This is a tough time of year for Chinese spinsters. Chinese New Year is just around the corner and every single girl knows what her parents want most for the holidays: a betrothal.

Girls of a certain age (say, 30) do not dare go home at all without one; and even women in their 20s feel serious pressure not to turn up for this Sunday’s traditional new year’s eve dinner without a marriage prospect in tow.

Now, thanks to Taobao (the Chinese version of Ebay) and the inventiveness of the Chinese entrepreneur, they do not need to: for as little as Rmb100 per day, Chinese singles can rent a boyfriend to take home for lunar new year.

Chatting up the parents is included in the price, while hand-holding and hugging sometimes cost extra. The boyfriend-substitute will even share a bedchamber with the customer, if that helps persuade the doubting parents. There seems little limit to the a la carte ingenuity of the companies that provide this service: some even offer to waive the fee if the girl and guy share the same bed.

Zhu Sheng, 27, is one of the Taobao entrepreneurs dedicated to filling this gap in the Chinese matrimonial market. He says he got the idea from a movie, where a man rents a contract girlfriend to take home for new year. But Mr Zhu could not find any girls who wanted to take the risk, so he decided to rent out his friends instead. “They didn’t have girlfriends either and they didn’t want to go to their hometown without one, so this way they could get a girl and earn money at the same time!” he says. He says about 100 companies now offer boyfriend rental online.

Last year, he and his friends got 10 takers, he says: though in one case they decided to refund the client’s money after her parents discovered the deception and were deeply hurt by it. Mr Zhu – a gangly youth with big teeth and unruly hair – volunteers that he is not good looking enough to play the role of holiday Lothario, so he leaves the escort bit to his taller, better looking friends. One of them is even married: when he needs to play boyfriend, he tells his wife he is travelling for business.

And what about the girls? In a country with a severe shortage of females of marriageable age, surely anyone who needs to rent a boyfriend must be fat, old and surly? Not so, says Mr Zhu: his clients average about 25 years old and are “not ugly” – just eager to please their parents.

Shanghai blues

Eager enough to rent male companionship, but not so eager, it seems, that they rush into marriage. According to figures published recently by the Shanghai government, the average marriage age of women in this city of 23m people is 29.9 – which must mean lots of post-30 weddings.

Mr Zhu has an answer for all that loneliness: he will provide a boyfriend on demand, not just for Chinese New Year, but all year long. Feeling under the weather, or just too bored to go to work? One of Mr Zhu’s escorts will call in sick for you, then bring chicken soup round to your flat – for Rmb100 per half day. Feeling lonely? Mr Zhu’s staff will chat to you, for Rmb20 per hour.

He is far from the only one offering surrogate male conversation on Taobao. One service charges Rmb10 per hour for chatting on topics of male interest, Rmb20 for topics of female interest – and Rmb30 if the boyfriend actually pays attention to what the girl is saying.

But Mr Zhu trumps them all with his offer that, for Rmb500, clients can shout at, abuse and generally belittle his escorts for an entire day. Has he had any takers for this “harridan special”? Just one so far – “but we turned her down because we were afraid she would beat us”.

A twist on tradition

Just as marriage is not the only casualty of modern urban life in China, fake fiancés are not the only service available to help today’s Chinese meet traditional obligations they no longer have time for.

One online merchant offers an ancestral tomb sweeping service for the annual holiday of Qingming in the spring. “We will visit the tomb, clean it, burn paper money, read or broadcast a message from you to the dead person, play sad music, kowtow on your behalf,” and even send a video documenting all this traditional obeisance, says one advertisement online.

Who needs 5,000 years of civilisation, when there’s Taobao?

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