It used to be that in China a marriage, like a home purchase or having a child, had to be approved by your work unit. Life partners were chosen out of small social or work circles, and casual sex was taboo. In 1989, allegedly only 15% of people had sex before marriage. Now that number is well above 70%. It is just one of the many cultural transformations led by China’s youth, and is being spurred on by a burgeoning number of dating apps where encounters are just a right-swipe away.
The most popular geolocation app is Momo (the doubled character in the title means “strangers”), which has over 100m users and is listed on the American stockmarket. But with over 500m mobile internet users in China, there is room in the market for competitors. Tinder has little foothold as its registration is linked to Facebook, which is blocked on the mainland. It has a clone in Tantan (using a character in the word for “seek out”), distinguishable only by the tendency of men to exaggerate their salaries and women to post profile pictures with fake cat whiskers and artificially enlarged eyes. Other tech companies are trying to carve out a space for themselves with original twists. One app offers users paid-for credits with which to buy their virtual crush a meal. Another, Liuliu, is for pet owners who look for love by displaying photos of themselves with their dogs and kittens.
The rules of the game are different in China. For one, many are looking for a spouse, not a one-night stand. That’s especially true of the “bare branches”, a term for the estimated surplus of 20m single men – a result of sex-selective abortion during the one-child policy. The gender gap means women can be pickier. Men, assuming they need to display financial value to best the competition, show off their cars or flats. Liu Yufeng, a 24-year-old pick-up artist in Beijing, says that “Chinese people are relatively introverted…so they need to use tools like these [apps] to help them make social connections.” He launched his own app, AParty, at the beginning of the year; it shows the locations of nearby clubs and allows strangers to connect anonymously.
It isn’t only conservative courtship norms that are being changed, but attitudes towards sexuality. The biggest equivalent in China to Grindr (in which a controlling stake was recently bought by a Chinese tech firm) is Blued, founded by a gay former cop and with over 15m users. Homosexuality, once classified as a mental disorder, is increasingly accepted in bigger cities, and while many gays remain in the closet, apps like Blued allow the scene to grow.
But dating apps are still subject to prudery. Write the Chinese for “one-night stand”, “hook up” or “get a room” in a private message on Tantan and a message pops up on-screen warning you to reconsider. That is partly because prostitutes use apps to fish for customers, but it is also a sign of the influence of the nanny state – which wishes that Chinese youth culture were back in the 1970s.
Hooking up around the world
So popular is Tinder in Mexico that a new verb, tinderear, is now used to describe the swiping and tapping. Yet users in Mexico City are considerably less responsive to matches than those in large American cities. In a violent country, fears about the risks of meeting a stranger often trump thoughts of prospective pleasure.
MyDiaspora, a new “halal-match app” developed in Dagestan, hopes to bring Muslim courtship into the 21st century. An “add father” feature distinguishes MyDiaspora from its secular equivalents: after matching, users can invite a brother or father into their chat, ensuring that the “meeting” takes place with a chaperone.
While some Indian users of Tinder seek romance and others hook-ups, there are many who hope simply for companionship. Male users outnumber the women by vast margins; some men post pictures of themselves alongside their wives and children, missing at least part of the point.