appears to be their finances. For women, it helps to be young, pretty and seemingly innocent. In one episode, when a potential groom asked the parents how many relationships their daughters had, all the parents said their daughters either had never dated or had never taken a man home.

"She has high standards," one mother said proudly. "She's basically a blank page."

In an interview with the Jiefang Daily newspaper, the show's director, Yao Yao, said she was struck by how anxious the parents on the show were about their children's marriages.

"Inviting parents here, getting their approval, is a way of avoiding many unnecessary problems," she said. "There's no question family and parents are important in a marriage. Romance and marriage are two different things."

Ms Zhou said one reason Chinese parents had so much say over their child's marriage was that many of the parents were paying for it.

According to a 2015 report by the All-China Women's Federation, the average age at marriage is 26. But the expenses of marriage exceed what most Chinese this age can afford.

According to one industry report, last year, the average cost of a wedding in Shanghai was 200,000 yuan (S$41,400). That does not include the costs of an apartment and a car, which are widely considered prerequisites for an engagement and typically bought by the young man's parents.

"Matchmaking remains popular because, from the start, each side knows exactly what the other's background is," Ms Zhou said. "It's efficient when candidates are screened by parents."

Ms Lu Pin, a feminist and cultural critic, said patriarchal values were never entirely eliminated from Chinese culture and there were signs that they were making a comeback.

"Many Chinese families have entered the middle class now and they want to solidify their status by marrying people from a similar background," she said. "It's a decision that affects the whole family."

Without parents' help, she said, many young Chinese cannot afford to marry, and even afterwards, they still need help from their parents on issues such as childcare.

"Too much protection and support from parents has given rise to a generation that has never really grown up," Ms Zhou said.

"Many clients tell me their marriage was based not on love, but on 'convenience', that their parents told them it would be a good match," she said. "When asked what they expect of their future partner, many say they trust their parents' experience. That's not the attitude of an adult."

Some commenters on Weibo agreed.

"China is a country full of grown-up babies," one user wrote.

But others say the show is only acknowledging the practicalities of finding a mate.

"It's better than breaking up after you've dated a while and found you don't get along well with each other's parents," wrote another.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Parents call the shots on dating show'. Print Edition | Subscribe