For young, single city professionals, the Spring Festival holidays present many reasons to be fearful: standing in line for hours to get a train ticket, exhausting long journeys, stuffing red envelopes with cash. Arguably the No 1 reason is the prospect of turning up at home alone. Not only does it give parents the opportunity to nag - "Your classmates and cousins are married and have children. What's wrong with you?" - but it is also likely to result in a holiday spent on blind dates. To ease the pressure, Chinese singletons are simply paying people to pose as partners for their holiday homecoming.
On Dec 14, Tang Yongxue stood on a street in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, and waved a placard that read: "Fake boyfriend needed for Spring Festival - 10,000 yuan ($1,500) for five days' work." She told reporters she wanted to rent a man to accompany her home to reassure her parents. The candidate had to be aged 26 to 30, at least 1.75 meters tall and "insightful".
Although dismissed as a publicity stunt by many people, the incident highlights the huge pressure on China's growing population of single urbanites to marry.
Tang's tactic has been widely adopted online by desperate bachelors and bachelorettes. Want ads for fake holiday partners run for pages on many popular Chinese micro-blogging websites, such as Sina, while some stores on Taobao, the online marketplace, also offer boyfriends and girlfriends for hire.
"It's a fun idea to help another person temporarily release the pressure of getting married," said netizen "Howe.C", who declined to give his real name. "Plus, spending the holiday with total strangers is interesting."
The office worker, who is in his late 20s and lives in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, said he will not go home this Spring Festival as he fears the long journey may stop him from returning to work on time. He posted an advertisement on Douban, a major online community, offering to pretend to be someone's boyfriend in Wuhan or neighboring cities. He describes himself as athletic, outgoing and humorous, not handsome but well educated and polite.
Speaking for his generation, "Howe.C" said: "We shouldn't marry simply because we reach marital age. We'll find true love but it takes time. Sometimes parents push us too hard. The pressure is especially bad for women who are almost 30. The general conception goes that the older a woman gets, the fewer marriage opportunities she is left with. I empathize with them."
In his advertisement, he sets his fee at just 1 yuan. "I'm well paid for my job," added the netizen. "I get great pleasure from helping others."
Although renting a boyfriend or girlfriend sounds like cheating the people who care most, supporters often defend the practice by saying it is a white lie with mutual benefits. Not only does it bring comfort to elderly family members, they argue, but it also saves singles from a holiday of arguing with their parents. For hired lovers, they get their fee, as well as free accommodation and travel.
Some people even add that, if they are lucky enough, a fake couple could become real lovers if they hit it off.
On the flip side, cheating is hard work. "You need to make up more stories to cover for the first lie," said Beijing bachelor Ren Hong, 31, who added that if parents find out the truth "they will feel more heartbroken" than if their child had turned up alone.
"My parents constantly urge me to find a girlfriend," he said, "but I tell them I'm happy with the way I live now. I believe they'll also be happy for me. I'll never cheat on them."
Ren suggested that instead of picking a stranger to play the part (usually one pleasing to the eye), people should take the time to look for a serious relationship. Making progress is better than no movement and it will also please the parents, he said.
For Hou Zhiming, a Beijing legal researcher and relationship counselor, sometimes faking it can be justified, but is best avoided. "There is nothing wrong about children wanting to cheer up their parents," she said. "Faking may be acceptable if one has a critically ill grandparent whose last wish is to see the grandchild settling down.
"However, if that's not the case, I suggest people don't bring fake boyfriends or girlfriends home. They can take a photo and show it to parents, explain that it is too early in the relationship to talk about marriage. Something less risky like that," she suggested.
Renting A Girlfriend for Home Reunion, a 24-episode television drama, is being aired on channels across China. The leading character, Sun Yiwei, is the perfect guy in every respect but cannot stand going on blind dates arranged by his parents. So he hires Chu Xiaoxiao to play his girlfriend. In the end, the couple fall in love and get married.
The happy ending has fueled netizens' romantic imaginations. Yet, Hou warns against the belief that real life can be as perfect and dramatic as the show depicts.
"Many single people are misled by TV dramas and want an ideal match," she said. "They should be more down to earth, then they don't even need a fake partner."
Most people looking for stand-in lovers want a stranger rather than an acquaintance to do the job, as they believe it will cause less trouble and embarrassment afterward. However, with a stranger there are always potential risks, such as if the person turns out to be a thief, said Hou.
The relationship counselor pointed out that lying is essentially the immature option. "People need to be rational when communicating with parents," she said.
"Tell them you're pleased with being single, but that you also dream of a happy marriage and will strive for it if Mister or Missus Right comes along."
"Howe.C" is yet to receive a reply to his advertisement. He hopes people find a real lover to take home. "After all," he said, "money can't buy love or happiness."