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Every year on Nov. 11, thousands of people across China celebrate Singles' Day, some championing their independence with parties, many more trying to find a mate through matchmaking events. They also shop — a lot. The holiday was started by university students in the early 1990s, and by 2009, the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba had spotted an opportunity: a Singles' Day sale. Since then, it has grown to become the world's largest online shopping splurge. Consumers can buy everything from "boyfriend" pillows to rice cookers to travel deals designed for one. In 2014, retail revenue had soared to $9.3 billion, a 60 percent increase from the previous year. Over a 24-hour period Singles' Day eclipsed the revenues of Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. This year, according to Alibaba, it has already broken its own record from last year, with about $1 billion already splurged just eight minutes after midnight.
For the first time last year Alibaba expanded its reach to connect Chinese consumers with 200 merchants from 20 different countries for the sale. Participating brands included Calvin Klein, Blue Nile, and American Eagle Outfitters. Indeed, attracting Chinese buyers to spend money on established U.S. brands in an annual flash sale is a logical next step for the retail bonanza. But will American shoppers ever embrace the holiday? Probably not.
Driving the popularity of Singles' Day events in China is an acute pressure to marry.
Unlike Hallmark holidays such as "Grandparents Day" or "Boss's Day," which are glibly manufactured for profit, Singles' Day has become wildly successful because it taps into resonant issues around gender and marriage in China, which are exacerbated by generational shifts. Its roots are apparent in its alternate title: Guang Gun Jie, or "Bare Sticks Day," is a play on both "bare sticks" (a nickname for bachelors) and the adjacent string of "ones" in the date — 11/11 — that look like a row of lonely twigs.
Shopping aside, across China, Nov. 11 is synonymous with matchmaking. When I lived in Beijing, I reported on a Singles' Day matchmaking event organized by the country's largest online dating website, Jiayuan.com, which has a whopping 134 million registered users. A 2,000-strong crowd gathered in a generic Beijing mall for a slew of activities, including three-minute speed dating and a thousand-plus-person-long kiss chain. Events such as these are legion, often attended by tens of thousands of single men and women (and sometimes their anxious parents, too). Driving the popularity of the events is an acute pressure to marry.
In other words, Alibaba has simply hijacked a pre-existing cultural phenomenon. As Jemimah Steinfeld, author of Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, pointed out to me last week, Alibaba and other retailers are targeting a prosperous post-1990s "me" generation who are spending more, and saving less, than their parents.
Addressing an army of singles in itself is fairly recent. Under Mao Zedong, couples were simply paired off by family or work units. As late as the 1980s, singles amounted to less than one percent of China's adult population, according to University of North Carolina sociologist Yong Cai. (By contrast they account for 50.2 percent in the U.S. today.)
No longer. For one, the one-child policy has led to a vastly skewed birth rate: By 2020 it's estimated that China will house more than 24 million surplus bachelors. In addition, some ambitious women are balking at the idea of marrying for convenience and duty. Increasingly prioritizing work and education, the median age for women to marry in Shanghai hit over 30 for the first time in 2012.
The All China Women’s Federation has likened leftover women to 'yellowed pearls,' worth 'less and less' as they get older, despite their PhDs.
Yet many career women feel stranded. A number of years ago I interviewed Xie Yujie, a 26-year-old nurse. Flummoxed by a strong Chinese tradition of hypergamy, or marrying up, Xie's parents insisted that any potential husband must have a house, stable job, and a good salary — "oh, and he'd better have a car." She admitted, "I'm now under great pressure."
Xie was at risk of becoming a "leftover women" or sheng nu, the nickname brandished for those aged 27 or over who remain unmarried. (It shares a prefix with "leftover food.") The concept of women turning sour as they age is propagated by the government through the media, educational system, and medical establishment. In 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Education introduced the term sheng nu into the official lexicon. Meanwhile the All China Women's Federation, a state-run organization founded to further women's rights, has likened leftover women to "yellowed pearls," worth "less and less" as they get older, despite their PhDs.
Marriage is seen as a "basic cell in society," Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, explained to me. Worried that a spike in singles might lead to unrest, the Chinese Communist Party believes "the more people they can push into marriages, the more stable society is."
That such fears are being exploited for material gain is clear — and it's not just Alibaba. One representative of an elite Chinese matchmaking agency once told me that her company acts like doctors treating patients in need of "curing."
Such discourse wouldn't fly in the States. In the U.S., a nascent National Singles' Day — a separate campaign launched last year in West Hollywood on Jan. 11 — is being propagated as something fabulous, a "go on, treat yourself, you deserve it" sales day. To have any chance of triumphing in an already overcrowded marketplace, it has pitched a holiday of self-gifting and self-empowerment. Saluting the country's roughly 124 million single adults, the website croons, "Hey, all you single people — we love you!" Karen Reed, the event's executive director, states that its goal is to "fill the lull between our traditional end-of-year holidays and Valentine's Day." But a VICE report from earlier this year revealed the lackluster turnout for its first foray into singles holiday-making.
OTTE, one of the American brands offering a discount for Singles' Day this year, has that down pat. On its website, the Chinese holiday is recast as a celebration of "fun, freedom, and independence." Thinking back to that love bus, going around and around on the bleak ring road, I wonder if Zhang Jingjing would agree.
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore is a Sydney-based journalist. From 2009 to 2014, she worked in China as an editor at Time Out Beijing and Time Out Shanghai.