For the equivalent of $65, Zhou Qihao will let a girl take him home. For an extra $3 or so an hour, he'll let her take him to a movie – but it costs double if she wants to have dinner beforehand.
Mr. Zhou is 24 years old, a bit taller than average at 1.78 metres, thin and "OK" looking (according to his online profile). Most of the year he works in home renovation, but with the Chinese New Year approaching – and all its attendant pressures on young women to show their parents and grandparents they're getting closer to settling down and starting a family – he's earning a little cash on the side as one of 260 "rental boyfriends" available on the China's eBay-style direct-sales website, taobao.com.
Mr. Zhou has already been paid for two dates and has fielded about 60 other inquiries from anxious young women as China's big annual holiday shutdown approaches. Over the next few weeks, hundreds of millions of Chinese will travel home from their places of work, often to see their extended families for the only time that year.
China's annual Great Migration is expected to include some 3.4 billion individual trips by train, bus and air this year, stretching the country's rapidly expanding transport infrastructure to the point of bursting. In Xi'an, the ancient terminus of the Silk Road, the waiting rooms in the city's main train station were overflowing this week, even though it was still more than 10 days before the official holiday began, and authorities were forced to erect giant tents outside the station to accommodate the crush of travellers.
Because so many Chinese live and work away from their native towns and villages, and travel home only once a year, the treasured family time is weighted with pressure to show what you've accomplished over the last 12 months.
For many young women, showing up at home with a pleasant-looking, well-behaved boyfriend – even if your family never sees him again – is better than enduring two weeks of questions about why there's no marriage or kids on the horizon. (China can be a deeply sexist society – women who are unmarried past the age of 30 are often referred to as "leftover women," even in official media.)
"There are all kinds of reasons" that women contact a rental boyfriend, Mr. Zhou explains in an interview via instant messenger. "Some are divorced, some want help getting rid of another boyfriend, some don't want to go to a wedding by themselves."
But most, he adds, "just want someone to go with them to their hometown for three days, just to meet their parents and let them know they have a boyfriend."
Mr. Zhou's online pitch is a flexible one: "I'm healthy and have no indecent addictions (such as smoking, drinking, playing mahjong, etc.), although I can certainly take on the addictions if a client needs," he writes on his taobao.com advertisement, promising to be "client-oriented" in his services.
Hand-holding, hugs and pecks on the cheek or forehead are free, but he won't sleep in the same bed. He's cautious about kissing on the lips too, largely because he erroneously believes he could contract HIV/AIDS that way.
The women who turn to rental boyfriends don't seem too interested in the extras, though. Mr. Zhou says his first two clients mostly wanted someone to talk to. Online, those who admit to using the service say it's all about appeasing their parents. "My parents are very satisfied, so the pressure [on me] is greatly reduced," one anonymous woman wrote of her experience.
But could one of these "rental" relationships turn into the real thing? Mr. Zhou, who says he's currently between girlfriends, thinks the odds are long.
The women who can afford to hire him are simply out of his league.
"You know how it is in China," he writes via instant messenger. "For a young man who doesn't earn very much, talking about love is unrealistic."