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.)
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