BEIJING: At 1pm every Sunday, Mrs Shen goes hunting for a husband. Equipped with photos, a resume and oodles of charm and enthusiasm, the 50-something spends the entire afternoon looking for Mr Right among the cypress and ginkgo trees of Sun Yat-sen Park in Beijing. She is not alone. During the past six months, several thousand other Beijingers of similar age have pursued love and marriage on the leafy south bank of the Hou river, in giant ad hoc matchmaking events that highlight the strains placed on traditional family life by China’s spectacular rate of development.

Everyone at the weekly gatherings has their own technique. Some pin up personal advertisements on tree trunks with vital statistics (age, income, height and star sign); one or two set up promotional stalls on the pavement. Most just mill around chatting and swapping personal information. For Mrs Shen, it is an act of parental love. Like the vast majority of those who attend these matchmaking events, she is searching for a spouse not for herself, but for her child.

“I’m anxious about my daughter. She is 32, well-educated and has a good job, but no husband,” said Mrs Shen. “There are many excellent men in Beijing, but the problem is that half of them go overseas to work or study, so there aren’t enough left to go round.” Although this is her third visit, Mrs Shen is disappointed that she has yet to find a candidate who meets her requirements: a man who is taller, older, better-educated and richer than her daughter. It is a common lament among the parents, many of whom have daughters educated at universities and earning good salaries in foreign companies.

“Our children work and study so hard that they have no time to meet a good partner,” said Mrs Li, whose 27-year-old daughter is a beautiful, multilingual cabin crew attendant. By traditional reckoning, Mrs Li has every reason to be concerned. Her daughter is two years above the age when being single is seen as a social minus (25 for women, 35 for men). But attitudes are changing along with China’s rapid development. “My daughter is just focused on her career,” Mrs Shen said. “I’m more worried about her lack of a boyfriend than she is.” The matchmaking events are a response to such concerns among the older generation, who fear that their children worry too much about work and not enough about continuing the family line. Adding to their anxiety has been the demise of the state-run system in which danwei (work units) used to arrange matchmaking events for their employees. The park meetings were started last autumn by a group of middle-aged men and women who first met during their morning tai chi exercises in the park. “We got chatting, and we realised that many of us shared concerns about our children’s failure to marry, so we thought we’d try to help each other,” said Mrs Zhang, one of the organisers. “At the first event, there were fewer than 20 of us. But at the peak, we attracted about 3,000.” It is fitting that the gatherings take place in one of Beijing’s parks, which play a much more central role in communal life than in the UK.

Residents of the capital use these spaces to exercise, play and chat, with activities from the morning group exercises and ballroom dancing classes to juggling, kite-flying and renditions of opera during the evening. Official statistics explain why there is so much interest in using them now for matchmaking. People are marrying later and divorcing more often. The average age of a bride is young by British standards, but it has risen from 20 in 1990 to over 24. The number of divorces shot up by 21% in 2004. Demographers warn that the government’s one-child policy, which has contributed to a gender imbalance of 117 boys born for every 100 girls, will also make it harder for men to find wives.

Among the few hopeful spouses to be at Sun Yat-sen Park was Tom Pan, who has not had a girlfriend for several years. “There are so few opportunities to meet women. And when you do, communication is a big problem, because people’s values are so different,” said the 33-year-old, who had pinned up an advertisement on a tree. “I came here because there is a lot of social pressure on a man to get married when he approaches the age of 35.” For the middle-aged people in the park, the exchange of personal information is a very public and open event, but when it comes to discussing the issue at home with their more privacy-minded children, they admit they opt for secrecy. “I didn’t tell my daughter I was coming here today,” said Mrs Li with a guilty grin. “I wouldn’t dare.” —Dawn/The Guardian News Service