It was only a matter of time before money transformed that most intimate of private domains, love and marriage, as it has almost everything else in this booming country. And it stands to reason that the shock of the new would be felt first in Shanghai, the throbbing heart of Chinese capitalism.
It all began with an advertiser and a lawyer, sitting around with a friend who had made his fortune in auto parts, distraught over his recent divorce and unable to find a suitable new bride. Place an ad, said the ad man, half in jest, but the lawyer took him seriously and put an announcement in a newspaper about a billionaire seeking a virgin bride.
This attracted a flash flood of 600 applications, complete with photos and detailed personal information. That was whittled down to 100 candidates, of whom 20 were interviewed and one was selected, finally producing man and wife.
That first virgin bride ad campaign, two years ago, has given rise to a mini-industry: hundreds of supposedly super-rich lonely-hearts and hordes of young women, often professing to be virgins, hoping to meet well-heeled men. The lawyer, a 25-year-old Shanghai resident named He Xin, said he has already been approached by more than 50 billionaires and has been retained by several of them, including three he has found brides for, in a process that he said takes about three months from start to finish. Along the way, He has also found a bride for himself -- a woman who was passed over by one of his clients.
Today, he proudly claims his work for billionaires has spawned a new line of law in China, lifestyle law, a personalized service catering to people with means. Not incidentally, it has spawned a debate, too, about rapid social change in China, and especially about the changing place of women in society.
Since the beginning of the economic reform era, 27 years ago, perhaps no area of Chinese life has undergone more change than the mores of dating, love and marriage.
For centuries, Chinese practiced arranged marriages complete with dowries, leaving little place for Western-style notions of romance. During the long decades of hard-line communism, these practices were updated with an infusion of Maoist social control. Work brigade commissars, rather than parents and clans, decided who could date and marry and who could not.
Only recently has the idea of living together unmarried gained limited social acceptance in China. In a breathtakingly short period of time, though, sexual and romantic opportunity have sprung up everywhere in a society that still thinks of itself as conservative. Prostitutes work openly in almost every hotel in China. The Internet has made possible everything from online dating to nude Web cam dancing.