Wandering into the main gate of People’s Park, a large public gathering space in the heart of Shanghai, one might think he or she has stumbled upon a bustling flea market. Rows of colorful stalls line the walkways, which are crowded with old couples elbowing each other to examine the thousands of offerings.

But the “goods” being hawked by the seasoned ladies behind the stalls are not scarves or souvenirs, but rather singles. Welcome to the People’s Park “marriage market,” where thousands of adults — mostly aging parents — come daily to scan the sea of personal ads, meet with matchmakers and chat up other parents eager to find a partner for their overworked, unwed children.

These marriage markets are a logical extension of the traditional Chinese matchmaking culture, where family elders drive the screening for, and selection of, their child’s future mate. At the same time, however, there is an entirely different market in operation, one where millions of exchanges happen daily, and the “shoppers” are the singles themselves. This is the world of Chinese online dating, a nascent industry that has taken off and is expected to break two billion RMB (US$318 million) in total annual revenue by 2014, according to a recent report by Analysys International.

What is interesting about this industry is not only its rapid growth in a conservative society that frowns upon courting more than one person at a time, but also its potential to change the social norms that are part of dating both online and offline. That is not to say that online dating has changed the values and criteria of Chinese singles completely. On the contrary, the primary players in this space — Jiayuan, Zhenai and Baihe — advertise themselves explicitly as marriage websites focused on helping singles find their future life partner. While the mean age of marriage is rising, marriage is still nearly universal among the Chinese. More than 99% of women between the ages of 35 and 39 in mainland China have been married at least once, according to a study by Gavin W. Jones at the Asia Research Institute.

The traditional emphasis on finding a partner with a similar educational pedigree and economic standing is still followed in the digital world. According to Shang-Hsiu Koo, CFO of Jiayuan, China’s largest online matchmaking website, what users value most in a potential match are education level, age, height and residency (in China, having a residency permit, hukou, in a top-tier city is highly desirable because only those with permits have access to public services and certain employment opportunities in that city). In addition, for men today to be taken seriously, they must own a car and hold a deed to an apartment. (A generation ago, a washing machine and refrigerator would have sufficed.) All these personal facts can also be found on the profiles hanging in the People’s Park marriage market. So why have so many singles gone online?

According to the United Nations, 2011 marked the first year ever that the number of people living in Chinese cities exceeded the number living in the countryside. As the Chinese government gradually relaxed its control over urban migration — by loosening the restrictions of the 1958 Hukou System, which afforded social benefits only to those who could prove identification from the local province — more and more individuals have taken advantage of new economic opportunities by migrating to cities. This trend will continue, as the urbanization rate is expected to surpass 60% by 2020 and 75% by 2045 (currently more than 82% of the U.S. population lives in cities).

While a great deal of research has explored the economic, political and environmental issues that will be affected by increasing urbanization, far less has examined how this trend has impacted China from a social standpoint. In particular, urbanization in China has uprooted the traditional community-based networks through which people meet their spouses and has thus made it more difficult for Chinese adults to find mates.

“More so than ever, Chinese people are leaving their hometowns for educational or professional opportunities in cities like Beijing, and in doing so are forced to recreate their social network from scratch,” says Koo. While urbanization opens up economic opportunities for these individuals, it simultaneously closes social outlets, making online dating networks increasingly important in the search for a potential partner.

Impact of the One-child Policy

Moving to a new city and restarting one’s social life might be considered commonplace in many countries. However, it is intensified by additional characteristics of the Chinese experience. In particular, the long-term implications of China’s One-child Policy have not only made it more difficult for the growing number of urbanized individuals to find a spouse, but have also raised the stakes for them to do so.

The One-child Policy was one in a series of population-control measures advocated by the People’s Republic during its first three decades. Early in his tenure, Mao Zedong promoted population growth during the 1950s and 1960s as an “adequate solution … in production,” according to Princeton University’s professor Gregory Chow. China’s population responded, so much so that in the 1970s the government implemented the two-child family plan in order to guard against overpopulation. Because this policy did not have the desired result, in 1979 the government enacted the One-child Policy, which restricted parents to one child, in some cases offering incentives to ensure compliance.

China quickly felt the impact of this series of population-control measures. The decade-long, relatively steady fertility rate in the 1960s of about 5.7 births per woman declined on average 6.4% per year from 1970 to 1981, according to the World Bank. By 1981, the fertility rate fell to 2.6 births per woman. With fewer children to raise, parents’ resources and attention were now concentrated on children of the One-child Policy generation.

With this increased attention, children face greater pressure from parents to be successful in both school and the job market. This means more time studying and less time building social networks, as Vanessa L. Fong documented in her book, Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy. In addition, with no siblings at home, these offspring also are growing up with far fewer opportunities to socialize. Such factors make online dating more attractive to this generation by providing them with instant access to an extensive network of singles and a low-pressure environment in which to approach potential partners.

Rising Pressure for Both Sexes

As a result of the one-child Policy, many families began to selectively abort female children in order to try to have boys, who are traditionally preferred due to the cultural expectation that men will help support the family and take care of their parents in old age. In Crisis and Reform in China, E. Bliney estimated that more than 1.5 million sex-selective abortions were carried out in China between 1983 and1990.

Both men and women are under growing pressure to find a partner in an increasingly difficult environment. As of the 2005 census, there was a staggering gender gap of approximately 32 million more males than females under age 20.

