If You Are The One: The crazy Chinese dating show

My wife watches 非誠勿擾, a Chinese dating game show. The title literally translates as "If not sincere, then do not bother", but that doesn't really convey what the title means. It follows in the Chinese tradition of the cryptic four-character phrase. The less cryptic version would be "If you are not sincere, then don't waste my time." The English equivalent would be something like "Serious inquiries only."

Here are the rules of the show as I understand them:

  • The bachelor contestant could be handsome, or he could be a nerd.
  • The bachelor faces a panel of 24 women, most of whom are conventionally attractive Chinese women, although the producers toss in a few wildcards like a foreign student or a someone who is a little chubby or homely.
  • The bachelor secretly reveals to the host (and the home audience) the woman he has preselected based only on her appearance, known as the "heartbeat girl".
  • Each woman starts out with her podium light lit green.
  • If a woman decides that she is not interested in dating the bachelor, she turns off her light (which actually just turns it red).
  • If all the women turn off their lights, then the game is over, and the bachelor goes home.
  • In the first video, the bachelor introduces himself.
  • The host invites the bachelor to do a brief talent demonstration, be it dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument, whatever.
  • In the second video, the bachelor's romantic history is dramatized.
  • In the third video, the bachelor's friends and relatives describe him.
  • Throughout, the host and two additional consultants banter with the bachelor and the women on the panel. This is where most of the bizarre statements come out.
  • A woman who is particularly attracted to the bachelor can activate the "burst light", thereby guaranteeing a position in the final round. (I've never seen it activated more than once. I don't know if that's a rule, or that's just how it works out.)
  • After all the videos and banter are complete, if there are more than two women with their lights still green, the bachelor eliminates all but two by turning off their lights.
  • All of the women with their lights still turned on, plus the one who activated the burst light (if any), plus the heartbeat girl advance to the final round.
  • The bachelor selects a question from a menu, and prerecorded video responses from each finalist are played.
  • The bachelor asks a question of his own choosing, and each finalist gives her answer.
  • The bachelor selects the woman he wants to date. In the special case where the bachelor selects the heartbeat girl, but she had turned off her light earlier in the round, then she has the opportunity to reject the bachelor.
  • The women who did not win a date return for the next round, or the next show if this was the final round of the day.

Anyway, my wife enjoys watching the show. Me less so, seeing as I don't understand Mandarin beyond being able to count to one hundred and maybe a dozen other vocabulary words.

And then I learned that the show has been subtitled in English by Australian broadcaster SBS Two, and the show has taken the country by storm. Unfortunately for me, I'm not in Australia, so in order to understand the show, I have to ask my wife to translate what's going on. (Which she does, if I ask.)

If you don't understand Mandarin and you aren't married to a translator, you can follow the Commemorative Fashion Shoes Tumblr¹ which is devoted to screencaps of the more bizarre things said on the show. The Tumblr if you are the gif does the same thing, but does not appear to be active any more.

Bonus chatter: One should be careful not to assume that what happens on television dating shows is how dating actually works in the country of origin. After all, you wouldn't want people to base their knowledge of dating in the United States on what happens on The Bachelor or Studs. (Yes, that's Bill Nye.)

Bonus bonus chatter: An undercover story: If you are the one. A woman describes the experience of being on the show. Covers, among other things, the careful arrangement of the 24 women on stage.

¹ Apparently, the winning couple win a cruise and fashion shoes, hence the strange name for the Tumblr.

Comments (20)
  1. John Ludlow says:

    Seems fairly similar to a British show called Take Me Out (which my girlfriend seems to enjoy, for some reason).

    [Yup. According to Wikipedia, the creators of the show took inspiration from Taken Out, the Australian show that also inspired Take Me Out. -Raymond]
  2. pete.d says:

    Hah! For a second there I thought Raymond had found an _actual_ alternative dating show on which Bill Nye had appeared. I should've known it was just a comedy sketch from

    "Almost Live!" It was fun watching it again after all these years; boy, I sure miss "Almost Live!"…"The 206" wasn't really making the grade (it had the occasional gem, but wasn't the non-stop riot that the widely talented ensemble of "Almost Live!" managed).

    While I agree we should not assume "Serious Inquiries Only" is representative of the dating scene in China, I fear that too much of the American dating scene _is_ in fact reflective of or (worse) informed by what folks see on a show like "The Bachelor". Maybe not for all people, but there doesn't seem to be much distance between the show and the actual "meat market" bar scene that has been with us for decades.

  3. jgh says:

    If you can count to a hundred you can count to 9999. gau sap gau bat gau sap gau. (Sorry, I only do Cantonese.)

