From her stakeout near the entrance of an H&M store in Joy City, a Beijing shopping mall, Yang Jing seemed lost in thought, twirling a strand of her auburn-tinted hair, tapping her nails on an aquamarine iPhone 4S. But her eyes kept moving. They tracked the clusters of young women zigzagging from Zara to Calvin Klein Jeans. They lingered on a face, a gesture, and then moved on, darting across the atrium, searching.
"This is a good place to hunt," she told me. "I always have good luck here."
For Yang, Joy City is not so much a consumer mecca as an urban Serengeti that she prowls for potential wives for some of China's richest bachelors. Yang, 28, is one of China's premier love hunters, a new breed of matchmaker that has proliferated in the country's economic boom. The company she works for, Diamond Love and Marriage, caters to China's nouveaux riches: men, and occasionally women, willing to pay tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to outsource the search for their ideal spouse.
In Joy City, Yang gave instructions to her eight-scout team, one of six squads the company was deploying in three cities for one Shanghai millionaire. This client had provided a list of requirements for his future wife, including her age (22 to 26), skin color ("white as porcelain") and sexual history (yes, a virgin).
"These millionaires are very picky, you know?" Yang said. "Nobody can ever be perfect enough." Still, the potential reward for Yang is huge: The love hunter who finds the client's eventual choice will receive a bonus of more than $30,000, around five times the average annual salary in this line of work.
Suddenly, a signal came.
From across the atrium, a co-worker of Yang caught her eye and nodded at a woman in a blue dress, walking alone. Yang had shaken off her colleague's suggestions several times that day, but this time she circled behind the woman in question.
"Perfect skin," she whispered. "Elegant face." When the woman walked into H&M, Yang intercepted her in the sweater aisle. "I'm so sorry to bother you," she said with a honeyed smile. "I'm a love hunter. Are you looking for love?"
Three miles away, in a Beijing park near the Temple of Heaven, a woman named Yu Jia jostled for space under a grove of elms. A widowed 67-year-old pensioner, she was clearing a spot on the ground for a sign she had scrawled for her son. "Seeking Marriage," read the wrinkled sheet of paper, which Yu held in place with a few fragments of brick and stone. "Male. Single. Born 1972. Height 172 cm. High school education. Job in Beijing."
Yu is another kind of love hunter: a parent seeking a spouse for an adult child in the so-called marriage markets that have popped up in parks across the city. Long rows of graying men and women sat in front of signs listing their children's qualifications. Hundreds of others trudged by, stopping occasionally to make an inquiry.
Yu's crude sign had no flourishes: no photograph, no blood type, no zodiac sign, no line about income or assets. Unlike the millionaire's wish list, the sign didn't even specify what sort of wife her son wanted. "We don't have much choice," she explained. "At this point, we can't rule anybody out."
In the four years she has been seeking a wife for her son, Zhao Yong, there have been only a handful of prospects. Even so, when a woman in a green plastic visor paused to scan her sign that day, Yu put on a bright smile and told of her son's fine character and good looks. The woman asked: "Does he own an apartment in Beijing?" Yu's smile wilted, and the woman moved on.
'LEFTOVER' AT 28
Three decades of combustive economic growth have reshaped the landscape of marriage in China. A generation ago, China was one of the world's most equal nations, in both gender and wealth. Most people were poor, and tight controls over housing, employment, travel and family life simplified the search for a suitable match - what the Chinese call mendang hudui, meaning roughly "family doors of equal size."
Like many Chinese who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, Yu married a man from her factory work unit, with their local Communist Party boss as informal matchmaker. As recently as 1990, researchers found that a vast majority of residents in two of China's largest cities dated just one person before marriage: their prospective spouse.
China's transition to a market economy has swept away many restrictions in people's lives. But of all the new freedoms the Chinese enjoy today - making money, owning a house, choosing a career - there is one that has become an unexpected burden: seeking a spouse. This may be a time of sexual and romantic liberation in China, but the solemn task of finding a husband or wife is proving to be a vexing proposition for rich and poor alike.
