Jiang Hui hasn't dated a girl since graduating from college four years ago, but the 26-year-old Beijing office worker hopes the Internet will make this Valentine's Day different.
Jiang joined an online dating site and began a cybersearch for a sweetheart three months ago -- along with millions of other young Chinese taking advantage of technology and a newfound freedom to control their own love lives.
AdvertisementIn years past, Jiang, who hails from the central province of Hubei, might have had his future decided by match-making relatives in his rural hometown.
But now he logs on each day to jiayuan.com -- a site that boasts 22 million members -- to browse through dozens of new computer-suggested matches. He hasn't found his dream girl yet, but says he remains hopeful.
"In Beijing, there are maybe two million members, so about one million are girls, There is no way I could have met that many girls in my three years here," said Jiang, staring at the day's matches on his laptop in a coffee shop.
Such sites -- typically free but with charges for enhanced features -- are revolutionising how Chinese interact with the opposite sex, say users and experts.
"People born in the 1980s are approaching 30 and there is pressure for them to marry," said Xie Qingqing, an expert on the match-making industry at the China Association of Social Workers.
"Today, online dating has become the primary route for China's youths."
In a 2008 report, Beijing-based Internet research firm iResearch said China's online dating market was worth 44 million dollars that year and would surge past 100 million in 2011.
State media reports have quoted estimates of online dating accounts in the hundreds of millions, although many are redundant.
It may seem easy to meet others in a country with a population of 1.3 billion, but Jiang says that's not necessarily true.
Millions of people -- from college graduates to poor migrants -- work far from their hometowns, pursuing better opportunities in big cities where they cling to small circles of immediate friends or co-workers, he explained.
Freed from meddling matchmakers back home, they are nonetheless oddly isolated among the masses, he said.
"In reality, our contact with strangers is limited. When you add in the demands of work, it is hard to meet girls you are interested in," he said.
Such solitude is driving many to dating sites in a country where the pressure on both men and women to marry and beget the next generation can be intense.
That pressure mounted on Gong Haiyan several years ago when she was a young journalism graduate student from rural Hunan province attending university in Shanghai.
"Around that time my parents started saying 'you are 27 or 28 already and you need to find a husband and get married'," she said.
"We are from the countryside, where we tend to get married younger. So I began to get anxious."
Gong turned to what was then a limited selection of social networking sites, but was unimpressed. Taking matters into her own hands, she founded jiayuan.com.
It is now a market leader but, more importantly for her, she found her own husband in 2004 through the site, which claims to have "matched" four million people.
"We had only known each other for two months before marrying. It happened so fast," she said.
Due to a traditional cultural preference for male offspring -- and resulting sex-specific abortions -- China has a gender imbalance that will leave up to 24 million men unable to find wives in 2020, according to a recent study.
The discrepancy is reflected in Jiayuan.com's members, 60 percent of whom are men. Gong however believes the imbalance is due to Chinese men being more tech-savvy than women.
At any rate, Jiang embodies the typical user. A salesman for an Internet services company, he is well-acquainted with the possibilities of the web and keen to add romance to his job stability.
Clean-cut, with thick-rimmed glasses and a quick smile that dominates his broad face, he has set up a profile that he says sets reasonable requirements for his mate. He is looking for someone to love, not a beauty queen.
"As long as there is a feeling of compatibility and common aspirations that we can strive for together, that is enough," he said.
He says he has spotted a number of interesting women members but had few nibbles so far. He remains undeterred.
"It's only been three months. I will definitely find someone out there. You have to have confidence," he said.
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