Each Sunday afternoon in Beijing, about 300 people gather in Dr Sun Yat-sen Park, next to Tiananmen Square. Most are in their fifties and sixties. To Chinese eyes, their behaviour seems odd. They are certainly not here for a spot of t'ai chi, nor are they about to take part in a subversive demonstration. Instead they watch each other, shyly yet purposefully. Suddenly a booming voice breaks the awkward silence: "What have you got?" Its source is a large, grey-haired woman, approaching a quiet couple.
"A girl. And you?"
"Boy. 35. Five foot ten. Graduate. IT manager. And yours? Can I see the picture?" The grey-haired woman is brisk and practised. She has clearly been here before.
"Er ... here. Our daughter is 29." The couple hesitantly take out a photo, looking uncomfortable, as if they are having second thoughts. "She has a degree, too. She's a teacher. Do you have a photo of your son?"
"I left it at home today, but just look at me and you'll get an idea." The woman gives a hearty laugh as a small crowd begins to circle. "To tell the truth, my son is fat."
"Oh well, our daughter isn't exactly thin," the wife replies modestly.
Dr Sun Yat-sen Park is named after the founding father of modern China, and it stands on the site where the imperial family worshipped their ancestors, some 600 years ago. Today, it is the venue of China's first "love market", a meeting point between China's tradition of arranged marriage and the irresistible rise of consumer choice, even in the area of personal relationships. Here, parents come to exchange pictures and brief biographies of their children of marriageable age in the hope of finding the perfect partner for each, with the right qualifications, income and, almost as important, a compatible animal sign.
"My son is a dragon. Is your daughter a rabbit? No?" The grey-haired woman shifts her eyes away from the couple to search the crowd around her. "Has anyone got a rabbit? I'm looking for a rabbit. Rabbit and dragon are a good match!"
Historically, the western concept of "romantic love" was alien to Chinese culture: free love was taboo and marriage was an expression of filial duty. In Mao's China, love for any person or thing other than the Party was denounced as bourgeois sentiment. Today, the empire of love is expanding, and the only penalties lovers suffer are those they inflict on each other. Yet the rise of love, which appears an exciting aspect of modernity to many young Chinese, is also bound up with the perils of the market: it feeds off the insecurity that is an inextricable part of China's transformation.
The pressures of the "love game" are heightened, in China, by demography. Across the country there are more young men than women--one of many malign consequences of the "one-child" policy--but the concerned parents attending the "love market" know that, in the cities, eligible young men are at a premium. The Chinese have a term for men with the perfect package of availability and affluence: these "diamond bachelors" are quickly snapped up, unless they fiercely resist the loss of their precious independence. In big cities, the local women also have to compete against small-town girls who are keen to "upgrade" by acquiring a prosperous urban husband. In a society where "The winner takes it all" is the motto of the day, and where the young are still expected to conform by marrying, parents feel compelled to enter the race for love, even though their children are frequently dismayed by their activities.
This conflict between the generations is another consequence of the one-child policy. China's young adults grew up in the ruins of the old world while the new world was still struggling to be born. They lack the support of siblings and peer group, while their parents, who survived the harsh …