"The old family and social networks that people used to rely on for finding a husband or wife have fallen apart," said James Farrer, an American sociologist whose book, "Opening Up," looks at sex, dating and marriage in contemporary China. "There's a huge sense of dislocation in China, and young people don't know where to turn."
The confusion surrounding marriage in China reflects a country in frenzied transition. Sharp inequalities of wealth have created new fault lines in Chinese society, while the largest rural-to-urban migration in history has blurred many of the old ones. As many as 300 million rural Chinese have moved to the cities in the last three decades. Uprooted and without nearby relatives to help arrange meetings with potential partners, these migrants are often lost in the swell of the big city.
Demographic changes, too, are creating complications. Not only are many more Chinese women postponing marriage to pursue careers, but China's gender gap - 118 boys are born for every 100 girls - has become one of the world's widest, fueled in large part by the government's restrictive one-child policy. By the end of this decade, Chinese researchers estimate, the country will have a surplus of 24 million unmarried men.
Without traditional family or social networks, many men and women have taken their searches online, where thousands of dating and marriage websites have sprung up in an industry that analysts predict will soon surpass $300 million annually. These sites cater mainly to China's millions of white-collar workers. But intense competition, along with mistrust of potential mates' online claims, has spurred a growing number of singles - rich and poor - to turn to more hands-on matchmaking services.
China's matchmaking tradition stretches back more than 2,000 years, to the first imperial marriage broker in the late Zhou dynasty. The goal of matchmakers ever since has usually been to pair families of equal stature for the greater social good. Today, however, matchmaking has warped into a commercial free-for-all in which marriage is often viewed as an opportunity to leap up the social ladder or to proclaim one's arrival at the top.
Single men have a hard time making the list if they don't own a house or an apartment, which in cities like Beijing are extremely expensive. And despite the gender imbalance, Chinese women face intense pressure to be married before the age of 28, lest they be rejected and stigmatized as "leftover women."
Dozens of high-end matchmaking services have sprung up in China in the last five years, charging big fees to find and to vet prospective spouses for wealthy clients. Their methods can turn into gaudy spectacle. One firm transported 200 would-be trophy wives to a resort town in southwestern China for the perusal of one powerful magnate. Another organized a caravan of BMWs for rich businessmen to find young wives in Sichuan province. Diamond Love, among the largest love-hunting services, sponsored a matchmaking event in 2009 where 21 men each paid a $15,000 entrance fee.
Over the last year, I tracked the progress of two matchmaking efforts at the opposite extremes of wealth. Together, they help illuminate the forces reshaping marriage in China.
In one case, Yu's migrant son reluctantly agreed to allow his aging mother to make the search for his future wife her all-consuming mission. In the other, Yang's richest client at Diamond Love deployed dozens of love hunters to find the most exquisite fair-skinned beauty in the land, even as he fretted about being conned by a bai jin nu, or gold digger.
Between the two extremes is Yang herself, whose very success as a love hunter has made her the breadwinner in her own family. Despite her growing discomfort with the sexism that permeates the love-hunting business, she has sympathy for her superrich clients.
"These men are lost souls," she said. "They worked hard, made a lot of money, and left their old world behind. Now they don't have time to find a wife, and they don't know whom to trust. So they come to us."
A VERY PARTICULAR CLIENT
When I first visited the Beijing office of Diamond Love last year, Yang was fretting over a love-hunting campaign for a potential client: a divorced 42-year-old property mogul who was prepared to spend the equivalent of more than a half-million dollars.
This wouldn't be the biggest case in company history; two years ago, a man paid $1.5 million for a successful 12-city hunt. But the pressure felt more intense this time. It wasn't just that Yang would vie with hundreds of other love hunters for a possible winner's bonus of $32,000. Her boss had entrusted her with a central role in this campaign - the firm's biggest of the year - with a client who was known to be an imperious perfectionist. Failure was a real possibility.
Yang started part-time work as a love hunter while a university student eight years ago. After a brief stint as a hospital nurse, she joined Diamond Love full time and is now its most seasoned Beijing scout. Despite a recent promotion to a consulting job, in which she deals directly with clients and their delicate egos, she is often tapped to lead the highest-stakes campaigns.
