this chinese dating show is savage, heartbreaking, and strangely feminist

'If You Are the One' is holding a mirror up to western dating culture, and winning hearts across the world.

by Hannah Ongley
May 31 2018, 6:41pm

Earlier this year, Twitter user @touchmybobby posted a string of meme-style screenshots from a very relatable Chinese dating show. One female contestant, a 22-year-old shop assistant named Yang Yajuan, is shown telling a live audience, “I’m happiest when I get paid.” Another hopeful, wearing red kitten ears and a yellow string of pearls: “Apart from sleeping, I’m always on the internet.” Granted, the bachelors aren’t much more romantic. Sample pick-up line: “My mouth waters, not for girls, but for food.”

The show, If You Are the One, is actually a beloved ratings beast. In the first half of 2010, it shattered records in China, with some 50 million tuning into a single episode, and is now the highest-rated show for China’s Jiangsu TV. It’s also immensely popular in Australia, where I was clued in on it by my brother and his Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese girlfriend. The format, loosely based on another Australian dating show called Taken Out, is as follows: One male suitor is introduced to 24 women, who stand in an arc in a live arena, each one behind a light-up podium. The male contestant chooses one “heartbeat girl” whose name he revels only to host Meng Fei. All 24 women then brutally cast judgement upon him while he screens a series of bizarre homemade videos revealing his occupation, interests, dating history, and friends’ opinions. At any point, the women are free to shut off their podium lights to symbolize their disinterest. If all the lights go off, the suitor goes home empty-handed.

The format is peculiar, yet strangely familiar in an age when dating is done through a series of swipes and double taps. Tinder can sometimes feel no less brutal than pitching your fuckability to 24 people simultaneously on nationwide TV. On dating apps, the whole game is one of first impressions, and deadpan humor often falls flat in the DMs. If You Are the One at least mirrors 2018 dating more accurately than The Bachelor — there are no apps that require you to be trapped with 24 rose enthusiasts in a tacky mansion that’s actually liven in by a family of six. The Chinese show is also set in a world (a.k.a. this one) where women often make more money than their potential hookups. Sometimes the men on If You Are the One toil away work in thankles IT jobs, and bitch about it, other times they speak happily of working in fast food joints or writing poetry. And they don’t pretend to be Formula 1 racing drivers “I am short and fat with a thick waist,” professes one happy-go-lucky bachelor on Season 6. “I have no house, no savings, and no car.”

Meanwhile, so far I have not seen a female contestant whose occupation is a professional twin. With men and women often on even financial footing, If You Are the One almost accidentally subverts the tropes of western dating game shows. The women are also the ones returning each week to face a series of potential partners, meaning they’re the ones with the power to say “no.” But normally they aren’t so interested in the men’s occupations at all, rather more keen to point out that they’ve tied their shoelaces incorrectly, or that “he looks like a mole when he smiles.” Western culture demands that women at least be polite on a blind set-up or shitty Tinder date — heck, it requires we be polite when being subjected to street harassment on the way to work. The women’s honesty here is a bit cruel, yes, but also quite refreshing.

If the men here have anyone to be offended by, it’s probably their IRL friends. The “friend opinion” videos normally feature some particularly harsh remarks made by suitors’ supposed buddies, causing the women to shut off their podium lights in alarmingly quick succession. Example: “He’s tight with his money, and is often boring to talk to.” The shitty friend phenomenon is never explained.

If You Are the One’s instantly meme-able quotes also provide a lot of insight into China’s unique dating scene. The set-up alone — 24 women facing one man — is a good visual for modern dating in China. The nation’s over-30 bachelors are literally called “leftover men,” thanks to the country’s “one-child” rule, which was overturned in 2015 but will have effects lasting decades to come. It’s estimated that infanticide, due to the one-child rule, will have led to 30 million more single men than single women by 2020. If You Are the One demonstrates the difficulty of finding a female date in ways that are pretty baffling to the western eye. Male contestants prefer to study books about girls and crunch the numbers in order determine their chances of success. “I was kind of prepared for this result,” says one man who, we’re told in the all-caps caption, FAILED TO GET A DATE. Another hopeful husband from the same season: “I want to find a girl who is 80% my match.” And the classic: “If I have to say my requirements for girls, I have two: they have to be female, and they must be alive.”

But the best parts are when the window into Chinese dating culture reveals more universal truths. It’s striking how many contestants are acutely focused on family life, particularly attitudes towards looking after elderly parents. But we don’t laugh at the guy who’s searching for a girlfriend because he’s worried to tell his mom her would-be daughter-in-law dumped him months ago — we feel for him. So do some of the women, occasionally offering honest, heartfelt advice to the men they’ve turned down. Others, having set out on the path to true love, become re-routed onto one of self-discovery.

On a truly tear-jerking episode of If You Are the One’s sixth season, longtime fan-favorite Luo Qui, a investment company director, offers her suitor some earnest words of wisdom with worldwide appeal:

“Whether you’ve changed or not, I agree with you on one point,” Qui says, “You said coming on this show is like having a mirror to check yourself with. I agree. Girls have become more certain of what they want and realize what kind of person they are. Especially when we stay here longer. If you’re sincere in what you do, don’t worry about people defaming you. They talk about you but in fact defame themselves… when we return to our daily lives, we are who we are.”