BEIJING, China - Xu, a pretty woman in her 30s, warily walked into a Beijing singles club in a bid to shed her status as one of China's "Unwanted".
Xu had not been to the "Garden of Joy" for more than a year but, with time and societal judgement weighing heavily on her, she returned with cautious hopes.
"I hope to find a husband," she said, as she sat in front of a Mahjong table and awaited her date for the evening, who had been hand-picked for her by the club based on their profiles.
"I just want someone with whom I share things in common, but who is also in a better financial situation than me."
Xu, who did not want to be identified, is one of China's so-called "Sheng Nu".
The term, which translates to the "Unwanted", is derived from a phenomenon in Chinese society which affects hundreds of thousands of women, particularly the urban, educated and financially independent.
The term, which is unique to China and which only applies to women, appears in China's official dictionary and refers to "all single woman above the age of 27".
Twenty-six-year-old Summer was at the Garden of Joy for the first time, desperate to meet a man before she hit the dreaded cut-off age.
"Nothing in the world will allow me to become a Sheng Nu," she said, lamenting that for many men in China youthful looks count for a lot.
"Men don't want a woman over 30. It's important for them that she's still pretty."
A widely publicised survey in 2010 by the government-backed All China Women's Federation proved the new social phenomenon beyond doubt.
The survey showed that there were 180 million single men and women in China -- out of a population of 1.3 billion people -- and that 92% of men questioned believed that a woman should be married before the age of 27.
Since then, books and films on the subject have flourished and women's magazines have sought to decipher why so many are single.
"On one hand young people today work very hard and have few places to meet outside of their work, which wasn't the case earlier," Wu Di, a sociologist who has just published a book on the subject, told AFP.
"On the other hand, traditionally the Chinese say one should 'make do' when marrying. Marriage has never been synonymous with happiness.
"The new generation of women don't want to 'make do'. Many live quite well alone and don't see the point in lowering their standard or life in order to marry."
"Pressure from all sides"
Still, the pressure on women is huge.
Part of this is due to China's one-child population control policy, which adds to the desperation of parents for their only offspring to marry and produce a grandson or granddaughter.
"The real reason for coming to this club is that I don't want to disappoint my parents. I want to make them happy," admitted Xu.
The Garden of Joy's own slogan plays on this emotion in order to attract members. "Are you single? Think about the feelings of your father/mother. Don't cause them more worry," read a sign on the entrance.
And business is booming.
The club, which opened in 2003, has two premises in Beijing and more than 12,000 members.
But, after using fear to lure the women in, the Garden of Joy offers a friendly atmosphere in the basement of a high-end business centre where women can meet prospective husbands with more than 80 different activities.
These include table tennis, billiards, board games, movies and speed dating, or outdoor ventures such as organised hiking trips.
There are also small booths where couples can sit down in a more private setting to get to know each other.
Shelly, 34, a highly educated public relations consultant who had just returned from living in the United States, was among the new members.
Since her return to China, she had avoided her relatives and even some of her close friends because of their insistence in trying to arrange dates for her.
"I'm under pressure from all sides. I feel my mother is disappointed and sad when she sees the grandchildren of her friends," she said.
But with no potential partner on the horizon, Shelly is preparing to return to the United States to do a second Masters degree -- a decision partly motivated by her desire to escape her colleagues, parents and friends.
"I think I will return to China when I am 40. I want right now to be so old, so broken that they will leave me in peace," she said.
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