Her hit rate is astonishing. In three large-scale campaigns over the last three years, the firm's top clients ended up choosing candidates whom Yang personally discovered. Her success has earned her huge bonuses - in one case, $27,000 - and a reputation as one of China's most accomplished love hunters.
Still, she told me that this new case was "nearly impossible."
Mr. Big, as I'll call him - he insisted that Diamond Love not reveal his name - is a member of China's fuyidai, the "first-generation rich" who have leapt from poverty to extreme wealth in a single bound, often jettisoning their first wives in the process. Diamond Love's clientele also includes many fuerdai, or "second-generation-rich," men and women in their 20s and 30s whose search is often bankrolled by wealthy parents keen on exerting control over their marital choices as well as the family inheritance. But fuyidai like Mr. Big, who has built a fortune in computers and real estate, are accustomed to being the boss and can be the most uncompromising clients.
Mr. Big had an excruciatingly specific requirement for his second wife. The ideal woman, he said, would look like a younger replica of Zhou Tao, a famous Chinese television host: slim with pure white skin, slightly pointed chin, perfect teeth, double eyelids and long silken hair. To ensure her good character and fortune, he insisted that her wuguan - a feng shui-like reading of the sense organs on the face - show perfect harmony.
"When clients start out, all they want is beauty - how tall, how white, how thin," Yang said. "Sometimes the person they're looking for doesn't exist in nature. Even if we find her, these clients often have no idea whether that would make their hearts feel settled. It's our job to try to move them from fantasy toward reality."
Fantasy, of course, is precisely what Diamond Love sells. Yang's boss, Fei Yang, is a smoky-voiced woman in a black leather jacket who used to trade in electronic goods. Inviting me to sit on a bright pink couch in her lushly carpeted office, she explained how the firm has "spread the culture of the relationship" since 2005, when its first opened in Shanghai. It now has six branches, with 200 consultants, 200 full-time love hunters and hundreds more part-time scouts, virtually all of them women.
Teacher Fei, as her employees call her, runs a series of "how to be a better wife" workshops that coach women on the finer points of managing a wealthy household, reading their husbands' moods and "understanding the importance of sexual relations." The fee for two, 14-day courses is $16,000.
But Diamond Love's chief target is men, the wealthier the better. The company's 4 million members are mostly men who pay from a few dollars a month for basic searches to more than $15,000 for access to exclusive databases with customized assistance from a professional love consultant.
The company's wealthiest, highest-paying clients - 90 percent of whom are men - show little interest in lectures or databases. They want exclusive access to what Fei coolly refers to as "fresh resources": young women who haven't yet been exposed to other suitors online. It's the love hunters' job to find them.
Besides giving clients a vastly expanded pool of marriage prospects, these campaigns offer a sense of security. Rigorous background checks screen out what Fei calls "gold diggers, liars and people of loose morals." Depending on a campaign's size, Diamond Love charges from $50,000 to more than $1 million. Fei makes no apologies for the high fees.
"Why shouldn't they pay more to find the perfect wife?" she asked me. "This is the most important investment in their lives."
Even before Mr. Big signed a contract, Yang sensed trouble brewing. She and a colleague culled the company's exclusive databases to find women to serve as templates for the love hunters' search. Together with Mr. Big, they looked at the files and pictures of their top 3,000 women. He rejected them all.
"Even if the girl's eyebrow was just a half-millimeter too high, he would toss the photo out and say, 'No good!"' Yang said. "He always found something to complain about."
With more than a half-million dollars on the line, Yang was beginning to doubt her ability to deliver. And not just for Mr. Big. One afternoon when we met, the normally animated Yang slumped onto the sofa, exhausted. She had just spent an hour with a rich Chinese businesswoman in her late 30s. The woman proposed spending $100,000 on a campaign to find a husband who matched her status.
"I had to tell her we couldn't take her case," Yang said. "No wealthy Chinese man would ever marry her. They always want somebody younger, with less power."
We sat in silence a minute before Yang spoke again. "It's depressing to think about these 'leftover women,"' she said. "Do you have them in America, too?"
