Tea Leaf Nation

OK, Computer

Specialized dating sites are helping lovelorn Chinese Muslims find their match.

IYuani.com, a dating site whose name combines the Chinese words for "Islam" and "destiny," and which boasts more than 13,000 registered users, features two default cartoon avatars. Males receive a bearded young man in a white cap, smiling confidently, while females get to use a demure young woman in a pink hijab and long-sleeved robe. Those wishing to register as new users are greeted with a warning that iYuani "is a serious, pure, sincere Muslim marriage/friendship site." If a user is "not sincere," the note respectfully asks them not to bother. But the profile photos on iYuani, almost two-thirds of which are men, tell a less traditional story: The men's photos show them clean-shaven, wearing T-shirts or sweaters, while the women are mostly without headscarves, some showing off their bare shoulders. In other words, they appear heavily Sinicized. That's because the site caters to Hui Muslims, many of whom are virtually indistinguishable in speech and dress from millions of ordinary young men and women in urban China.

That doesn't mean they aren't different: Many Hui still seek to marry within their ranks, despite the fact that they are widely dispersed across China, numbering only 10 million out of a population of 1.3 billion. But the Internet is coming to the rescue, as online Hui dating sites have arisen over the past few years to help some of China's urban Muslims find their matches. "The Internet links major Hui communities in every city," said Haiyun Ma, a professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland specializing in Muslims in China and a Hui Chinese himself. As a result, "it is easier for young Hui to find spouses" than it used to be.

Easier, but not easy. Unlike China's 10 million Uighurs -- a Turkic people who mostly live in northwest China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region and comprise most of the rest of China's Muslim population -- the Hui vary greatly in their observance of Muslim traditions, and even knowledge about the Islamic faith. Some Hui complain that dietary restrictions are almost impossible to follow in get-togethers with schoolmates and colleagues; others proudly aver that they would not even walk into a non-halal restaurant; others feel no kinship to the Hui religion or accompanying customs at all. One young Hui woman in Beijing wrote on the popular social network Douban that she wished to find a Hui boyfriend, but when one suitor offered "to read her a section of the Quran every night," she bolted.

Even sites aimed at Chinese Muslims can't solve the underlying demographic obstacles. On 2muslim.com, a matchmaking-focused site which appears to be designed to attract Hui and calls itself "the biggest Chinese-speaking Muslim community" in China (although that could not be confirmed), one 24-year-old designer claimed he wanted to find a "devout" girlfriend in the southwestern city of Chengdu who would "know how to pray properly at a minimum." Another user advised him that that such a person surely does not exist in Chengdu, a city of 7 million that includes only 20,000 Hui.

Crossing ethnic boundaries is one solution to the relative paucity of Hui, but a post on aimu5.com, a dating site with more than 13,000 users, details how hard that can be. "Aimu" literally means "love Muslim," and the site, which calls itself the "best Hui marriage site," offers forums including the "wishing pond," the "feeling diary," and the "love clinic." One Aimu user, a college-educated divorcé, wrote that his first love had been a Han Chinese girl. They had dated for four years, he wrote, until his parents strongly recommended that he leave her and marry a Hui instead. "Marriage isn't a poem, and it's not a painting," the user advised; in the end, he wrote, it's best to follow parental guidance and only marry Hui.

That focus on ethnicity is not unusual on Aimu, which, unlike many other such sites, requires every user to give his or her ethnicity and displays that information on each dating profile next to the name. (Chinese ID cards feature the ethnicity of the bearer: There are 56 sanctioned ethnicities in China, with Han Chinese comprising 92 percent of the population.) One young woman living in eastern Anhui province posted on Douban that she was anxious to preserve her Hui identity, even though she admitted that she has only been to mosque once in her life, while her family has not observed the holy fasting month of Ramadan since her grandparents' generation. "What can we do to continue the essence of our culture?" she asked.

