China’s largest online marketplace, Taobao, offers everything from inflatable donkeys to live mice to breast implants. And now fake boyfriends are available for purchase, too. 

Men offer their companionship for as little as 1,000 yuan ($160) to as much as 10,000 yuan ($1,599) a day—and even charge extra for romantic activities such as handholding, going to the cinema together, cuddles, or joint Internet surfing (yes, even that).

But the “rent-a-boyfriends” aren’t really for lonely hearts. More commonly, women, usually in their late twenties and up, hire them to put on an act for their parents—a novel way for them to stave off marriage pressure.

This week marks the Chinese New Year—when that pressure reaches a boiling point. As millions of rural-to-urban migrants return home to celebrate China’s most important holiday, legions of unmarried women will be lectured by extended family about their singlehood. Enter the burgeoning rent-a-boyfriend industry.

Although the exact number of renters is hard to come by, and it is still considered a last resort, there is certainly rising interest in the industry. Online searches for the term “rental boyfriend” rose by 884 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to Taobao. Although there are also girlfriends for rent, a quick look online shows that the majority of people advertising themselves as fake partners are male.

This imbalance may seem surprising given that in China, cultural preference for boys has skewed the birthrate. At its peak in 2004, 121.2 boys were born to every 100 girls. That   figure dropped slightly in 2013 to 117.6. Still, it is estimated that there will be a surplus of up to 30 million young men in China by 2020. Most of these bachelors, however, live in the impoverished countryside. In major cities, it is often the women struggling to find a match (and it is urban women who can afford to rent boyfriends). 

Hypergamy, the expectation in China that women should “marry up” financially and in status, has left many of the country’s most educated, successful professional women without a mate. According to the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, in urban areas there are an estimated seven million unmarried women between the ages of 25 and 34. Around seven percent of college-aged women remain single until they are 45. Some have struggled to find love; others have chosen to delay marriage for their careers. Either way, if unmarried by the age of 27, they are dubbed sheng nu—literally “leftover women.” (The prefix sheng is derived from the same word used for “leftover food” and reflects the disdain with which this nickname is used.) 

There is, however, a small grace period for these sheng nu. Initially, they are considered “holy warriors,” with some fight left to find a husband. But if they are still single by the age of 31, they become “a leftover as high as heaven”—considered by many to be too old to marry.

To avoid this fate, pressure for girls to marry starts early. In 2012, best-selling writer Wang Hailing, author of Divorce with Chinese Characteristics, relayed stories on her microblog about pushy mothers. In one account, a single girl said to her mother, “What’s the rush? I’m only 23.” The mother replied in turn: “Only? If you’re a boy you can claim ‘only,’ for girls it’s ‘already’!” 

“One of my friends tried a variety of ways to persuade her daughter to go on a blind date,” Wang wrote in another post. “Nagging her/going on about the importance for girls to get married in their ‘valuable’ age. If they don’t take their chance now, then they will either be leftovers, or on sale!”

Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, recalls interviewing one woman whose mother refused to talk to her—going so far as to reject her daughter’s phone calls—until she found herself a boyfriend. Fincher sees this behavior as part of “a real tradition of tremendous pain, burden, and guilt.” Unmarried women are not only an embarrassment for parents but are also seen as less able to provide for them financially. 

The pressure on women to marry dates to ancient times. Confucian ideals stress that marriage is a matter not of individual desire but of duty: filial daughters are expected to produce grandchildren. But the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s under the one-child policy has an even bigger burden. Those young adults must shoulder a load of parental expectations that rests on them alone. And in a country with a thin to nonexistent state welfare system, stable marriages are seen as a necessity in providing for retired parents and in-laws.

“Han women traditionally had their feet bound, they were meant to stay in the house, they were meant to breed and give heirs to their husbands,” Jemimah Steinfeld, author of the new book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, told me. In China today, she said, the soaring skyscrapers and bold architecture merely hide these stubborn old customs. “A man can be many things in modern China. A woman is still seen as someone who is meant to conform at some stage. There is a tradition and history that is hard to shake off.” 

For China’s younger generations, however, love is now part of the marriage equation. Many women no longer see settling as an option. Fed with a diet of Western and Chinese rom-coms and pop songs, they now want chemistry, romance, and love. For that they are willing to wait: in 2012, Shanghai announced that the median age for brides topped 30 years for the first time ever.

But in order to delay marriage, women must battle not just familial expectations but the Chinese state. Sheng nu became official lexicon in 2007 when it was listed by the Chinese Ministry of Education as one of 171 new words. Meanwhile, the All China Women’s Federation, a government body founded to promote women’s rights, published an article in 2011 titled “Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy.” Girls might “hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness,” the article declared. “The tragedy is, they don't realize that as women age, they are worth less and less. So by the time they get their M.A. or Ph.D. they are already old—like yellowed pearls.” And it is not only the All China Women’s Federation that is pushing for rings on fingers but also state media, universities, work units (for whom holding matchmaking events is a matter of course), and even the medical establishment. 

Fincher believes that endemic derision of unmarried women is tied in to the government’s emphasis on the family as the cornerstone of Chinese society. Legions of single women and men might lead to social disorder, so the thinking goes. “There are People's Daily editorials warning specifically about the threat to social stability, about men not being able to find brides, that they get involved in criminal activities, cause trouble,” explains Fincher. “The single women choosing to delay marriage for education or career are [also] not conforming to their traditional roles and they are not having a child, which is their biological duty from the point of view of the government.”

As such, Fincher told me that she has noticed a “continuous aggressive push to stigmatize these single, educated professional women as sheng nu,” one that is difficult or near impossible to ignore. “Even if the women themselves just brush off the messages in the media, their parents may well accept it. There is very much a collective sense of marriage anxiety surrounding these women.” 

No doubt there are a handful of women renting boyfriends who hope for some real connection—or at least a release for a few hours or days from being alone. Today’s younger generations in China are often only children, thousands of miles away from their parents, living in soulless high-rise buildings and working crushingly long hours.

But for most, renting a boyfriend—or, in extreme cases, going so far as to hire a “husband” (there have been one or two cases of this, too)—is a byproduct of a society where saving face is crucial. “It’s about fitting into these roles. To appear to be doing it so you don’t cause chaos,” Steinfeld explained. “So long as that is how it looks, it doesn’t matter if that is not how it is. Rent a boyfriend—yes, it is superficial. But in China the superficial matters. Playing that part is important.”

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  • CLARISSA SEBAG-MONTEFIORE is a British journalist who lived in China from 2009 to 2014, during which time she worked as an editor for Time Out Beijing and Time Out Shanghai
  • More By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore