As a woman in China, once you approach your mid to late twenties, the pressure to marry comes at you from all angles. The tradition of women marrying young and marrying up in society is reflected in government messages, parental badgering, concern of friends, and probably lingers in the smog.
China’s feminist agency, the All-China Women’s Federation, put out the following message, which gives a snapshot of the government’s attitude towards single adult women:
Many highly educated “leftover women” are very progressive in their thinking and enjoy going to nightclubs to search for a one-night stand, or they become the mistress of a high official or rich man. It is only when they have lost their youth and are kicked out by the man that they decide to look for a life partner. Therefore, most “leftover women” do not deserve our sympathy.
The term ‘leftover women’ refers to those over the age of 27, because, apparently, they are old, like “yellowed pearls.”
On top of government bullying, the outward desperation of some parents to find a match for their aging offspring makes their child’s single-status THE topic of conversation. Nagging their child and asking friends, even friends of friends, if they know of potential suitors become parents’ part-time jobs. This obsession manifests itself in a place known as “Marriage Market.” Each Sunday, in a section of People’s Park in Shanghai, parents publicly post profiles of their children in the hopes of ending their singledom ‘nightmare.’
In other words, being single in peace is just not an option.
The Chinese-governed version of the internet was established in 1994, an inevitability in an increasingly globalized world. Within China’s controlled information matrix exists its own sites and social networks, one of which is Taobao.com. Taobao is the Chinese version of Ebay, and home to the country’s rent-a-boyfriend phenomenon. When I discovered this online marketplace came with a chat feature, I knew my desire to understand the inner-workings of the rent-a-boyfriend experience could easily be fulfilled. I went to the source, and with the help of a translator, chatted many of the rent-a-boyfriends. Only a few were kind enough to help an overly inquisitive Internet presence like myself, and I quickly developed a favorite. He asked me to refer to him as Hu Hugui.
The first thing I noticed about Hu were the pictures he had hand-selected to showcase the product; all ‘selfies.’ His profile gives a pretty standard description of himself, his height (about 6 foot), weight (approximately 150 pounds), age (27), etc. He alludes to being on more of the artistic side through a comment about the “many visitors on his blog.” He quickly breaks down his prices: a base rate of 100 yuan a day (about $16), with add-on costs for chatting, eating out, drinking, shopping, and seeing parents.
In our exchanges, Hu told me that his own parents’ constant badgering for him to meet a special someone inspired the idea of renting himself out as a boyfriend. He thought, ‘if I have to go through this, I can only imagine what young women have to put up with.’ He explained he is single (if any ladies were wondering) because he just happens to be a self-proclaimed ‘rebellious type’ and that doesn’t give in to external pressure. Oh, Hu.
Hu has had a plethora of different rental experiences. His most common customer is a young career woman living in a city, who is required to visit her parents rural home on occasion. For these women, Hu is only needed to put on the boyfriend act once or twice a year, and the nuisance of her overbearing parents is eliminated. In some instances, however, a bit more is required of Hu.
One time, a woman messaged Hu asking him to fly to Beijing as soon as possible for an emergency situation. Hu was skeptical because women usually ask for detailed information about him prior to hiring, but she was willing to take him on the spot (which he attributed to his good looks). As soon as he agreed to meet her in Beijing, she wired him enough money to cover all of his travel expenses. When Hu told his friends about this unique employer, they predicted she was a human-trafficker and would sell him to a mafia-operated coalmine, but not before drugging him and stealing a kidney. But Hu, being good-old reliable Hu, went anyway.
As a quick aside: I know at this point some of you are asking, wouldn’t people expect online documentation of these relationships? How would you be able to pull this off? Skeptics, I researched this just for you. China has its own version of Facebook called ‘The Renren Network,’ but doesn’t have nearly the same kind of penetration. For instance, Facebook can boast use by over half the U.S. population, while Renren has a mere 31 million users for a country with over 1.3 billion people.
When Hu arrived in Beijing, he was met by his ‘girlfriend’ for the weekend (and not the Chinese mafia). She informed him that she had, until recently, been engaged to someone she dated for two years. She broke off the engagement after discovering he had been cheating on her. With Chinese New Year quickly approaching, she needed an immediate replacement so her parents could meet their son-in-law to be as scheduled. After rehearsing every detail, they headed straight to her parents’ house. The ‘couple’ spent three days wining and dining her parents. She made sure to jump in with details and funny anecdotes whenever his performance was lacking. To thank him for his service, she insisted on tipping him 2000 Yuan (about $320). When he arrived home and logged into his Taobao account, Hu was happy to find she had left him a rave review, and she was happy to have her parents off her back.
When I asked Hu if any of his ‘employers’ would be willing to speak with me, he was confident they would not. The possibility of me revealing their secret, and their parents finding out, was simply not worth the risk. With no female renters to chat with, I informed my translator Felix, a middle-aged man born and raised in China, that I no longer needed him to translate. Before we parted ways, I asked Felix what he thought of the pressure women face, and he replied with “men feel pressure too.” He explained that the gender imbalance that developed as a result of China’s one-child policy gives women an abundance of men to choose from, allowing them to be pickier than ever before. Since women are able to cherry-pick their spouses, men feel incredible pressure to impress. They are fighting tooth and nail to make money to seem appealing to the smaller population of women.
The rent-a-boyfriend phenomenon is an outcome of the meeting of opposing currents; China’s traditional views on marriage, and an increasing number of women marrying later in life in pursuit of other goals. Men like Hu are using this occurrence to earn money, but also to gain unique experiences within his society. But how do we make sense of this new societal trend? Is the recent demand for rent-a-boyfriends a sign that women remain buried under pressure to marry, or indicative of an increasingly empowered female population not succumbing to pressure?