  4. James Sutherland says:

    In a similar vein I rather liked the "Dating in the Dark" concept, which apparently caught on in China as well – contestants are literally in the dark, in an unlit house, while viewers get the benefit of infra-red cameras to see what's going on. Rather a neat idea I thought – though I imagine not understanding the language would leave you at an even bigger disadvantage than with regular TV shows!

  5. Steven Hoefel says:

    Check out SBS OnDemand, using methods, if required, to view it outside of Australia.


  6. Mark Reid says:

    Great show. I can't believe Australia is the only country to have subtitled it. Hilarious.

  7. Gabe says:

    What isn't readily apparent from most descriptions is that the women who don't get a match return indefinitely! I thought they just lasted until the end of the episode and each new episode starts with 24 new women.

    But really it sounds like the women are an ensemble cast in a reality TV series — almost to the point where getting matched with a bachelor is like being "eliminated" for some of them.

    [I updated the rules to include that interesting fact. (I never knew that, because I never watched more than one episode at a time.) The author of the "undercover story" I linked to was advised by the other contestants, "Don't forget to turn off the light" so you stay on the show. -Raymond]
  8. Iris says:

    The unmatched women don't return indefinitely. They are eligible for a maximum number of episodes. Sometimes the host may give unfortunate individuals, men or women, another go, base of popularity or whatnot.

  9. Andreas says:

    > The English equivalent would be something like […]


    A bit off-topic but my pet-peeve when looking at Chinese movies (and many movies from other Asian countries as well) is that the subtitle translator often fails to capture this. The result is often an English that sounds very strange. An obvious example that comes to mind is the Chinese word "hao" which literally means "good" but it can be used in a much wider context and is often used where an English speaker would say "ok" or "alright" (at least ASFAIU but my Chinese is very limited).


    – "Do you accept this offer?"/"Is this offer good for you?"

    – "Good!"

    Please note that this is not the same as going to China and make fun of weird English signs, because most translators are English/American (as far as I can tell) so I think it's just sloppy handiwork..

  10. Pseudonym says:

    It may help to understand that SBS is a public TV network with one of the most interesting business models of any public TV network in the world. It's diversified a lot now (most recently, they just started a free-to-air version of Food Network), but early on, SBS has acquired the best team of translators in the country, and hired them out to any business that needed it. Because it's also a TV network, subtitling and closed captioning was (and still is) part of the service.

  11. caf says:

    I think an English equivalent phrase that is also a little cryptic might be "No tyre-kickers".

  12. cheong00 says:

    @jgh: Actually 9999 reads "gau tsin gau bark gau sap gau". :P

  13. cheong00 says:

    @Gabe: So, most of the girls in the show are not "serious" afterall. *yawn*

  14. Drak says:

    @cheong00: I thought there was something off on that first 9999 translation (I only had cantonese for a year, and half of that was painting :). So tsin = 1000 and bark = 100. Never too old to learn :)

  15. Gabe says:

    Iris: I was basing my "indefinite" notion on the linked "undercover" story where the author states that some women are on for 6 months or a year. And she tells the story of a bachelore who was paid to pick a certain contenstant who had been on for 150 episodes (18 months at two episodes per week) just to get her off the show.

  16. David Adam says:

    I can highly recommend the episode featuring the pigeon fancier.

  17. Tanveer Badar says:

    This is the first time I have seen written proof about something I always suspected. You are married.

  18. cheong00 says:

    @Tanveer Badar: I thought we've talked about this a number of time. There was even some lengthy discussion on "大姑丈" as a hint. And this is not the first time his wife has been mentioned.

  19. Ancient_Hacker says:

    Well, funny you should mention this show.  My son's ex-girlfriend went to China for 6 months and she was stopped on the street and asked if she wanted to be one of the "foreign girlfriends" on that show.  Turns out the show is pretty hokey, they shot some scenes of the Chinese guy and her, romantic scenes with candlelit dinners and rose-petals a-fluttering.   All totally bogus, but plausible-looking.  At least she got a good dinner and union-scale pay out of it.  

  20. Jamie Anderson says:

    I managed to make it though an episode of the show last night. It was a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion – you know it's not going to end well, but you can't help but watch it happen.

    You never know how successful the guys are going to be, either. One guy was doing well, with most of the 24 women still keen to date him, up until the friend interviews. In the space of a single sentence almost every one of the girls turned their light off. The friend's comment? "He's looking for someone pale, skinny and rich."

    I'm not sure if it's something I could watch much of, due to the cringe factor involved. But I can certainly see how it's got a cult following.

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