The introductory music was thumping, the male dating show contestant had walked onstage, and now came the interview portion, where female guests asked questions. One of the women launched right in.
“Hello, sir,” said the 59-year-old woman, Yu Xia, scrutinizing the prospect intently through her rectangular glasses. “Is your child a son or a daughter? You said your wife died three years ago — have you come out from that shadow? And your health, it’s pretty good, right?”
Welcome to one of China’s hottest new genres of television: dating shows for older people.
In some ways, the programs — at least 10 of which have emerged in recent years, featuring contestants mostly in their 50s and above — are little different from the fare offered for younger contestants. Hopefuls discuss hobbies, strut for the camera and size up each other’s appearances.
But in between the lighthearted flirtations, the programs also tackle some of the heavier realities of China’s rapidly aging population, one-third of which is expected to be 60 or older by 2050. All guests are asked about their health and pensions. Often, participants are startlingly blunt about what drove them to the stage — a widower recalls tender memories of his deceased wife, a divorced woman describes a loneliness so deep that she started talking to her television.
In response to Ms. Yu’s rapid-fire questions, the male guest, Li Guobin, 57, nodded.“Time has passed; I think I’ve emerged. But the love hasn’t been forgotten.”
“It can’t be forgotten,” Ms. Yu, also widowed, replied. “So what you need is another partner to take care of you, right?”
Most of all, the shows are helping to encourage more conversations about the social, romantic and sexual needs of older people. In China, as in many parts of the world, ageism has long made those topics taboo; in Chinese society in particular, many older people are expected to put the needs of younger generations first. Children often worry that a parent’s decision to buck tradition and seek companionship later in life could harm their own social standing or prospects at work.
Some contestants said they had wanted to find a partner, but were previously too embarrassed to say so, said Leng Bing, the producer of “Not Too Late for Fate,” one of the shows. “But through our program, we’re guiding in the right direction, and many people are becoming more understanding and open-minded,” Ms. Leng said.
The problem of loneliness among older Chinese has become increasingly urgent over the years. Many Chinese, who once relied on their children to support them in their old age, now live alone because of rapid urbanization and economic development that have led their children to move away. The decades-long one-child policy also meant there are fewer children to provide companionship. More than 54 million people 65 and older are unmarried, divorced or widowed, according to China’s most recent census data.
But producing dating shows for older people was not easy. Before starting production of “Not Too Late” in 2020, the station asked a focus group of about 20 older residents in northeastern Jilin Province, where the show is filmed, if they would be willing to participate, said Zhang Xiaoju, the program’s chief editor. Fifteen said no.
Still, there were a handful of eager candidates. Slowly, more followed. One retired teacher agreed immediately, noting that he had often visited “marriage markets” — areas of public parks where older Chinese typically seek partners for their children and occasionally themselves. After he appeared on the show, others from the marriage market signed up, too.
“There has to be the first person who’s willing to eat a crab,” Ms. Zhang said, using a phrase to describe someone pioneering a risky path. “Then when others see that eating crab is good, they’ll be willing to pursue their own happiness, too.”
By this year, the station, Jilin Television, was fielding around 100 hopefuls a day, though filming has been put on hold recently because of coronavirus outbreaks. About half were urban residents and half rural, and about two-thirds women, Ms. Leng said. Most had high school or college educations.
“Care and Love,” the program Ms. Yu appeared on, is one of the longest running dating shows for older Chinese. The program has a game-show quality, with contestants dancing or arm wrestling while potential mates press buttons to indicate approval or disapproval. The newer “Not Too Late” is more intimate, with candidates visiting each other’s homes.
All the shows share one hallmark: blunt exchanges from candidates with little patience for nonsense.
“What are you, a 20-something young man?” a woman on “Love’s Choice,” filmed in northeastern Liaoning Province, said of a man in his 70s who she thought was being too picky about appearance.
On an episode of “Not Too Late,” a 69-year-old man asked a 63-year-old woman, “Let me just ask, we’re both experienced people: How’s your sexual ability?”
“Not bad,” she giggled.
Exchanges like these have helped the shows attract younger viewers, who often see clips from episodes on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Many comment that they aspire to apply the same directness in their own dating lives.
“It’s not like they’re showing their best sides at first and hiding their flaws for later,” like younger people do, said Elle Lee, a 35-year-old in Shanghai who shared a video of her favorite moments from the shows on social media. “They’ll just directly make clear their bottom line because they’ve lived a whole life, and they know what they can tolerate.”
But many young viewers, including Ms. Lee, say they only watch viral clips of the shows, not full episodes. Producers say they worry that these viral videos might overshadow the shows’ more serious themes, like loneliness.
On one program, a 69-year-old man said he spent so much time watching television alone that his eyesight was deteriorating. On another, after a pair of 74-year-olds shared homemade noodles, the man said it had been 20 years since someone had cooked for him.
Ms. Yu, the widowed contestant, appeared on “Care and Love” in 2020. Since her husband and 24-year-old son had both died in 2012, Ms. Yu, from the northern city of Qiqihar, had longed for companionship, but did not know how to find it, she said in an interview.
She was delighted to secure a spot on the show, and when her turn came, pleasantly surprised that Mr. Li said he did not mind that she was two years older. The two walked offstage as a couple. But soon, practical considerations, amplified by old age, intruded: They lived too far apart, and his home was on the fifth floor, to which she did not want to climb, she said. (There was also a more timeless problem: He was talking to another woman.) They called it off.
Ms. Yu said she did not regret going on the show but was unsure where to continue looking for a partner. Men still want younger women, she said. “After it didn’t work out, I did feel quite lost. I’m 61 this year,” she said. “Really what you worry about when you’re older is that if you get sick, there’s no one to care for you.”
Indeed, the shows are far from cure-alls for older residents’ loneliness. About one-third of contestants leave “Not Too Late” with a match, but those who stay together comprise only about one-tenth, said Ms. Leng, the producer.
When Zhang Jinghua, a 64-year-old farmer from rural Harbin, appeared on “Care and Love” last year, he was so nervous that his legs shook, he recalled. His brother’s family had disapproved of him looking for a partner after his wife of more than 30 years died in 2017.
Mr. Zhang said on the show that he just wanted someone to make dumplings with. He did not match with anyone during his episode, but the producers later broadcast his phone number and he received more than 200 calls.
To avoid his family’s and neighbors’ gossip, he would sneak away to meet callers he was interested in. He had not yet found a long-term partner, he said earlier this year. But when he did, he would bring her home with his head held high. “Once I succeed, why wouldn’t I dare come back?” he said with a laugh. “What would I have to fear?”