- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
In the United States, the lonely have Reddit and cats. In China, they have Singles’ Day, which falls on Nov. 11 — 11.11, the four ones symbolizing "bare branches," Chinese slang for bachelors. Thought to have originated about 20 years ago as a joke on college campuses, Singles’ Day was once an occasion for confessing one’s feelings to that special someone. But since 2010, online retailers have transformed the holiday, also known as "Double 11," into an epic online shopping extravaganza akin to America’s Cyber Monday.
China has 271 million online consumers, meaning that almost half of China’s 591 million Internet users buy products online. E-commerce sites Taobao and Tmall, which saw a combined $1 trillion in sales in 2012, will both be running promotional campaigns during China’s Singles’ Day. Among the offers: 50 percent discounts on products like boyfriend body pillows and hoodies that read "I am single because I am fat." Amazon.cn declared that the site would sell "20,000 products discounted by as much as 90 percent." That includes a wedding ring, which singles can presumeably buy, just in case. Jack Ma, founder of Internet giant Alibaba, told Chinese Premier Li Keqiang late last month that Alibaba’s sales on Singles’ Day 2012 were "nearly $3.3 billion" — more than double the roughly $1.5 billion purchased on Cyber Monday in 2012. For Singles’ Day 2013, Ma expects sales to exceed $4.9 billion.
The rise of singletons as a consumer group is not without its own costs. Chinese business magazine Caijing reported that big delivery companies were forced to scramble to find over 100 extra airplanes to handle the 323 million parcels they needed to deliver over the Singles’ Day shopping period. Another widely circulated paper, the People’s Daily, put a personal face on the story, reporting that a 20-something deliveryman named Shi Lei had died from delivering up to 160 packages a day, leaving him no time to eat. The holiday strains the logistics system: Products frequently sell out or arrive late. Even when everything moves smoothly, consumers complain about commercial gimmicks. According to the Beijing Evening News, a popular local paper, some online retailers quietly raise prices before slashing them.
But Chinese have not forgotten about the true meaning of this holiday: hating singlehood. Singles’ Day is an occasion on which Chinese confess their feelings and try to find significant others. On Nov. 7, with four days to go before the holiday, the top trending topic on Weibo, China’s Twitter, was "Help Your Roommate Find Someone." Over 200,000 people participated in the discussion, posting pictures of their roommates (and sometimes themselves) in hopes of avoiding another lonely Singles’ Day.
Chinese are no strangers to loneliness: There are tens of millions of men in China who may never find love due to the country’s massive gender imbalance, a result of the One Child Policy and a longstanding preference for male children. Chinese women don’t have it easy either: Those who remain unmarried at the ripe old age of 27 risk being labeled "leftover women," a pejorative term that government organizations have promoted to encourage educated women to settle down.
Although poverty and singledom are often linked outcomes in China, at least one web user was sure of which was worse. "Spending Singles’ Day alone isn’t that scary," he wrote. "What’s scary is when you’re so poor you can’t even enjoy Taobao’s ‘Double 11.’" Retail therapy indeed.