Mom, look who I rented this year


Spring Festival is around the corner. For many young men and women in China, the holiday means an annual ritual of returning home after an exacting year on the job to face even more exacting parents and relatives who have readied a stockpile of mortifying questions (along with the melon seeds, fresh fruit, and red envelopes). Topping the heap: “When are you getting married?”

A cartoon in the Beijing Morning Post in February 2016 shows a young man heading home with suitcase in hand (the suitcase says, “Home for the New Year”) with a young woman whose dress is shaped like a rolled-up contract, with the word Rent across the front.

A cartoon in the Beijing Morning Post in February 2016 shows a young man heading home with suitcase in hand (the suitcase says, “Home for the New Year”) with a young woman whose dress is shaped like a rolled-up contract, with the word “rent” across the front.

For some, the internet now offers an expedient solution in the form of online partner rentals. Through full-service websites, those who are disgracefully unattached can now preselect, book, and pay for suitable stand-in partners, ensuring that when they do finally make it home, the family will at least think they’re on the right track.

Thanks to a widely reposted story from the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper  —  shared even on the website of the official Xinhua News Agency  (link in Chinese) —  the issue of girlfriend and boyfriend rentals for the Chinese New Year has flared up this week (link in Chinese).

According to the newspaper’s findings, there has recently been a sharp rise in posts on Chinese internet forums by users seeking New Year’s boyfriends and girlfriends. In the service rentals section of Baidu Forum, a popular online community, the Beijing Youth Daily reporters discovered 21 fresh posts on January 17 by users seeking to rent temporary girlfriends, as well as several posts by users hoping to rent themselves out. Prices ranged from as low as 100 yuan ($14.50) per day to as high as 3,000 yuan ($440) per day.

A January 24, 2017, story in the Beijing Youth Daily investigates websites offering special rental services for boyfriends and girlfriends to take home for the Chinese New Year.

A January 24, 2017, story in the Beijing Youth Daily investigates websites offering special rental services for boyfriends and girlfriends to take home for the Chinese New Year.

Contacted by the reporters, Mr. Chen, a forum user in the coastal province of Jiangsu, said he hoped to rent a girlfriend in order to draw off the usual family pressure. “I’ve only just graduated, but already my family is pressuring me about getting married,” he said. Chen had contacted around 10 candidates online, but so far had not settled on finalists. His hope was for a regular girl  —  the kind, apparently, who could lend credibility to the deception. “I don’t have any clear-cut demands,” he said, “so long as she’s kind of normal.”

More specialized providers have also emerged online, with full-service websites offering boyfriend and girlfriend rentals along with secure payment services. The going rate these days for the rental of a girlfriend over the Chinese New Year is 1,500 yuan a day, or about $220. On top of these basic fees, clients are expected to pay a standard commission of 10 percent, or 150 yuan, and also cover the girlfriend’s return airfare and daily expenses.

Find it objectionable that your rental girlfriend will be showered with red envelopes of cash from charmed relatives? No worries; online platforms have all the angles covered. When the Beijing Youth Daily reporters contacted client services at one online platform, posing as potential clients, they were told that, “If red envelopes are given to the girlfriend, this money can be returned to you.”

This has all the hallmarks of an eye-grabbing seasonal trend story. Who doesn’t understand the family pressures that come to bear during this time of year? On top of this relatable human element, there is the plot thickener of deception: Would your parents discover the ruse? There are moral implications: Is it right to dupe one’s own tribe in this way? There is the internet’s role as technological enabler. And finally, not forgetting the most lurid aspect of all, there is the aberrant idea of renting a human being in the first place.

The homepage of a partner-renting website. Source: Beijing Youth Daily (link in Chinese).

The homepage of a partner-renting website. Source: Beijing Youth Daily (link in Chinese).

But as a trend, in fact, the girlfriend rental story is more dated than you might think  —  however much it has been updated for the digital age.

Quite a number of media covered the story last year, including the official China News Service (link in Chinese), which quoted relationship expert Zhou Xiaopeng (周小鹏) as saying: “Actually, renting girlfriends is a niche social demand, and the vast majority of young people are seeking real girlfriends to date and marry, not temporary solutions to the marriage issue.”

Is the trend, perhaps, being overplayed for its apparent novelty?

 

In February 2016, What’s on Weibo found that previous searches on “renting a girlfriend” were no longer permitted on Taobao.

In February 2016, What’s on Weibo found that previous searches on “renting a girlfriend” were no longer permitted on Taobao.

Looking at the issue last year, What’s on Weibo found that girlfriend-renting services previously searchable on Taobao, one of China’s largest ecommerce platforms, had been removed from search results, suggesting authorities had noticed the uptick in discussion and objected to the unsavory social implications.

Five years ago, the English-language website ChinaHush reported that the trend of renting “total strangers” during Spring Festival had taken off “in recent years” as singles sought to “avoid long lectures and appease their relatives.” The site traced the trend, which it said was “gaining popularity,” partly to the TV series Renting a Girlfriend to Take Home for New Year (link in Chinese), which aired in 2009.

But how far back does this trend go?

Searching Chinese-language newspapers, the earliest reference I could find was dated December 28, 2002. Nanjing’s Jinling Evening News, then just a nine-year-old tabloid, reported that “the ‘girlfriend renting’ popping up for a time at the end of last year has once again become popular.”

The newspaper spoke to a young man named “Ah Feng” (阿風), 29, a salesman for a large company who simply hadn’t gotten around to finding a girlfriend. A man of his age should, by conventional standards, already have had a child in primary school. So how could he return home again for Spring Festival and face his parents without a girl on his arm?

Remembering that he had seen an article in the newspaper the year before about people “renting girlfriends,” he decided to follow their example. He immediately got in touch with a marital agency, ready to find a temporary girlfriend to take home to see his parents. Even though this meant paying a “rental fee,” at least he could “cheat” his way through this year.

In addition, the newspaper found a number of professional matchmakers who said that in “recent years,” they had been approached routinely ahead of the Spring Festival by both men and women “seeking help.” They wanted to connect with temporary partners they could take home just to see their parents over the holiday  —  and they were willing to provide “a certain remuneration” to any interested and suitable party.

Revealingly, the newspaper spoke to one matchmaker, an older woman who had been setting up marriages for many years, who glimpsed the potential for a whole new market. In the future, perhaps, they might be able to charge “rent.” And when more people became interested, they might find suitable matches quickly, both sides agreeing on the terms.

“Perhaps,” the reporter wrote, rephrasing the old woman’s hopes for good fortune, “this might become a new revenue source for matchmakers.”

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David Bandurski

David Bandurski is a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, editor of the project’s website, and a filmmaker.

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