A MOTHER'S SEARCH
Yu Jia kept her search a secret at first. She didn't want to risk upsetting her son so soon after his father's death. The year before, Yu and her sick husband had left the northern city of Harbin in the hope of finding better treatment for his lung cancer in Beijing, where two of their sons already lived. The husband hung on for a year before he died in 2009 - not long, but long enough to wipe out the last of the family's $25,000 in savings.
Devastated, Yu stayed in an apartment on the outskirts of Beijing with her sons - one married; the other, Zhao Yong, still single at 36. But one day, Yu came upon a crowd swarming under the elm trees near the Temple of Heaven.
Her life suddenly had a new purpose. "I decided that I will not go home until I find a wife for my son," she told me. "It's the only thing left unfinished in my life."
Plunging into a crowd of strangers with her sign made Yu feel awkward at first. Her elder two sons had found wives in traditional ways, one through a matchmaker, the other through a friend. But Zhao, her youngest, had not. After losing his job in an electronics factory in Harbin, he followed his hometown sweetheart to Beijing. They were in love and planned to marry. But her family demanded a bride price - a sort of dowry used in rural China - of $15,000. His family could not afford it, and the relationship ended.
Zhao threw himself into his work as a driver and salesman. His former girlfriend married and had a baby. He told his mother he had little time to think about marriage.
The strangers in the park, uprooted from their traditional family and hometown networks, shared similar stories, and Yu found comfort there. Many other parents, she realized, were even more frantic; they had only one child because of China's policy. (Yu, as a rural mother, was permitted to have multiple offspring.)
The marriage candidates on offer in the parks, she discovered, were often a mismatch of shengnu ("leftover women") and shengnan ("leftover men"), two groups from opposite ends of the social scale. Shengnan, like her son, are mostly poor rural men left behind as female counterparts marry up in age and social status. The phenomenon is exacerbated by China's warped demographics, as the bubble of excess men starts to reach marrying age.
Finding a Chinese spouse can be even more challenging for so-called leftover women, even if they often have precisely what the shengnan lack: money, education and social and professional standing. One day in the Temple of Heaven park, I met a 70-year-old pensioner from Anhui province who was seeking a husband for his eldest daughter, a 36-year-old economics professor in Beijing.
"My daughter is an outstanding girl," he said, pulling from his satchel an academic book she had published. "She's been introduced to about 15 men over the past two years, but they all rejected her because her degree is too high."
The failure compelled him to forbid his youngest daughter from going to graduate school. "No man will want you," he told her. That daughter is now married in Anhui, with an infant son whom the pensioner, so busy seeking a spouse for her older sister in Beijing, rarely sees.
Yu's son, Zhao, was angry when he found out that she had been searching for a wife for him. He didn't want to rely on anybody else's marketing, especially his mother's. But he has since relented.
"I see how hard she works, so I can't refuse," he told me.
Yu doesn't tell her son about the parents who scoff when they find out he has no property and no Beijing residency permit. But the handful of young women she's persuaded to meet him never made it to a second date.
One afternoon last summer, however, there was a glimmer of hope. Yu traded information with a mother who didn't dismiss her son out of hand. The woman's daughter was 35, with a good education, a substantial income and a Beijing residency permit. She was, in some eyes, a leftover woman. Yu emailed Zhao's picture to her that evening. The daughter declined to meet at first. A week later, she called back: "Yes, maybe."
Yu was thrilled. It was her first solid lead in months.
HIGH FEES AND SECRECY
The second time I dropped by Diamond Love's offices last year, Yang Jing took me by the arm and whispered: "We've had a spy!"
A few days earlier, just as Mr. Big was set to sign the contract and begin paying his $600,000 fee, a woman from a competing agency contacted him. Displaying inside knowledge of his contract with Diamond Love, she offered to carry out an even more comprehensive search. Mr. Big called Diamond Love in a rage that his confidential information had been leaked.
Within hours, according to Yang, the office's management team ferreted out and dismissed the office mole - a secretary whom the competitor had recruited as a spy. But it took a full week of apologies and vows of enhanced security to coax Mr. Big to finally sign the contract. The terms stipulated that his file would be destroyed, "Mission Impossible"-style, once he had found a wife.
