A new generation of singles in China ... Men and women meet during a 'singles fair' as they look for potential partners at Joy City on February 11, 2012 in Shanghai, China. Photo: Getty Images
"I am lucky in life!" I cry in unison with 30, predominantly female, singletons in Shanghai.
"Yes, you are," says Ms Xu of Ya Li Marriage Quotient, smiling. "Now tell it to the person next to you and high-five them." I do exactly that, and feel totally pumped.
Crammed together in the company's office foyer, we're here today to learn about the "business of marriage". Many participants have been lured by the underdog story of founder Liang Ya Li, and following a long build-up, a staff member presses play on a thumping pop track, and Liang emerges from a side door to enthusiastic applause.
'Crammed together in the company's office foyer, we're here today to learn about the "business of marriage".'
As Liang tells it, seven years ago she was a 35-year-old divorcee, with a teenage daughter and "dark skin". (More like "slightly tanned", but colour of any kind is considered a transgression of Chinese beauty convention. The point is, it was simply icing on a lumpy, baggage-filled cake that had left her "unmarriageable" in the eyes of conservative Chinese society.)
But as her tale goes – repeated several times that day, on the company website, and in her book – a bout of cancer and subsequent recovery gave Liang a new lease on life. By employing a unique blend of "personal brand management, advanced marketing theories and precision filtering system", within nine months she was happily married to a handsome, American manager of a multinational company.
Liang now runs a life-coaching business whose primary client base is over-27, single women, hoping to emulate her success in the marriage game. In China they're known as "leftover" women, typified as upwardly mobile, urban professionals, and stigmatised for being "too picky" when it comes to marriage. And if you think 27 is too young to worry about being single, present was a 23-year-old doctoral candidate, forced to attend by her anxious parents.
Leta Hong Fincher, author of a forthcoming book on "leftover" women and gender inequality in China, tells me it's no accident the word caught on. China's surplus of single men (an unfortunate side effect of the one child policy) has the government fearful of social instability and Hong Fincher believes they've reacted with a deliberate campaign to shame and frighten women into early marriage. In 2007 the Ministry of Education added "leftover women" to its official lexicon and the state's official feminist agency All-China Women's Federation began running op-eds Hong Fincher calls "extremely insulting" (she's collected a few of these gems).
Of course, stigma against unmarried career women of a certain age exists everywhere. And fighting entrenched gender norms – such as the idea women should "marry up" – has been a long and slow process that even in highly industrialised societies remains incomplete. But for Hong Fincher what's unique about China is the state monopoly on media and information (albeit being slowly eroded by the digital revolution). "The message is: 'Whoa! These women are too successful! We've got to rein them in so that they'll focus on their primary duty as women, which is to get married and have a child'," says Hong Fincher. It's a message that's filtered down through pop culture and lodged itself inside the hearts and minds of at least some Chinese women and their parents.
And the depths to which these anxieties have been internalised are reflected in the prices Liang is able to charge. Day courses start at $A500 and go up to $A7000, with personalised training heading up from there. The company claims more than 60 per cent of its clients have successfully married, and its site abounds with winning case studies: the 35-year-old woman who within six months married the general manager of a construction company in Germany. The 42-year-old mother and divorcee now with the CEO of a major British company.
Liang insists her course is not about landing a sugar daddy, but clearly they've seen no harm in highlighting a few best-case scenarios. Nor do they exclusively advocate finding a foreigner for a partner, rather to use the "simplest method" to arrive at marriagedom. And in Liang's case, as a single mother, this happened to involve targeting foreigners. "I realised they could accept me," she tells us during today's free introductory lecture to potential clients. "You want to feel comfortable."
In the eyes of the Ya Li Marriage Quotient, the traditional Chinese approach to love, yuanfen (fate or serendipity) is a fool's approach to quality marriage. Instead Liang and her staff borrow concepts from the business world to show women the game isn't over: do we want our value to "depreciate or appreciate" over time? A truly powerful brand has "timeless and international appeal". The success of luxury products like Ferrari, LV and Hermes, comes from "forever capitalising on one's advantages, and turning disadvantages into style".
In their client's quest to land a happy marriage, the company offer tools such as the "5P system": "positioning" (establish personal goals), "ponds" (target populations), "present" (create files on potential candidates), "prospects" (filter candidates) and finally "partner" (getting hitched!). This strategic approach appeals to women such as office worker Sharon, 31, whose last boyfriend was four years her junior – an age gap that didn't bother her, but when she was ready to marry, he wasn't. She says today's lecture has taught her the importance of "customisation" and that "life requires good planning and the ability to take action".
Self-actualisation is nothing new in the West, besotted with self-help books and motivational speakers, but it's a new arrival to China. And Liang is seen, perhaps, as a voice of reason and authority during a time of great social upheaval. It is not simply the rise of China's career women that has disrupted social convention, but also dramatic rural-urban migration that has transformed China into a country of urban dwellers still living with a village approach to love. The tradition of marrying young, and from one's small but closely connected pool of candidates, is becoming increasingly difficult when individuals migrate to big cities and away from the social networks offered by relatives and school.
When I tell 28-year-old make-up artist and fellow participant Lan Xin I often meet new people at parties, she tells me in China, "Nice girls don't drink and go to bars". Hip, cosmopolitan lifestyles are still alien to all but a fraction of the Chinese population, so internet dating and matchmaking services have rushed in to fill in the gaps. Yet many urbanites continue to feel disorientated: swimming in avatars and profile pictures, but not a drop to drink.
"I just want to find someone who speaks the same language," says Xin, adding that today she learned the importance of first understanding one's self, then finding someone who matches. Likewise, 29-year-old personal assistant Xiao Ti seems to be led by a growing sense of individualism typical of her generation. "I recently went on a blind date with a man who was good on paper, and he really liked me," she says. "But he wasn't my type."
And while there too exists professional "leftover" men holding out for someone special, the critical difference is what a "leftover" woman is willing to sacrifice, in order to terminate single life. In a piece for Dissent Magazine, Hong Fincher writes of an online survey finding "over 80 per cent of marital homes are owned or co-owned by men, while only 30 per cent of marital home deeds include the woman's name", essentially shutting Chinese women out of "arguably the largest accumulation of real estate wealth in history". Hong Fincher has also witnessed women drop out of work due to fear career ambition negatively impacts their marriage chances.
When I ask Sharon to elect who is giving her the most pressure to find a husband: society, parents, relatives, friends or herself, she abruptly answers: "Society". In this prevailing social climate, "leftovers" are made to feel it's the last hour of the dance, and they're standing by the wall while couples dance cheek-to-cheek. Which makes Liang's message not to simply marry, but to marry well – while hardly a feminist catch cry – almost subversive.
Some names have been changed.