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The rush of train passengers heading home for the Lunar New Year holiday. Picture: Reuters

When millions of unmarried people visit their families across China for next week's traditional Lunar New Year, many will take new or old partners to meet their parents.

To avoid repeated questions about their plans for marriage and children, a growing number of young people without boyfriends or girlfriends are using fake partners to pacify concerned relatives.

"According to Chinese tradition, parents of children of marriageable age who remain single lose face," the China Daily said.

Women are still expected to focus on producing the family's next generation and face the greatest pressure to show their parents the prospect of a happy family.

Many single career women are tempted to ask male friends to escort them on family visits, and some turn to the growing number of young men offering themselves for hire on the internet.

Zhao Jun, 32, persuaded a gay friend to pose as her boyfriend during last year's New Year holiday.

"Last year, I had this very strong idea [of hiring a boyfriend], but finally I didn't want to rent a stranger," said Zhao, a manager in a State-run company.

"It is a waste of money and not safe.

"So last year I cheated my parents by saying that I was dating a guy, then I asked a man I knew to come to my parents' home to pretend he was my boyfriend.

"My parents didn't know I was cheating them. They were quite happy and relieved."

For women who can't find a friend to take home, a search for "renting a boyfriend for going home" on the popular Taobao shopping website yields more than six million results.

Dozens of commercial rental services and thousands of individuals advertise their escort services online.

"I'd thought about renting a boyfriend but I didn't do it," Li Xiaoran, 32, an IT manager with a multinational firm, said.

"Because I can't trust a stranger and I'm not the kind of person who is good at acting."

One service on Taobao, using the name 51 Haoquan and claiming 17 sales this year, offered male escorts in the eastern province of Jiangsu for 2000 yuan ($308) per day or 50 yuan per hour.

It said hugs, hand-holding and goodbye kisses were free extras for clients.

Many cheaper services offer partners for around 500 yuan per day.

Reflecting concerns that such services could be used as a front for prostitution, a search of Taobao for "renting a girlfriend for going home" prompts the message: "The results cannot be displayed, according to relevant laws, regulations and policies."

Experts also warned that the escort services operate in a legal vacuum, while some commentators said deceiving one's parents by presenting a fake partner was morally wrong.

"Such services are neither banned nor supported by law, but any conflict or complaint would be hard to settle," lawyer Liu Ancai told the official Xinhua news agency.

The agency quoted social scientist Hou Xiaofeng as saying: "These young people may think it's an act of filial piety to bring home a fake fiance, but it's sheer cheating.

"It's also dangerous to take home a complete stranger. You never know what might happen."

Writer Tang Datian said on his microblog that renting partners for Spring Festival "reflects a big social problem".

"Parents force their children to get married and the children are making false claims," Tang said.

Single career women like Zhao and Li face strong social pressure and are commonly known as "leftover women".

"My mother used to say to me: 'You are too old, no one wants to marry you.' I was really sad about that," Zhao said.

"Besides, my relatives used to criticise me for not doing well enough, saying I'm a loser because I can't find someone to marry, which hurt my mother a lot and then it hurt me."

Li said she did not see her father during last year's New Year because he threatened to move out of the family home if she stayed there.

"Last Chinese New Year's Eve, before I went back home, my mother called me and asked, how about us two going travelling for the holiday," she said.

"Suddenly I understood what she meant: my father doesn't want see me any more unless I get married."

  • The Chinese Year of the Snake begins on Sunday.