"We always sign confidentiality agreements," Yang said, "but now we're operating like a secret organization."
The day Mr. Big signed, Yang took a flight to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, where she would kick-start the campaign. During her 20-day search there, she had recurring nightmares. "I always feel unsettled during a campaign," she said, "but this time, the stress was crazy."
Her team of 10 love hunters scoured university campuses and shopping malls for three weeks, trying to meet a daily quota of 20 high-quality women, or two per person. Yang offered a bonus, about $16, for every candidate above the quota and set a personal goal of finding 10 "Class A" women a day herself.
Yang wasn't just haunted by a fear of letting the ideal candidate - and the bonus - slip out of her grasp. The office leak had also made her worry about security. One more false step and Mr. Big would bolt.
One afternoon in Chengdu, after slurping down a bowl of beef noodles at Master Kong's Chef's Table, Yang noticed a young woman sweeping past her into the restaurant, chatting on a cellphone. Long black hair hid most of the woman's face, but there was something captivating about her laugh and easy gait.
"She seemed open, warm, happy," Yang said. After a moment of indecision, Yang followed her inside, apologized for the intrusion and switched on her charm. Linking arms with the woman - one of her patented moves - Yang came away with her phone number, photograph and a few pertinent details: she was 24, a graduate student and a near-ringer for the TV hostess Zhou Tao.
A PROPOSAL REJECTED
One Friday last fall, I met with Yu Jia and her son Zhao Yong at a McDonald's in western Beijing. Now 39, Zhao has a youthful, unlined face. Still, he worries that time is passing him by. To save money and to enhance his marriage prospects, he works two jobs simultaneously - one selling microwaves, the other cosmetics - crisscrossing the city on his electric bike. He earns about $1,000 a month, and sometimes adds $80 more by working weekends as a film extra. It is a respectable income, but not enough to attract a bride in Beijing.
Even in the countryside, where men's families pay bride prices, inflation is rampant. Yu's family paid about $3,500 when Zhao's older brother married 10 years ago in rural Heilongjiang. Today, she said, brides' families ask for $30,000, even $50,000. An apartment, the urban equivalent of the bride price, is even further out of reach. At Zhao's current income, it would take a decade or two before he could afford a small Beijing apartment, which he said would start at about $100,000. "I'll be an old man by then," he said with a rueful smile.
Zhao has met several women on online dating sites, but he lost faith in the Internet when several women lied to him about their marital status and family backgrounds. His mother, however, had come through, arranging a meeting between him and the daughter of the woman she had met in the marriage market.
Not long after our conversation in McDonald's, Zhao met the woman at a coffee shop. It was, he told me later, even more awkward than most first dates. A rural migrant and door-to-door salesman, he struggled to find a shared topic of interest with the woman, a 35-year-old entrepreneur and Beijing native who had arrived driving a BMW sedan.
The lack of chemistry didn't seem to bother the woman, who told him about her profitable photo business and the three Beijing apartments she owned. Zhao didn't find her unattractive, but how was he supposed to respond? Then, even before broaching the possibility of a second date, he said, the woman made a proposition: if they married, he wouldn't have to work again.
"She said she made enough money for the two of us," he said. "I could have anything I want."
The marriage proposal stunned him. He had never heard a woman talk in such blunt, pragmatic terms. A life of wealth and leisure sounded tempting. Still, in the end, he couldn't imagine being subordinate to a woman. "If I accepted that situation," he asked me, "what kind of man would I be?"
It took Zhao several days before he worked up the nerve to tell his mother he had rejected the offer. He knew how hard she had worked, how much she had been counting on this. The news frustrated Yu. "Kids these days are way too picky," she said.
Even with this setback, Yu has continued her daily pilgrimage to the marriage markets. When I last spoke to her early this month, she was arranging dates for her son with three new marriage candidates she had found. "I'm optimistic," she said. After all these years, hope is what keeps her going.
