Inside a colorfully lit TV studio, a middle-aged woman dressed in a tight-fitting silk dress is trying to convince an older man to loosen up.
“Can we hold hands and hug right now?” she asks, stepping toward him. The man, a 60-something wearing a traditional Tang jacket, looks visibly shocked by how forward she’s being. “Holding hands is fine,” he replies awkwardly.
But the woman is having none of it. “Why are you so conservative?” she exclaims, grabbing him by the lapels and planting a kiss on his cheek.
The scene played out on a recent episode of “Blind Date and Fall in Love” — a hit show that airs on the Chinese network Heilongjiang TV. The format is similar to the dating series “Taken Out,” with a row of female contestants passing judgment on a single man. The twist: almost all the participants are over 50.
Matchmaking game shows starring straight-talking seniors are becoming a hot new trend on Chinese TV, sparking a mix of shock and delight in a country where discussing sex after menopause is traditionally taboo. There are around 10 dating shows for elderly and middle-aged contestants currently airing in China, and some of them are attracting big audiences.
The idea of dating in old age is still novel to many in China. In a 2018 survey, as many as 85% of young Chinese said their parents never have sex — despite studies showing that most of them are mistaken. Yet things are starting to change as Chinese society rapidly ages.
There are now more than 260 million people aged over 60 in China, and around one-quarter of them are single, divorced, or widowed. A growing number of retirees are hiring matchmakers and signing up for online dating platforms.
Now, programs such as “Blind Date and Fall in Love” are normalizing intimacy among seniors like never before. The contestants on the shows don’t just discuss their love lives; they often do so with disarming frankness.
In one episode of the series “The Choice of Love,” a man in his 70s confidently tells the hosts he’s looking for a girlfriend who’s young, beautiful, and not too focused on money. The female contestants, however, ruthlessly cut him down to size.
“A good-looking woman will want you?” one scoffs. “You’re shorter than 1.7 meters,” another adds. “What can you do with 3,000 yuan ($470)?” a third asks, referring to the man’s monthly pension.
This kind of directness is typical. Many contestants openly state that they’re only interested in someone well-off or physically attractive. Some of the men stress they’re in good health, implying they’re capable of having an active sex life. A few even drop down and do a few push-ups to prove it.
Clips of these exchanges frequently go viral on Chinese social media, provoking much laughter, but also admiration. Many younger users say they appreciate how openly the elderly contestants discuss thorny issues like money and sex.
“Dating later in life is much more straightforward than it is for young adults,” commented one user on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging platform.
Kristy Du, a 22-year-old who lives in the northern city of Shenyang, says she likes watching elderly dating shows because they “feel more authentic” than most Chinese reality TV programs.
“It feels like many senior contestants are really longing for a partner,” says Du. “On some dating shows, the young singles are there more to get exposure for themselves.”
But the shows are also forcing young Chinese to confront the ageism that still pervades society. Some younger viewers say they initially felt uncomfortable watching older couples kiss on screen.
“People might feel weird seeing an elderly couple making out because we don’t often see couples in their 50s or 60s showing affection for each other,” says Li Shiyuan, a student based in the northern city of Tianjin. “Even in TV dramas or movies, you don’t normally have scenes with silver-haired people kissing, let alone having sex.”
Dating shows, however, have become a rare platform where seniors’ sexual desire is publicly accepted. In a recent episode of the series “Love Never Comes Late,” a 70-something surnamed Chen told a matchmaker sex was a priority for him. “I worry that a potential partner might not want it,” he said.
The 2018 Chinese reality show “Talk to Her” also explored love and lust among China’s elderly community. One interview featured a 64-year-old man surnamed Hu, who described how he’d met a new partner at a public park in Beijing. A corner of the park has become a gathering place for single retirees in recent years.
“We’re madly in love, and I can’t help kissing her on the street at night,” he said.
For Zhang Lingzi, a relationship counselor from the eastern city of Hangzhou, the hope is that the TV shows can help more people understand that “romantic love and sexual intimacy are not the preserve of young people.”
“The elderly desire companionship, romance, and intimacy just like everyone else,” says Zhang. “Society needs to pay attention to what is in seniors’ hearts.”
Du, the Shenyang native, says that the dating shows have made her reflect on her own relatives’ lives. Most contestants on elderly dating shows live by themselves, and it’s common for them to speak openly about the loneliness they feel.
Many of these contestants remind her of her grandmother, who has been living alone since Du’s grandfather died two years ago. Du says she now realizes she hadn’t fully appreciated how her grandmother must be feeling.
“My grandma is afraid that she might one day die quietly without being noticed, as she once fell at home while no one else was around,” says Du. “I think the loneliness of living by herself is what she’s afraid of.”
Chinese seniors, meanwhile, are increasingly taking the initiative to speak up about their feelings. A few years ago, staff on the dating show “Finding Happiness” had to “beg” elderly people to appear on screen as contestants, a producer on the show told domestic media. Now, they’re regularly receiving calls from seniors asking if they can be selected.
At an IKEA store in central Shanghai, a group of single seniors gathers each week to chat and arrange dates. Several attendees tell Sixth Tone they’ve seen clips from elderly dating shows.
“I can totally understand why they’re being bold and direct,” says Liang Changping, a 68-year-old who’s a regular at the meetups. “We’re old, experienced, we know exactly what we want and need. We don’t have time to waste beating around the bush.”
Another IKEA regular, a 65-year-old surnamed Xu, tells Sixth Tone she admires the courage of people who sign up for the shows. In her view, they make a real difference by discussing their love lives in public. But they also run the risk of becoming figures of fun online: It’s common for internet users to cut together clips from elderly dating shows, taking words out of context and sensationalizing them to drive traffic.
“The contestants are actually very brave,” says Xu, who gave only her surname for privacy reasons. “They have shown the public our needs, and I don’t want them to be mocked.”
Xu, who got divorced several years ago, says she wouldn’t dare appear on a dating show herself. Her son, who is a manager at a state-owned enterprise, would be firmly against the idea, she adds.
“It would be a huge source of mental pressure for me and my son if what I said or did were misunderstood or parodied,” she says.
But Xu has decided she wants to find a new partner. It’s still too early to say whether she’ll remarry, she says. But she hopes she can at least find an “intimate friend” — someone with whom she can share meals and a hotel room when traveling.
“I don’t need his money or his apartment,” Xu says. “But if we’re lucky enough, we can take care of each other when we’re sick.”
Co-written by Alley Zhu.
This article was published on Sixth Tone.