Shanghai’s ultimate matchmaker: Gong Haiyan

Shanghai’s ultimate matchmaker: Gong Haiyan

The Internet has replaced parents as China's most convenient love connector, and it's pretty much down to one woman's website

Jiayuan -- Gong HaiyanThe face of China's most successful cupid -- she traded in her bow and arrows for a laptop.Matchmaking has always played an important part in love and marriage here in China. But its method has changed in recent years, with online dating playing an increasingly important role.

Gong Haiyan, also known as Xiao Longnu, has perhaps been the person most instrumental in this revolution, founding China's first major online dating service, now called Jiayuan.

An idea takes shape

As she was undertaking her post-graduate studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, her parents back in Hunan were worried that she was heading into the latter half of her 20s without the prospect of a husband, becoming a dreaded shengnu, or "leftover woman."

Though Gong attempted to meet people online, she found China's online dating infrastructure to be lacking, and so she started China's first major online dating service, now called Jiayuan.

“I had no real technology experience, yet I found myself surrounded by many students and friends occupied with their studies and work who simply didn’t have the time to pursue and manage relationships,” Gong says.

“Both my mother and grandmother were reputed matchmakers in their towns, and I am very proud to inherit this traditional role and adapt it to the rapidly growing and evolving Internet industry in China— Gong Haiyan, Jiayuan founder

“Engaging friends with a better technological understanding than myself and using money I had saved working as a part-time tutor to buy a computer and printer, I started Jiayuan in my Fudan dorm room in October of 2003.” 

No time for romance

Studies suggest that the social experiences of Gong and her friends are becoming the norm in China. As people move away from traditional family villages and work longer hours, meeting people the old-fashioned way is a more difficult proposition than ever. 

Zhang Yi, a researcher with the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, recently told the “Global Times” that greater social mobility made it harder for people to fall in love.

"With the hustle and bustle of modern life, inner circles of acquaintances are getting smaller," Zhang says, adding that higher living standards and education levels have combined to drive up the average age at which people get married.

This, according to Gong, is what makes Internet dating such an appealing option for China's singletons.

“Despite all these changes, there remains a strong traditional emphasis on marriage,” she says.

“The Internet in general and Jiayuan specifically play an important stabilizing role in Chinese society, representing a new platform for finding romance by providing our users millions of potential mates in a fun and safe environment.”

A successful formula

Gong says her business wasn't an instant hit (the first batch of members to sign up to the website were friends and relatives she called on to help her out), but after a shaky start, Jiayuan has gone from strength to strength and retains a 50 percent market share in China, according to the National Business Daily.

I had no real technology experience, yet I found myself surrounded by many students and friends occupied with their studies and work who simply didn’t have the time to pursue and manage relationships.— Gong Haiyan, Jiayuan founder

Last year the company was expected to top RMB 100 million in revenue and according to the Jiayuan website, their customer base now includes 30 million users, and 4.5 million people have so far found a match.

But is seems the secret to Gong's success runs deeper than simply being in the right place at the right time with the right idea. Though she didn't have any technical experience when she started Jiayuan, she did have the art of matchmaking in her blood.

“China has a rich tradition of local women matchmakers [红娘, or “Red Mother” in Chinese] working to match young men and women in the same village,” she explains.

“Both my mother and grandmother were reputed matchmakers in their towns, and I am very proud to inherit this traditional role and adapt it to the rapidly growing and evolving Internet industry in China.”

Finding love online 

Though she is now probably the most successful matchmaker in Chinese history in terms of sheer numbers, more importantly from Gong's perspective, her online dating empire also resulted in her meeting the man she would marry in 2004.

A friend saw his profile on Jiayuan and forwarded it to Gong, thinking they would be well-suited -- and it turns out she was right.

The pair were married within two months and Gong became her own best advertisement. After all, if it worked for her, she says, Jiayuan might also do the trick for you this Valentine's Day.

Online Dating Tips from Gong Haiyan

Jiayuan tip for women: Don't passively wait to be contacted. Taking the initiative by sending potential mates messages shows you are serious about finding love. In a country like China with typically shy women, you will immediately stand out.Jiayuan -- Gong Haiyan

Jiayuan tip for men: In your initial message, make a specific reference to what you find attractive or interesting about the woman you are contacting. When she is browsing messages, yours will immediately stick out, and compliments make a great conversation starter.

Anybody can simply say "hello,” but mention her pretty smile or her favorite food? Now you've got her attention.

Jiayuan tip for everyone: Take your time getting to know people online before deciding to meet. In a culture which places such a value on establishing long-term relationships, the more you learn about each other before you eventually meet in person, the higher your chances of success will be. It is perfectly okay to spend weeks or months chatting online or on the phone before meeting face to face.

Casey is a city/lifestyle journalist from Melbourne, Australia, who has been based in Shanghai since 2007.

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