By Alec Ash
Just as the cold winds sweep the last leaves off Beijing’s trees, November 11 was Singles, or “bare branch,” Day in China (guanggunjie, after a Chinese term for single men). It’s chosen for the four number ones of 11/11, an appropriate date to be dateless. In a country with 118 boys born for every 100 girls, the main function of the festival seems to be making all of China’s single twigs feel inadequate. When I texted “What are you doing this guanggunjie?” to a handful of partnerless Chinese friends, I got back the same curt reply from three: “Sleeping.” I’ll know better than to ask next year.
Singles Day is mostly about online shopping sales now, but there are also a spattering of singles’ events in Beijing on the night. Speed dating is increasingly popular in China, as young urban people in full-time jobs try to find a compatible life partner. I went along to one for a look.
The Happiness Singles Culture Member’s Club (“The Home of Single Friends”) is a singles’ club in north-east central Beijing, around since 2003. Annual membership fees range from 3000 to 10,000 yuan, and over 40,000 lonely souls have signed up to its associated website. It holds events every weekend, from speed dating to the popular group roleplaying game “Killers.” I found the night’s event through a search on the listings website Douban. Gentlemen must be over 24, ladies over 22. Everyone must bring their photo ID or passport.
One hundred yuan bought me past the front desk, into an open space with plush booths for strangers to sit and talk. In the next room were a couple of pool tables, a row of swinging double seats garnished with cuddly bears, and an open floor space with a podium and piano. Calligraphy hung on the walls: 让世界充满爱 (“Let the world be full of love,” a song lyric). There was no bar, only water bottles for two yuan behind the registration desk. This was not a place to relax with a drink. This was a place to find your future spouse.
The night kicked off at 7:30 sharp with a game called “five hundred seconds.” Sixteen ladies sat down in a circle of high stools, arranged facing out. Sixteen gentleman stood in an outer ring facing in — one of them, yours truly, the only foreigner there. We walked around the ladies in a clockwise circle, like embarrassed lions scoping out prey that was avoiding eye contact. The host asked questions, and whoever answered first got to choose where to stop so everyone could have an eight-minute conversation (five hundred seconds…) with the lady they were facing.
The questions were simple enough. (“What three characters do you get when you combine a male ox and a female ox?” “Liang tou niu — two oxes.”) The problem was that the first two gents to answer were too shy to decide who they wanted to talk to, and looped the circle in endless timidity until the host had to cut in and stop us all. Each time, the same eight-minute conversation ensued, characterized by the mutual plumbing of information to determine compatability (age, background, job) and ending with the exchanging of details (or not) on cards provided.
After a few rounds, we moved onto the next game. Guys and gals alike stood in a big circle, holding hands. We were told to pass a count along the circle, but to say “pass” for every number which included, or was a multiple of, seven. 12, 13, pass, 15, 16, pass, 18, 19, 20, pass. It’s a game I played at school, so I didn’t embarrass myself. If you slipped up, you had to go into the middle of the circle and introduce yourself, then field a question.
A single bare branch on its own may be broken, but clump many bare branches together and they … will all act very embarrassed. This was proven most painfully true when one guy in the middle was asked to point out which girl in the group he liked best. The three-minute silence that followed (yes, three minutes) was horrifying, as he stumbled over the prospect of singling someone out. When he finally did, the host complimented his bravery and we applauded him. Then the girl was asked to stand on his feet and he was told to dance. He stomped her around the circle once, like a clunking elephant, and they avoided eye contact for the rest of the night.
The final game was the simplest of the lot. The MC held eight long red strings in their middle, clenched in a fist. Each lady took a string from one end. Each lad took one from the other. The MC let go, leaving the group to untangle itself and find out who was holding the other end of your string. Then (you guessed it) we went aside and talked with them for eight minutes. Name, age, background, job. Delicate prodding to see if you have an apartment, a car, a nest egg.
The direct tone of the speed dates were no surprise. For the participants it was a bit of fun, yes, but behind it all it was the search for a potential life partner. I was a curiosity of course, but when I asked how someone usually looked for a partner, or why they came along that day, the answer was always the same. The only other way was to rely on introductions from friends and colleagues. The marriage market certainly didn’t interest them, and none of them liked going to bars, as there’s no sense of security — guys at bars could be players, or pick up artists.
Shier singles hung around the edges of the game, watching from the shadows. Some chatted and paired off. Others peeked over the top of their smart phones, pretending to be busy texting. Groups of girlfriends observed the guys in the circle, and traded comments. The host made a point of repeating salient information over the microphone for their benefit, like someone’s age or profession. “1986,” she announced about me, “the foreigner was born in 1986. And he’s very clever, he can count in Chinese.”
The night wound down after a couple of hours, the end signaled by a blast of pop music and a mass desertion of the dance floor. Back pockets stuffed with the contact information of some half-dozen prospects, the bachelors departed, including your humble correspondent, into the winter night — where not so much love, but more a biting chill, was in the air.
This essay originally appeared at The Anthill.