Men in China turn to dating coaches

Looking for love in a digital age, they get makeovers, photo sessions and advice on how to ask women for their WeChat IDs

Mr Yu Ruitong taking a selfie with a woman while dating coach Zhang Mindong photographs them, during a session on getting good selfies for online dating profiles.
Mr Yu Ruitong taking a selfie with a woman while dating coach Zhang Mindong photographs them, during a session on getting good selfies for online dating profiles. PHOTO: NYTIMES

JINAN (China) • Mr Zhang Zhenxiao is 27. He has never been in a relationship. He has never kissed a woman. Now, he is ready for love - but like many men in China, he does not know where to begin.

So he turned to a dating coach. The Fall In Love Emotional Education school has taught him how to groom himself, approach a woman and flirt his way into her smartphone contacts.

"There are many people who lack the ability to have a relationship," said Mr Zhang, who enrolled in a three-day course during a week-long holiday in October. "Many times, it's not that there's something wrong with us. It's that we don't know what details to pay attention to."

While dating is hard everywhere, it is arguably worse for Chinese men. China's now-ended one-child policy, carried out in a country with a strong cultural preference for boys, prompted many couples to abort female foetuses. Last year, there were about 33.6 million more men than women in China, according to the government.

"They are caught in a very difficult situation, especially for those with no money," said Ms Li Yinhe, a scholar of sexuality in China.

Newspapers warn that a surplus of unhappy, single men in China could lead to an increase in human trafficking, sex crimes and social instability.

So the government is playing matchmaker. In June, the Communist Youth League, a training ground for many top officials, organised a mass speed-dating event for 2,000 young singles in the eastern province of Zhejiang.

For decades, Chinese marriages were arranged through matchmakers or families. Even when the notion of "freedom to love" became popular after 1950, there were few social venues for people to snuggle and mingle.

Mr Zhang's dating coach, Mr Zhang Mindong, said he was once like the men he teaches. A self-professed diaosi, or loser, Mr Zhang Mindong said he suffered a painful break-up in 2012.

He turned to the Internet to find solutions and discovered the term "pick-up artist". He started his school, which he now runs with Cui Yihao, 25, and Fan Long, 29, in the eastern city of Jinan in 2014.

The cost for their services ranges from US$45 (S$61) for an online course to about US$3,000 for one-on-one coaching. Similar schools have opened in several Chinese cities.

The number of students who take offline courses at Fall In Love Emotional Education has grown from one in 2014, to more than 300 now, according to Mr Zhang. About 90 per cent of graduates end up with girlfriends, he said.

At the October session, there was Mr Yu Ruitong, a 23-year-old software developer who had three previous relationships; Mr Ye Chaoqun, a 27-year-old small-business owner who is hoping to make the woman he likes fall in love with him; and Mr James Zhang, a 30-year-old cancer doctor who is looking to expand the circle of women he knows.

To show his students what they were up against, Mr Zhang held up a profile of an attractive woman on a dating app that had garnered "likes" from 7,000 men. "This is the environment in China," he said.

In the first hour, he proclaimed them sartorial disasters. Most of the first day was devoted to improving dress. ("Narrow collars, sleeves should be folded up above the elbow and trousers should be fitted.") They bought clothes and got haircuts.

The makeovers were followed by the students posing for photos - reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time, sipping tea and nibbling canapes presented in a silver bird cage, looking pensively out a window. That culminated in selfies with Ms Wang Zhen, a friend of Mr Cui's.

That is designed for dating in the digital era. In China, getting to know a person takes place almost exclusively on WeChat, a popular social media tool used by nearly one billion people.

Most social interactions in China usually start or end with people scanning each other's WeChat QR codes or adding each other's WeChat IDs.

On a Thursday night outside a busy mall in Jinan, the students got their first challenge: approach women and ask for their WeChat contacts.

After practising their moves on Ms Wang, the students set off. Mr Zhang Zhenxiao rushed up to two women, who paused, but continued walking. He chased after them and stopped them again. After a minute, they walked away.

"I didn't succeed," a dejected Mr Zhang said, returning to the group.

"No, the fact that you approached them means you did," Mr Cui said, patting him on the back.

By the end of the night, all the students had obtained at least one WeChat contact.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2017, with the headline Men in China turn to dating coaches. Subscribe