Title

Pickup Artists with Chinese Characteristics

The Fei doctrine goes something like this: Chinese girls love Korean TV shows, saccharine melodramas like Boys Over Flowers or Hi! School: Love On, where men are romantics or rakes, and women are always drama queens. On screen, resistance is not just normal, but expected; bedtime can be tearful. When a reluctant girlfriend is pushed against a wall and forcefully kissed (a common TV trope), her lover is making a classic romantic move—the tutor Fei Ge calls it “the attacking position.”

“If you don’t teach her a lesson, someone else will,” Fei explained during his two-hour “Sexual Assertiveness” session, concluding a week-long tutorial offered by Puamap, a team of “professional” seduction artists, marketers, and makeover men. One of those lessons: “Start by kissing her on the neck. That’s why girls always shower before they go out, by the way.” His short spiky hair a flashy cobalt-gray, Fei is a slender man who specializes in “Tui Dao,” a mating style that translates as “push down” or, generously, “get laid.”

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

Fei Ge teaches a class about how to steadily escalate physical contact with women, a PUA method called “Kino,” October 4, 2016.

At Puamap, clients learn to “map” their way to success under the tutelage of local experts who have adapted Western techniques for the mainland market. In both the United States and China, such classes cater almost exclusively to men interested in women, and not vice versa. From forums where overseas students swapped tips about sex, the online pickup artist (PUA) business has grown into a movement whose followers, men seeking love but lacking the skill to achieve it, represent a base so wide it transcends class. In parts of rural China, single farmers must raise 100,000 yuan (about U.S.$15,000) to afford a bride. In cities like Wuhan and Beijing, busy millionaires spend that much simply to view potential wives in swimwear. Elite men pay matchmakers small fortunes to find women of the “perfect” age (26), skin and teeth (flawless), and sexual history (none). And in Chengdu in southwest China, I spent a week in October 2016 with a group of bachelors who’d spent U.S.$1,055 just learning how to meet them.

Only a few, like one 26-year-old showboater who viewed the course as “a finishing school,” were typically American-style ladies’ men. The rest were more familiar Chinese bachelors: late starters to the dating game, looking for an early exit. “I’m not after one-night stands,” 28-year-old Michael, who preferred his English name, mentioned several times. A traumatic breakup had prompted the oldest in the group, Gan Shanbiao, 32, to consider PUA as a form of relationship counseling. “I want to make my parents happy,” Gan remarked, a near-universal sentiment among his peers. Many had traveled hundreds of miles to learn how.

* * *

Puamap is based in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, a city as renowned for liberal attitudes (some deem it a “gay paradise”) as its giant pandas, spicy food, and supposedly “fiery” women. “The mountain air makes them slim,” locals happily declared. “The peppers really shape their personality.” This thesis was widespread: According to one beauty index, published by NetEase, a Yahoo-style portal, Chengdu women rank third nationally because of their “faint, lazy scent [and] beauty like a soft kitten.”

That leisurely air once inspired Tang dynasty poet Du Fu to compose his most romantic ruminations from his Thatched Cottage, a reconstruction of which now sits downtown, stuck between the six-story My Like Cosmetic Hospital and a giant billboard of two buffed men in bowties flanked by a dozen women in black bikinis—an ad for one of Chengdu’s many nightclubs, but also an absurdly lopsided view of the sex ratio these men are actually up against.

“Marriage is a competition. And the competition in China is very strong.”

“Marriage is a competition,” Puamap’s public relations director Nick Yang emphasized, over a dish of pig’s feet soup. “And the competition in China is very strong.” A few months earlier, at a conference for China’s 14-25-year-old Communist Youth League (CYL), senior CYL official He Junke had declared marriage “the biggest problem among young people.”

Three decades of the one-child policy, coupled with traditional preferences for male heirs, have skewed birth rates to the point that there are now 120 boys born for every 100 girls. Demographers project that by 2030, one in four men will face perpetual bachelorhood. This ratio has not, however, helped level the playing field for Chinese women, who must already contend with pervasive inequality and weak legal protections (against harassment, assault, and domestic violence) even before they hit adulthood, when they can expect fierce censure from parents, society, and, increasingly, the state itself if they decide to remain single.

Yet men increasingly face pressure too. From “bride prices” (large lump sums that would-be husbands are expected to pay their fiancée’s family) to the obligatory wedding gifts of cash-filled red envelopes (hongbao), each marriage requires the groom to negotiate a complex series of financial transactions and responsibilities; a bachelor is rarely eligible unless he comes with property and prospects (plus, ideally, a car). Then there are the nuptials themselves: the Chinese wedding industry has become a behemoth, valued at over U.S.$80 billion annually.

