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 sib-lings and peer group, while their parents, who survived the harsh psychological landscape of the past half-century, often fail to comprehend their emotional needs. It is hardly surprising that these young people are isolated and confused, nor that, as attitudes towards love and marriage change, the generation gap is widening.
School of love
Where there is confusion, there is also a business opportunity. Last month, on the 28th floor of a gleaming block in Beijing's IT district, six young people gathered, each holding a notebook and a pen. They were attending China's first "school of love", a newly opened training centre that offers weekend courses in the "art of love". Festooned with film posters for Titanic and Romeo + Juliet, and a heart-shaped wreath of red roses, the classroom advertised the promise of the course.
The school's founder and only teacher is an energetic, 40-year-old former salesman named Du Shengxiang. After selling steel, iron and T-shirts for ten years, he has reinvented him- self as a "youth" consultant, offering some of the classics of western popular psychology to a Chinese audience. A combination of Jerry Springer and Britain's TV psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud, Du is convinced that he can put his talents to profitable use by helping those with communication problems, especially in romantic affairs. His selling points are his outgoing character and his ability to crack jokes while making serious points.
"Look," Du says, "this is The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. It's from America. I want you to read it." Du picks up the book from his desk and turns to one of his students, a young man with thick glasses. "Zhinan, next time you meet a girl, talk to her about The Art of Loving. Bombard her with theories about love until she is dizzy. I promise you she will fall for you. Instead of going out with a fool who has a house and a car, she'd want someone who truly understands love."
Surprisingly, Du's students are young, intelligent university graduates, some with PhDs, yet they all share a shy and reserved disposition, and have difficulty expressing their emotions. Many of them have never experienced love. Feeling despondent in a society in which market values rule the day, they find Du's style, even more than his theory, an encouraging influence. Zhi Wei, a 24-year-old man, says: "Teacher Du has made us realise that being reserved is so tiring." Du has opened up their lonely hearts, even if his teachings are inspired by commercial products such as the trite bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
Despite his small enrolment, Du, a self- confessed romantic whose favourite film is Jane Eyre, has big ambitions for his school of love. "Waiting is a painful thing. My class is a bit like the first Chinese Communist Party meeting," he laughs, promoting his concept as a modern revolution. "One day I will build my own empire."
Follow that market
The search for love has created business opportunities for some, but the idea of choice in personal life has brought its own, all-too-predic-table costs. Family - the cornerstone of Chinese society - is the first casualty. Over the past two decades China's divorce rate has soared by 500 per cent. A recent TV drama series, Chinese-Style Divorce, struck a loud chord with millions of viewers. The series tells the story of an ambitious woman who pushes her doctor husband to pursue money and success, while taking voluntary redundancy herself to look after their only child. As the gap in social status between the couple widens, her insecurity becomes obsessional, leading to a long-drawn-out divorce.
The success of the drama stemmed from its portrayal of divorce as the result not of an affair, but of a deeply unsettled state of mind shared by the whole society. As detective agencies mushroom all over China, cashing in on extramarital affairs, increasing numbers of couples are experiencing the loss of trust that is affect- ing Chinese society as a whole. Shen Yan, the 37-year-old director of Chinese-Style Divorce, and a divorcee himself, speaks from experience as he explains his drama. "There is too much pressure and temptation out there. It's becoming a nightmare. Every family worries. Is the man going to meet someone today? Or is he going to be seduced? What's going to happen . . . Everyone lives in constant fear." To reinforce his point, Shen Yan remarks that he was not the only newly divorced man in his production team: most of his colleagues were also divorcees.
As the Chinese saying goes, "Where there is a gain, there is also a loss." China's climate of fear has created a flourishing divorce industry. Although new laws have made divorce cheaper and quicker (nowadays, it costs the equivalent of less than £1 and just 20 minutes to get a divorce at a civil affairs bureau) there is still no shortage of bitter divorces, and the lawyers have never had it so good. A new website gives would-be divorcees a step-by-step guide. Its founder, the divorce lawyer Wang Fang, owes her success to media exposure. An attractive former student of economics, she describes her career choice in market terms: "China's greatest asset is its population. A large number of people means a large number of families. A large number of families means a large number of family disputes. So the market demand is great."
Down with the old idols
In her smart new office, Wang Fang's enlarged portrait photo has pride of place, competing for attention with a painting of Karl Marx. After decades of unquestioning faith in communism, China is now the most ardent follower of the market. Belief in the self is superseding belief in past idols.
For the parents in Dr Sun Yat-sen Park, the search for that perfect person who will make their child happy is hard and long, yet anxiety is the mother of hope. A woman wearing dark glasses sighs with a bitter smile. "I've come again and again," she says. "It's so tiring. But what else can we do? These days, they are all only children. When we are gone, who will they have to lean on? You can't rely on friends. People just use one another in today's society. When you get to your forties and fifties, if you don't even have someone to bring you a cup of tea, won't that be sad?"
Once, we were allowed to say only, "I love Chairman Mao." Now we can say, "I love you," but the older generation feels painfully the selfishness that has grown with this freedom, and the vulnerability inseparable from the pressure of competition. The future may be less brutal than the past the old people lived through - it would be hard for it to be more so - but they worry that its emotional contours will be as harsh, in their own way, as the world they survived.
Xiao Jia Gu's film about romance in China will be shown on al-Jazeera International later this summer
Chinese marriage in numbers
8.23 million marriages in 2005
1.79 million divorces in 2005
500% rise in divorce over past two decades
70% of divorces initiated by women
2% of ex-husbands pay child maintenance
Research by Nkem Ifejika