In China, there is a name for unmarried men over 30. Shengnan, meaning “leftover men” have yet to find a wife – and in a country with a growing gender gap, that’s a big problem.

By 2020, it’s estimated there will be 30 million more men than women looking for a partner

China has many millions more men than women, a hangover of the country's one-child policy, which was overturned in 2015, though its effects will last decades more. The gender imbalance is making it hard for many men to find a partner – and the gap is likely to widen. By 2020, it’s estimated there will be 30 million more men than women looking for a partner. In his book, The Demographic Future, American political economist Nicholas Eberstadt cites projections that by 2030, more than a quarter of Chinese men in their 30s will not have married.

Now, with far fewer women than men, the race to find a suitable partner—and win her over before someone else does—has led some men to go to great lengths to find a wife. They’re spending vast sums on creative, sometimes unsuccessful, measures to win a woman over.

Ninety-nine iPhones—and a no

In 2015, a Chinese businessman in his 40s reportedly sued a Shanghai-based introductions agency for failing to find him a wife, having paid the company 7 million yuan ($1m) to conduct an extensive search.

In another case, a computer programmer from the southern city of Guangzhou bought 99 iPhones as part of an elaborate marriage proposal to his girlfriend. Unfortunately, he was turned down, with his humiliation exacerbated as photos of the event were widely shared across social media.

Young generations have more choice and they are following their hearts rather than parents

Part of the problem is that the old – and new – ways of meeting people are not always working. Chinese New Year has long been an opportunity for single people to meet a partner.  Most people visit the houses of family and friends during the festival, which occurs between late January and mid-February, so singletons have many chances to meet potential partners.

But that longstanding tradition of meeting a potential partner has given way to modernity. Online dating is growing fast in China, as elsewhere, and messaging apps such as WeChat are increasingly popular ways of getting to know people.  

“China dating is becoming more and more open and more and more familiar with the ways of Western countries in recent years,” says Jun Li. “Young generations have more choice and they are following their hearts rather than parents.”

Upending tradition

The myriad ways to connect coupled with the female majority have upended the way people meet and court in China.

Hiring a girlfriend can cost up to 10,000 yuan ($1,450) a day

Jun Li, from Suzhou in Jiangsu province, in China’s east central coast, is single and in her 20s. She has noticed growing numbers of men on the singles scene “organising as teams” and hiring public entertainment venues for dating events.

Other men are turning to psychologists and stylists to make themselves more appealing. And to avoid prying questions from inquisitive parents, some are even resorting to hiring “fake” girlfriends to present to their parents using apps such as Hire Me Plz. . Reports suggest hiring a girlfriend can cost up to 10,000 yuan ($1,450) a day.

The problems for men in finding a partner are most acute in poorer rural areas, made worse by long-held traditions that the husband must be able to offer a decent level of financial security before he can secure a wife.

Hong Yang, who is now married and in her 30s, describes this as China's “mother-in-law economics”. “If men want to get married, the future mother-in-law will request that he first buys a house before discussing the next step. It's one reason why house prices have been so strong in recent years,” she says.

Age gaps of 10 to 20 years or more are common in Chinese marriages

But this financial burden on men is also making it harder for many women to find a partner. That adds to the issue, with large numbers of men, partly because of the financial costs of marriage, are opting to marry later. And when they do settle down they are often looking for younger women. Age gaps of 10 to 20 years or more are common in Chinese marriages.

"It's hard for women to find suitable men after they reach 32 years [old],” says Hong Yang. “Many eligible Chinese men want to marry younger and pretty girls.” Women, in turn, look for financial stability, which leans toward older men, experts say.

Of course, the reverse can also be true. Well-educated and financially independent women who remain single are called “unwanted girls”, says Heather Ma, who is married, in her 30s and living in Shanghai.

The parent trap

Parents are a big source of pressure to find a partner, pronto. And they’re ever-present, says Roger Zhou, 39, who is now married and lives in Suzhou.

“Parents think they are responsible to help their adult child start a family,” he says. “So they pressure their child to find a partner, go dating and to prepare for a wedding”.

Parents face big social criticism if their daughter or son does not get married

That’s led to another problem. Parents getting involved—really involved.

"The blind date, which is arranged by parents, is still very popular,” says Melinda Hu, who is 32 and single. “Parents face big social criticism if their daughter or son does not get married so normally a girl’s parents are eager to let their daughter go on a blind date and get married before reaching 30.”

Then there are the outdoor marriage markets. At one of the country's largest in Shanghai, the “matchmaking corner” is inundated by parents who post hand-written adverts for their single children with details such as the income, education and personality. Some parents have been known to visit the market every week for years with no success.

 The shift in how people meet and how men woo partners, is, above all, putting a greater emphasis on love rather than on practical considerations such as financial security.

The ripple of ‘one-child'

The growing social problem of ‘leftover men’ is largely a result of China's one-child policy, overturned in 2015. For decades, the policy restricted couples to having only one child. A long history of preference for sons led to large numbers of girls being abandoned, placed in orphanages, sex-selective abortions or even cases of female infanticide.

Jun Li, for instance, says she is in no rush to get married preferring to wait for the man who is worth her “heart and soul”.

In China, just like the rest of the world, the universal rules of romance still apply.

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