CULLING THE PROSPECTS
The love-hunting campaign for Mr. Big yielded more than 1,100 fresh prospects who met his general specifications, including 200 in Chengdu. "The cruel process of culling," as Yang called it, whittled that number to 100, then 20, and finally to a list of eight. (For Diamond Love, a fringe benefit of love-hunting campaigns is that the hundreds of rejected potential mates can be cycled into its databases - a process of replenishment paid for by its richest clients.)
The firm subjected the finalists to another round of interviews and psychological evaluations. Barely two months after the search began, Mr. Big received thick dossiers on each of the eight, with detailed information about their families and finances, habits and hobbies, and physical and mental conditions.
Finally, a series of grainy videos landed in his email inbox. The first showed the top three prospects from Chengdu, sitting and standing, walking and talking, smiling and laughing. One of them, a demure 24-year-old with long black hair and black hot pants who seemed poised in front of the camera, was the graduate student whom Yang had pursued on a hunch at Master Kong Chef's Table.
Yang's hunting skills and tenacity had paid off again, giving her two of the eight finalists, and a 25 percent chance of winning the bonus of $32,000. (For finding two of the top 20, she had already earned a share of a smaller bonus.) When I asked about the reward, Yang demurred at first. "My aim is just to find a match that makes both people happy," she said, before adding: "Inside my heart, I want my girls to win."
Yang has worked hard for the chance. She heads to her job early in the morning and returns after 8 p.m., leaving her 5-year-old son in her mother-in-law's care. She is often gone for weeks at a time on love-hunting trips. Her husband, whom she married at 22, when he was 35, ran a trucking logistics company that folded in 2009. Since then, he hasn't worked much. With one large bonus, Yang bought him a Mitsubishi car that he tinkers with.
Her occupation has given her a rather jaded view of the prospects for career women like herself. Once she told me half-jokingly: "It's a good thing I'm already married. I would never stand a chance."
MR. BIG'S CHOICE
In June, Mr. Big flew to Chengdu for meetings with the three local finalists. Riding an elevator to the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel, he fidgeted nervously with the part in his moussed hair. He had invested more than a half-million dollars in the search, and was about to see if the money was well spent.
His final date in Chengdu was with the Zhou Tao look-alike whom Yang had approached at the noodle restaurant. At first, it seemed a mismatch, and not just because of the 18-year age gap. He knew nearly everything about her - her dating history, her recent acceptance to a graduate school, her father's lofty government post - while she knew little more than his height and weight. She didn't even know his name. Diamond Love had told her only that his net worth exceeded $800,000.
The young woman tried to keep things casual by taking him to a local Sichuanese restaurant. But Mr. Big insisted on bringing along a female consultant from Diamond Love and sitting awkwardly off to one side during the meal. According to the consultant, Li Minmin, he sat in this position "to better evaluate her profile, her skin, and her teeth."
The two barely spoke without the consultant's prodding. Still, Mr. Big seemed pleased by the woman's sense of privacy when he inquired about her father's job. "He's a civil servant," she said. What level? "Management." It took several minutes - and a blunt question about his title - before she acknowledged that her father was, in fact, the boss of an influential government office. "From childhood," she told him, "my father taught me to keep a low profile."
Suddenly, this seemed like a suitable match in the Chinese tradition of family doors of equal size. Here were two discreet people of similar social status, a wealthy entrepreneur and the daughter of a high-ranking official. After dinner, Mr. Big called off all other dates with finalists and dispatched his consultant to buy a Gucci handbag for the woman, as a token of affection. Barely a week later, in early July, he flew her to Hainan Island for a vacation at a luxury beachside resort. The two stayed in separate hotel rooms. When they returned, Li assured me that "the relationship is still pure."
Yang was pleased that her love-hunting had hit the mark, but she wished that the courtship would move faster: a $32,000 bonus could make a big difference to her family. After texting and phoning, the couple met again in Beijing and then took a holiday in a mountainous area of western Sichuan province. In Chengdu, though, he declined to meet the woman's parents, and instead of joining her at a wedding of her friends, stayed behind in the hotel.
The couple has not yet decided to marry. But they are still dating exclusively, and Yang says Mr. Big is serious about marriage. Nobody pays a half-million dollars "just to play around," she says. "He just needs a little more time."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service