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Matchmaking is just a walk in park


BEIJING - Male, 28 years old, 1.72 meters tall, a junior college graduate from an upper-middle-class family, seeking a shorter woman between 16 and 23 years of age, with a high school degree, a stable income and a Beijing residence permit.

Lin Binyu's criteria would appear pretty straightforward as Chinese singles ads go, except that he's on the prowl not for himself, but for his son.

And he's looking not in the newspaper or online, but at the local park, where every Sunday he can meet hundreds of other parents just as anxious to find spouses for wayward children who somehow made it to their mid-20s without getting married.

In China's thriving big cities, young adults on the modern career track are getting married later and later, and these parents in Beijing aren't putting up with it anymore - whether the children like it or not.

"A lot of parents are coming here secretly," Lin said with a smile, sitting under a tree at Zhongshan Park, adjacent to the Forbidden City in the center of Beijing. "They wouldn't want their children to know."

The matchmaking is traditional Chinese society's answer to the complications of the modern world, and it's fitting that it should take place in a city park, where urban China's retiring set seek daily refuge from the traffic and congestion of cities they would not recognize from their youth.

On any of four days each week, parents go to one of three Beijing parks to play matchmaker, and the numbers are growing now that Chinese media outlets have spotlighted the months-old practice. The weekly Sunday gathering at Zhongshan is probably the largest, with close to 1,000 parents mingling on a recent Sunday afternoon.

A number of parents are clearly hardened veterans, sitting with their thermoses of tea and waiting for all comers, often with computer printouts laid out in front of them detailing their children's attributes.

Some flit from one group of parents to another in search of phone numbers and maybe photos. Others skirt the edges or sit shyly on one side like wallflowers at a junior high dance. But even the shy ones are determined.

"I think if my daughter gets any older, she will not be able to find a good one," said Liu Huiqing, a quiet but very worried mother whose daughter is 25. She has not told her daughter, an accountant, that she has gone to Zhongshan Park several times looking for a mate for her.

"She would be very embarrassed," Liu said. "Even if I find one, I will tell her it's a friend of my colleague."

Almost all of these parents are far removed from the modern lifestyles of their children. Some have children with jobs in the United States or Canada and are looking for other parents of expatriate Chinese because, they say, their children work too hard to have time to meet anyone.

Others, like Liu, have children on the Beijing fast track, college graduates with full-time jobs but no dates.

Liu might be in this awkward spot because of another clash between traditional social conventions and modern city life. Millions more teenagers go to college now than a generation ago, but most universities still officially frown on romance, prohibiting both pre-marital sex and marriage between students.

"During college she missed three good opportunities," Liu said with more than a hint of heartbreak. "Universities wouldn't like people to date each other, and she was chairman of the student association, so she felt she had to be a good role model, and so she didn't date."

Many parents who come here have also given up on matchmaking agencies, commercial enterprises that charge fees.

As with a matchmaking agency, though, there's a certain self-selecting quality to the gray-haired courtiers and the children they represent.

"Male candidates here are pretty short," complained Liu, who is looking for a tall male no older than 30 for her daughter. "There are taller ones, but they're pretty old."

Traditional expectations also produce a gender imbalance at the park, parents say. Women in particular are expected to marry younger, so there are more parents of women looking than parents of men.

Chinese population studies of average marriage ages tend not even to account for men.

According to government statistics, the average age that women first marry rose by two years, to 24 from 22, between 1990 and 2001. The average age for women marrying in Beijing rose to nearly 26 by 1999, the latest year for which official statistics were available.

All this makes the laid-back Lin, with his eligible 28-year-old bachelor son, quite the popular attraction. Mothers of young daughters streamed by him all afternoon, some starting conversations by asking what Chinese birth year his son was - the better to decide, according to superstition, whether the two people would be compatible.

"My son's a snake," Lin tells one woman. In return, Lin has questions of his own for inquiring suitors. He wants to make sure the daughters of these parents aren't a bit too tall or successful.

"In the Chinese traditional view, the woman should be shorter than the man, she should be less educated than the man and her job should be a little worse," he said.

And of course the woman should be younger, too. Lin said he has arranged meetings between more than 10 prospects and his son, who knows about his father's trips to the park.

None has worked out so far, but Lin can afford to take his time. He's anxious, but not quite as nervous about his son's future as the parents of daughters he keeps meeting.

"Realistically in Beijing, up to 35 is not too old [for a man]," he said. "But that seems to be the limit."

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