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In China, lovelorn men give Dating 101 a try



JINAN (China) — Mr Zhang Zhenxiao is 27 years old. He has never been in a relationship. He has never kissed a woman.

Now, he is ready for love – but like many men in China, he doesn’t know where to begin.

So Mr Zhang turned to a dating coach. The Fall in Love Emotional Education school has taught him how to groom himself, approach a woman and flirt his way into her smartphone contacts.

“There are many people who lack the ability to have a relationship,” said Mr Zhang, who enrolled in a three-day course during a week-long holiday in October. “Many times, it’s not that there’s something wrong with us. It’s that we don’t know what details to pay attention to.”

While dating is hard everywhere, it is arguably worse for Chinese men. China’s now-ended one-child policy, carried out in a country with a strong cultural preference for boys, prompted many couples to abort female fetuses. In 2016, there were about 33.6 million more men than women in China, according to the government.

“They are caught in a very difficult situation, especially for those with no money,” said prominent sexuality scholar Li Yinhe.

China worries about its lonely hearts. Newspapers warn that a surplus of unhappy, single men in China could lead to an increase in human trafficking, sex crimes and social instability. So the government is playing matchmaker.

In June, the Communist Youth League, a training ground for many top officials, organised a mass speed dating event for 2,000 young singles in the eastern province of Zhejiang. The same month, the All-China Women’s Federation in north-western Gansu province helped organise a similar event for “leftover men and women”, a term used in China to refer to unmarried people in their late 20s or older.

For decades, Chinese marriages were arranged through matchmakers or families. Marriage was utilitarian, done so people could start a family. Even when the notion of “freedom to love” became popular after 1950, there were few social venues for people to snuggle and mingle. Until the late 1990s, sex outside marriage was illegal.

Mr Zhang’s dating coach, Mr Zhang Mindong, said he was once like the men he teaches. A self-professed “diaosi”, or loser, Mr Zhang Mindong said he suffered a painful breakup in 2012. He turned to the Internet to find solutions and discovered the term “pickup artist”.

Mr Zhang Mindong started his school, which he now runs with Mr Cui Yihao, 25, and Mr Fan Long, 29, in the eastern city of Jinan in 2014. The cost for their services ranges from US$45 (S$60) for an online course to about US$3,000 for one-on-one coaching. Similar schools have opened in several Chinese cities.

The number of students who take offline courses at Fall in Love Emotional Education has grown from one in 2014, to more than 300 now, according to Mr Zhang Mindong. About 90 per cent of graduates end up with girlfriends, he said.

At the October session, there was Mr Yu Ruitong, a 23-year-old software developer who had three previous relationships; Mr Ye Chaoqun, a 27-year-old small-business owner who is hoping to make the woman he likes fall in love with him; and Mr James Zhang, a 30-year-old cancer doctor who is looking to expand the circle of women he knows. Both Mr Ye and Mr James Zhang have returned to polish what they learnt earlier – this time free of charge.

To show his students what they were up against, Mr Zhang Mindong held up a profile of an attractive woman on a dating app that had garnered “likes” from 7,000 men. “This is the environment in China,” he said.

In the first hour, Mr Zhang Mindong proclaimed them sartorial disasters. Most of the first day was devoted to improving dress. (“Narrow collars, sleeves should be folded up above the elbow and trousers should be fitted.”) They bought clothes and got haircuts.

“After getting into a relationship with a woman, many Chinese men let themselves go,” said Mr Zhang Mindong, who was wearing hip glasses and a fitted white shirt. “They don’t wash their hair, change their clothes and become really dirty.

“But that’s not the case for women, and this is why so many Chinese men can’t have a long-term relationship.”

The make-overs are followed by the students posing for photos, reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” sipping tea and nibbling canaps presented in a silver bird cage, looking pensively out a window. That culminated in selfies with Ms Wang Zhen, a female friend of Mr Cui’s.

That’s designed for dating in the digital era. In China, where the mobile Internet has revolutionised social life, getting to know a person takes place almost exclusively on WeChat, a popular social media tool that is used by nearly 1 billion people.

Most social interactions in China usually start or end with people scanning each other’s WeChat QR codes – a practice known as “saoing” – or adding each other’s WeChat IDs. Many women form their impressions of men based on photographs on WeChat’s Moments, a Facebook-like tool.

On a Thursday night outside a busy shopping mall in Jinan, the students got their first challenge: approach women and ask for their WeChat contacts.

“You give her two choices: ‘Why don’t you add me or I sao you?’” Mr Zhang Mindong told the students. “So no matter what she picks, you’ll succeed.”

After practising their moves on Wang, the students set off. Mr Zhang Zhenxiao rushed up to two women, who paused but continued walking. He chased after them and stopped them again. After a minute, they walked away.

“I didn’t succeed,” he said dejectedly as he returned to the group.

“No, the fact that you approached them means you did,” Mr Cui said, patting him on the back.

By the end of the night, all the students had obtained at least one WeChat contact.

The classes, held in an apartment on the grounds of Shandong University, have an air of brotherly camaraderie – the students, huddled together on a floral couch scribbling in notebooks, practised real smiles and flirtatious banter with their coaches.

A materials buyer for a renovations company, Mr Zhang Zhenxiao said he had never learnt how to talk to a woman. His high school forbade students from mixing with members of the opposite sex. His parents had an arranged marriage.

Now, they are giving him pressure to settle down. He is on a quest for his ideal woman – a bubbly tomboy who likes wearing jeans and not skirts all the time.

“I think there are many single women who are just like me,” he said, “all longing for love.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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