Last month I met a Chinese lady who, it turns out, is 28 years old. (Let’s call her ‘Miss E’ for the sake of anonymity in this blog.) I have met Miss E on only three occasions all told, together with two or three eMails on a work-related topic travelling back and forth over the ether. Each time we talk, one of the main topics of “conversation”, apart from work, has been her asking me if I knew of any single guys who were looking for a girlfriend. Perhaps nothing unusual in that, except she told me it was imperative that she finds someone – anyone – before the second week of November.
Why the hurry, I ask her. You’re still young; your biological time-clock still has plenty of shelf life; what’s the big deal? OK, so I’m still relatively new to China – you can tell. Otherwise I would be all clued up as to that special date in the singles’ calendar – 11th November. Singles Day. 光棍节 – guāng gùn jié.
The name of the ‘festival’, for want of a better word, can roughly be translated as 'bare branch' – a tree with no leaves representing a person with no better (?) half. And for many, this is regarded as a single day of shame for singles. Certainly my new acquaintance was mortified that at 28 years old, she was already ‘on the shelf’, likely to spend the rest of her life as a lonely old maid – or so her parents would have her believe.
This year, having six ‘1’s in the date – 11/11/11 - is likely to see a larger-than-usual ‘celebration’ – Super Singles Day, as some are calling it. Not, as some might suggest, a day of fun and friendship, but in reality, a day of pity, emptiness and a search for romance.
The symbolism of the six lonely 1's needs no further explanation. Pity the millions of poor bare branches who are forced to receive Singles Day cards from their paired-up friends, attend Singles Day dances with hundreds of other desperate love-seekers or listen to their parents, for the umpteenth time, telling them that it is high time they found a partner.
It is said that Singles Day was started down south in Nanjing by some single college students around 15 years ago. Tradition has it that you eat four fried dough sticks to represent the four ones, and one steamed bun to represent the dot in 11.11 and all being well you might just be lucky enough not to be celebrating Singles Day next year. Presumably, then, our single friends will need to eat six dough sticks and two steamed buns this year, (and hope that it doesn’t go straight to their hips?).
While relatively obscure in most other countries, Singles Day is likely to increase in prominence as more single men in China are unable to find female partners. According to a recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, more than 24 million Chinese men could find themselves without spouses by 2020; whilst the Beijing Statistics Bureau estimates that there are already 104 men for every 100 women in the capital. The number of one-person households in China has gone up a staggering 29% in the last five years alone. The one child policy and the tendencies of many couples to prefer to have a boy rather than a girl haven’t helped matters here either; and it’s instructive to note that there have recently been a number of discussion programmes on state-run CCTV about the negative impacts of this one child policy.
In an online survey, 35 percent of respondents said the main reason why people are single in Beijing is the narrow social networks they are able to build up. With education being viewed so highly (something that many westerners could learn from?) the pursuit of academic advancement comes at a cost; and with many dormitory rooms having eight or more pupils in one suite, it is not conducive to having one’s soul mate round for the night.
Similarly, dating in restaurants can be expensive. And this is just one of the reasons that on any night of the year you will see couples sitting together – sometimes shivering together – on park benches as they build a virtual protective wall around their common oneness. As one commentator noted: "Western couples drink and dance together. But in China, we study together."
Of course, there are two sides to every coin; and profitable business opportunities seem to be everywhere around this time. Indeed, if anything, this holiday proves to be a fine example of modern day ‘capitalist’ China. All sorts of featured gifts for Singles Day have swept the internet shopping stores, such as T-shirts with the characters 不孤独 (I’m not lonely) printed on them. Taobao, China’s largest online retail platform, reported a transaction volume of 900 million yuan during last year’s 'Singles Day' promotion and many more online shops have joined the campaign this year.
There is also Beijing’s first 'love supermarket' (爱情超市) in Xi Zhi Men where singles can pay 99 RMB to hang their photo on a wall for other singles to view, along with vital statistics such as age, salary, occupation, hometown and height – all of which must be verified.
Trawing the Internet, almost every click on 11/11/11 takes you to a dating site, one of which - www.jiayuan.com - boasts over 26 million users, and holds an annual party for singles with an entry price of 111 RMB.
Of course, some actually do strike lucky on this day. And some actually hold their wedding on November 11th because the four (or six) ‘1’s of the date can also be read as ‘you are my special one’ or ‘you are the only one for me’. In fact, in Hong Kong the date is special for lovey-dovey couples, as the two elevens are spelled out as one by one, side by side. (I wonder if this year’s six ones means that someone is going to be saddled with an interfering mother in law as well?)
We all know, however, that the grass is always greener on the other side. Which probably explains why Singles Day is not only applicable to single people, but for married people too. Some couples choose to divorce on this day and turn back to being single. In fact in a recent survey, some 70 per cent of married office workers in the capital said that they miss their single days. The online survey, which was conducted during a two-week period among 1,000 office workers from Beijing and 2,000 white-collar workers from other big cities, shows that nearly 58 percent of married respondents miss being single, a fifth of these saying they miss the old days frequently.
As Wikipedia wryly points out, Romeo and Juliet dated, but it did not end well!
I was somewhat taken aback, though, when I read in a newspaper report that was headlined ‘Ten famous single men in history’ that third position was taken by Queen Elizabeth 1st, and 7th place was held by Jane Austen. This might have explained why they remained single all their lives. I think someone might have told them, don’t you?
Mind you, if you think that finding love is difficult in China, consider what a guy in the Nyangatom region of Ethiopia has to go through. First, he has to build his own house, store lots of tobacco and dry coffee leaves for the girl's parents and have a large number of cows and goats. Disaster if he falls for a girl from a wealthy family as the dowry given to her parents can be worth between 200 to 500 cows, about 1,000 sheep or goats, five camels and three rifles. Huh! These Chinese kids don’t know they’re born!
In modern times, it would seem that no matter what your status, happiness always appears to lie on the other side.
Meanwhile if anybody knows of any guy going spare, please let me know and I will pass on his details to Miss E. Just so long as he has personality, wit and charm; a modicum of money in the bank; and he isn’t likely to do a runner at the first mention of the word marriage!