The question has no definitive answer, but patience seems to help. One self-identified Hui calling himself Lü Zhibo wrote that he had posted a "seeking marriage" ad on the China Muslim Youth Club back in 2009. The site appears to have been founded in Beijing in 2007, and boasts more than 33,000 users; posts seeking marriage or friendship regularly get dozens of comments and hundreds of views. That site, also aimed at Hui, is more serious in tone than its peers -- even the section for friend or spouse-seekers is populated with links to Islam-related news, faith, and literature. Registration is time consuming and appears rigorous, although this author, neither Chinese nor Hui, was able to wriggle through after three days.

For Lü, the long wait proved worthwhile. More than two years after his initial post, he met a young Muslim woman online; in December 2013, he posted their wedding photos. The attractive couple posed for glamour shots with strong Muslim motifs from faraway lands -- one shot has him in a white thawb (a type of robe popular in the Arabic countries) and her in a black abaya, a robe-like overgarment. Another has him in a golden turban and her in a long embroidered red gown. Along with the photos, Lü wrote, "Praise be to Allah; praise be to Allah's mercy."

iYuani.com/Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

Their Ears Are Burning

Chinese netizens love the new season of House of Cards -- even though it makes their country look terrible.

"Everyone in China who works on this level pays who they need to pay." Mild spoiler alert: These are the words of the fictitious Xander Feng, an influential Chinese billionaire on the Netflix series House of Cards, a show that follows the machinations of U.S. Rep. (and later Vice President) Frank Underwood to agglomerate power and crush whoever stands in his way. The phrase is also now viral on the Chinese Internet, which has proven surprisingly hospitable to the show's second season, which debuted on Feb. 14. Despite having its arguably Sinophobic moments -- in addition to Feng-as-villain, the show depicts a stateside Chinese businessman hiring both male and female sex workers, and a U.S. casino laundering Chinese money to fund a congressional super PAC -- the show has Chinese social media users applauding what they believe is a largely accurate depiction of Chinese palace politics.

The attraction of House of Cards' second season -- which has already received more than 9 million views in the first weekend compared to over 24 million for the first season, released March 2013 in China -- appears two-fold. First and foremost, the show engages Communist Party corruption, elite infighting, and the often-outsized influence of the moneyed class with a directness that few domestic shows dare hazard. The colorful Feng, for example, alludes to scheming with members of the Chinese government to force a more liberal financial policy, not to mention bribing high officials outright. The result is a portrait of Chinese elite skullduggery convincing enough that one user wondered aloud in jest whether the show's writers had planted an undercover agent in party ranks.

None of this means the show's writers have spared U.S. policymakers in the new season. Chinese web users continue to praise House of Cards for providing what they believe is a glimpse into wrongdoing at the highest levels of U.S. government. One user lauded the show's writers, who "really understand China-U.S. relations" and have also managed to "reveal how the U.S. government works." However overwrought that depiction may be, it's convincing enough that Chinese media has reported that Wang Qishan, chief of the party's internal discipline organization and member of the Politburo Standing Committee, has "repeatedly brought up" the first season series in talks with colleagues.

If Chinese netizens have a major concern, it's that the show is a candidate for "harmonization," neo-Orwellian Chinese slang for online speech that offends authorities enough to trigger the censors' invisible axe. On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, one user urged viewers to "hurry up and download it," while a number of others wrote they had watched the show as quickly as they could in the expectation it would soon vanish. That's because Chinese censors continue to come down hard on productions that cross an invisible red line. For example, when a Chinese series with the unfortunate English name Dwelling Narrowness aired in July 2009, it was a rare series set in contemporary China that tackled corruption head-on -- until being pulled from most television stations before its conclusion. Here, House of Cards benefits from a double standard, whereby China's government allows the online streaming of some U.S. content depicting violence or political content that would be intolerable in a domestic series.

For now, Chinese authorities appear willing to forgive the show's edgy moments, perhaps in what they view as a fair trade: occasional pot shots at China allowed, so long as the U.S. political system looks every bit as rancid. In fact, the treatment of China as the key U.S. rival may pay a backhanded compliment to Chinese citizens and apparatchiks alike. On Sohu, one user declared that although House of Cards "doesn't make China look great," much of what the show depicts is accurate. And, he continued, at least the series "takes China seriously."  

Fair use/Sina Weibo