Zhao Lin had become accustomed to the single life. But his days and nights were growing lonely, and he decided it was time to find Ms Right.
That’s how the 78-year-old ended up at the park.
“I have been looking for more than a year,” says Zhao, a fixture at one of the dozens of senior singles scenes popping up in public parks around China. So far, he admits, the pickings have been slim.
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“It’s usually one conversation and that’s it,” says Zhao, a widower since 1971, in a lament familiar to frustrated singles no matter their age. “There’s no second time. They’ll let you down and there’s no hope. So what’s the point?”
Three decades of economic growth and social change have transformed attitudes of love and sex among China’s elderly. Increasingly single and assertive, the country’s lonely seniors are on the market.
In Chinese media, the phenomenon has been labelled “twilight love”. Contestants well into their later years now make regular appearances on Chinese dating shows with names like Peach Blossoms Bloom, Exciting Old Friends and Holding Hands. Online chat rooms have emerged for older singles.
But in China, none of those venues holds the same appeal as the local park.
In Beijing, the elderly are picking Changpuhe and the Temple of Heaven. The southwestern municipality of Chongqing has a “matchmaking corner” in Hongyadong Park. In the northern city of Xian, elderly residents gather every Wednesday and Saturday at Revolution Park.
“My American colleagues, when they go to China, they are amazed at how many people are socialising in a park,” says Bei Wu, the director of global health and ageing research at New York University, who has studied China’s elderly for 30 years.
“It’s a practical way for a group gathering. In the park, you can increase the chance of having successful blind dates.”
Demographics is behind it all.
An ageing population means more people are outliving their spouses. The number of widows and widowers totals nearly 48 million, according to a study by the government research group Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The group projects that number will rise to 118.4 million by 2050.
And four out of five widows and widowers want to remarry, according to the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, citing a survey by Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Others are choosing to leave their spouses. In Beijing, nearly one-third of divorce cases were filed by people aged 60 to 70, according to the Beijing Evening News.
The growing population of elderly singles has public health implications. HIV infection rates are rising among elderly Chinese because many do not practice safe sex, according to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases among Chinese men aged 60 and older have nearly tripled since 2012, it says.
In October, the central government announced separate policy measures for the elderly to strengthen Aids prevention education.
That lack of knowledge is understandable. When China’s elders were young, talking about sex was taboo. People met their prospective spouses through friends or matchmakers. Dating was almost unheard-of.
In China’s parks, that can make for awkward scenes. On a recent Tuesday in Changpuhe, a strip of greenery next to the Forbidden City, elderly men cluster together, scoping out the women and men milling around like wallflowers. Several of them stroll up and down, waiting to make eye contact with women.
An elderly man sits next to a woman in a purple jacket for a few minutes. Then, he leans in to ask: “How old are you?”
“Seventy-two,” she answers in a soft voice. Minutes later, they strike up a conversation.
Many complain of some unique, only-in-China criteria for finding a mate. Pensions and health insurance can enhance attractiveness, for example, in a country where getting cancer can lead to bankruptcy.
The widowed are more desirable than the divorced, say some. Less emotional baggage, they explain.
“Looking For A Soulmate,” reads a wrinkled brown sheet of paper stuck on a rock under the trees, one of several ads placed around the park. “Male. Born in 1949. Divorced. No responsibilities.”
The sign is written by a Mr Li, whose wish list for a wife was that she be roughly 5ft tall, weigh between 130 and 150lb, be between 50 to 60 years old and have unblemished skin. “No black moles,” it warns.
In return, Mr Li promises to bequeath his 1,100-square-foot apartment to any woman “willing to accompany me till the end of my life”.
Another advertisement placed by a male suitor pledges a life of travel and a commitment to buy property on the southeast coast of China, the United States and Japan.
Guan Yongnian, an 82-year-old divorced man, sees himself as a catch. He is healthy and successful, a calligraphy expert, a writer and a teacher of tai chi, a gentle form of martial arts popular in China.
Guan says that in the past 30 years, friends have tried to introduce other women to him. He married in his twenties, and has two daughters in their fifties, and a son, who is nearly 60.
Guan’s list of requirements for his future wife: ideally in her forties – yes, half his age – hygienic, smart, capable and “not unreasonable”. Other pluses: if she could “bring spiritual relief and happiness”.
But Guan’s expectations are low. “Nowadays, many people are not hygienic, dress poorly and are not imbued with sophistication and good breeding,” he sniffs.
He scans the crowd for close to an hour and is not planning on making the first move.
“I have a problem: When you call me, I don’t call back,” says Guan, who is dressed in a brown trench coat. “I’m pretty unreasonable. You have to chase me.”
A woman wearing pink lipstick and dressed in a yellow coat lingers in front of Guan, curious at the sight of him being interviewed.
“How old are you now? Fifties? Sixties?” Guan asks.
“Sixties,” she giggles.
“See?” he says. “I guessed right.”
The woman is Han Shuping. She is actually 52. Divorced, she has been coming to Changpuhe for two years. A man flicks her hair before she playfully swats him away.
“Most of the characters here are pretty bad,” Han says. “The old men would ask you out for a meal, invite you back to their place and try to get you in bed.”
Originally from central Henan province, Han says she is honest with prospective suitors, telling them she is from the countryside and has no pension.
Han says she wants to “find someone who I can chat with and then develop feelings for”.
“At this stage, love at first sight is impossible,” she says.
She is pessimistic about her prospects.
“It is very hard to find someone here,” Han says. “The genuine ones are few and far between.”
Zhao, the 78-year-old widower, agrees. He bemoans the directness of some of the women.
“They want a house, car and money,” says Zhao, who is tall, bespectacled and stylishly dressed in a beige pageboy cap. “They ask you directly to change the names in the property deed. It’s the first thing they say. Isn’t that terrifying?”
But he still longs for a mate to ward off his loneliness. “It gets miserable,” he says.
Zhao talks about “three treasures in this life” – to have someone know when “you’re cold or warm, in pain or in despair”.
“If you’ve never experienced these three big treasures, how can you understand what is bliss? What is pain?” he says. “This is what I’m feeling right now. But I never used to feel like that.”
© New York Times