Because of this gender gap, the first level of pressure comes from the fact that there are simply not enough women available for all of the men. With a birth rate of 120 men for every 100 women, rural, lower-income men are most affected. General demographic forecasts suggest that within the next decade, about 15% to 20% of Chinese men will not be able to find brides.

A second level of pressure comes from the heavy social expectation of not only finding a spouse, but also finding what society deems the right spouse. This is measured increasingly by material factors: An astonishing 68.3% of women in developed cities will not marry a man until he owns a home, according to Christina Larson’s recent Foreign Policy article.

But this does not necessarily mean it is easy for women to find a spouse. Women traditionally were second to their brothers, but now “enjoy unprecedented parental support because they do not have to compete with brothers for parental investment,” said Amherst College’s Melissa Fong. They, too, are now increasingly faced with the filial-piety-inspired pressure to support their parents.

This increased financial pressure has led an ever-growing number of women to urbanize and compete for the most prestigious jobs with the six million students who will graduate every year. In addition, women are overtaking men more often for top spots at universities and graduate schools, extending the time they spend in the education system. Today, 27% of urban Chinese women in their late twenties have not been married, compared to only 7% in 1982, according to Larson.

A survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation found that 90% of men thought women should be married by age 27. There is even a popular, highly stigmatized term for women over 27 who are not yet married — sheng nu, or “leftover ladies.”

The Role of Technology

Society’s pressure to find the right person to marry before one gets too old stands in stark contrast to the mounting pressure to succeed educationally and professionally. The online dating industry has emerged at an opportune time to provide these overburdened professionals with a common platform to connect with others like them and to search more efficiently and more effectively for their perfect match.

On a par with such a strong demand for a platform that could help the Chinese population find spouses, technological advancements have fueled the growth of the country’s online dating market. Among numerous websites are Zhenai and Jiayuan, two of China’s most successful. Zhenai, a subscription-based dating service that gives users access to more than 1,000 matchmakers, has nearly 30 million users. In comparison, Match.com, one of the largest online dating websites in the U.S., has 15 million users. Despite the impressive size of its user base, Zhenai is maintaining a 40% annual growth rate. Last September, IAC, Match.com’s major shareholder, bought a 20% stake in the seven-year-old company.

Jiayuan’s growth is even more staggering. Established in 2003, it acquired 63 million subscribers by 2012. Users can create a free profile on the site but pay to connect with other users to receive their messages. In addition, the company provides a host of add-on services, including online chatting and sending virtual gifts. Earning more than 44% of the Chinese online dating sector’s revenue, the NASDAQ-listed Jiayuan is the only one to have gone public.

One of the main benefits of the online dating platform, according to Jiayuan’s Koo, is that it allows users to quickly screen and filter for the candidates they are most interested in. Each fills out a detailed self-assessment — which seems more like a background check than an online dating profile — where they are asked to provide information on their height, weight, monthly income, education level, marital history and whether or not they own a home. All these data are used as key screening criteria by other users. This is in stark contrast to Match.com, whose main page dedicates a large portion of its real estate to each user’s story, interests and personality. But given the Chinese values involved in finding a comparable partner, the Jiayuan model gives singles more choices and allows them to quickly identify appropriate candidates while saving them a great deal of time and heartbreak.

Despite their impressive growth and aforementioned unique attributes, the major Chinese online dating services, such as Jiayuan, face two major business challenges.

First, the online dating service industry in China is fragmented. As Rose Gong, CEO of Jiayuan, remarked in the 2011 4Q earning call, “We continue to see fragmentation in China’s online dating market as new entrants attempt to take advantage of the tremendous market opportunities.” With a relatively low barrier of entry for entrepreneurs, as well as aggressive investment in mobile dating applications by established companies such as Sina, Jiayuan is investing heavily to both attract and monetize China’s mobile users.

The second challenge is building trust with users. On a par with the rapid growth in the number of users, the number of cases of fraud has also increased within online dating websites. For example, in July 2011, a female user sued Jiayuan after she was swindled by a man she had met on the website. Many other forms of fraud — from publishing fake salary information to prostitution — have diminished the credibility of online dating websites, leading Jiayuan to fight back by, for example, blacklisting users or requiring validation from an employer’s human resources department if a user tries to increase his salary dramatically.

The Future of Marriage in China

Over the past decade, China has seen an explosive growth in the number of people using online matchmaking services. Despite such dramatic changes in the methods that singles use to find spouses, their selection criteria have changed little: They still heavily value a person’s education level, height and salary more than attributes such as personality and interests. Accordingly, major online matchmaking companies such as Jiayuan and Zhenai have been tailoring their products to meet the unique demands of Chinese users.

In addition, China’s One-child Policy, rapid urbanization, and the widening gender imbalance have all played major roles in increasing the online-matchmaking market size. As urbanization continues to increase and fertility rates remain low, online matchmaking platforms will continue to grow.

Finally, the online dating industry is starting to change the social norms involved in courtship and dating in mainland China. As single men and women have more freedom and choice about where and how they find love, their behaviors will have a significant impact on the shape and dynamics of romantic relationships for generations to come.

This article was written by Ying Wang, Sanghoon Kwak and Jake Whalen, members of the Lauder Class of 2014.