Nick suggested that PUA companies’ typical clients are a beleaguered species. He has a point. Many schools forbid dating: “It’s bad for study, and exam scores are almost as important for the teachers as students.” Universities frequently intervene in students’ lives, using segregation, mass surveillance, strict curfews, and the collective scrutiny of the dormitory to impose a cordon sanitaire, occasionally enforced by student patrols and “self-discipline” teams, along with public morality campaigns, such as the college in Shandong province that publicly shamed anyone seen holding hands or kissing. By the time men graduate to the next stage of the competition, the job market, they “have no experience hanging out with girls. No dating. No sex,” Nick told me. “Not all of them, of course,” he added. Nick may be 29, married, and driving a Ford Focus with a baby seat, but he’s still able to come up with keepers such as “Age, like wine, makes men more natural.”

Much of the PUA approach is about cultivating a masculine mystique. “Girls don’t really ‘meet’ guys anymore,” Brian, the “style” tutor, explained on the first day of class. Previously, he said, men could go to an upscale bar, display an expensive bottle of foreign wine on their table, and expect to go home with, at the least, a few numbers. Now “the wine trick doesn’t work. Those girls have already met someone, on an app.”

Brian was holding forth at the U.S.$50-a-cut hair salon where basic Puamap induction begins. Hook-ups may have migrated onto dating apps, like the unabashed Tinder clone Tantan, but men still have to be knocked into shape before going online: No more clumping boots or graying T-shirts. “If you’re shy or maybe ugly, you should try dressing up and let your clothes do the introduction,” Brian advised, adding, “Good-looking guys don’t need to. They should keep things low key.” (Brian favors a discreet all-black look, with just a dash of pizzazz—his black T-shirt sported a Jolly Roger composed of silver sequins.)

His brace of thickset listeners, neither especially good-looking nor well dressed, absorbed this stoically while awaiting someone to work their uneven buzz-cuts into something more fetching. Relaxed, charming, Brian would occasionally tap a student’s knee or rub their shoulders to emphasize a point, a technique similar to the classic PUA method of kinesthesia or “Kino,” in which aspiring seducers steadily escalate intimacy to press their case.

Accompanied by Brian and two others, the black-clad Tony and a female accomplice known as “The Queen,” who steadfastly declined to give her name, some half-dozen students headed to the shopping district to choose clothes while the rest waited their turn at the salon. In a mall of perhaps a hundred shops, the group shuffled between just four, agonizing over different colored T-shirts while the mentors hovered, frowning at choices and checking their phones. “Younger! More fashionable!” they urged, pointing at racks in Trendiano, a Chinese brand whose success is entirely predicated on posing as an Italian one.

That evening, I joined Wu Di, a junior official taking a break from class on a pair of commodious wooden seats probably better suited to a Bavarian beerhouse. Several of these thrones had been left in the basement of a mostly abandoned outlet mall for no apparent reason. Wu, though, explained he’d signed up because of a comment overheard while he was studying at Northwest University of Politics and Law in Xi’an. “Where’s that uncle?” a middle-aged female professor had apparently asked, referring to 25-year-old Wu. Crushed by the offhand insult, Wu began looking into how to improve his lot.

Typing “how to make a million in a year” into search engine Baidu got a reply from a PUA artist claiming to earn just that. “Eight out of ten people are coming to learn about one-night stands. I’m here to meet a wife,” Wu told me. “I work for the government, so have to maintain a certain appearance. But this kind of thing—” Wu waved toward another nearby Chinese boutique with European prices “—Isn’t really…” It was nearly eight, though, long past dinnertime, and appetites soon overcame resolve; after dropping roughly U.S.$200 on a white T-shirt and pair of jeans, Wu and the rest headed out for noodles.

Back at the three-bedroom apartment where the 18 students, aged 19 to 32, were bunking for the week, I spoke to Michael, an engineer in his late 20s on the lookout for a wife. The accommodation reminded him of college. “I had this image of being here,” he remarked. “It wasn’t this.”

“This” was the lifestyle evoked by 2005’s The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, journalist Neil Strauss’ bestselling account of learning the secrets of “game”; places like Project Hollywood, the Los Angeles mansion Strauss shared with numerous lounge lady-killers; and men like “Mystery,” who later briefly hosted The Pickup Artist, a cable reality show in which nebbish contestants vied for beta status. The Game, along with Mystery and Strauss, aka “Style,” launched an industry that advertised itself as a self-help community where other men too could “get game.” For Strauss, this mostly boiled down to being confident, interesting, and communicative, but his tent attracted a host of white men’s rights activists who quickly usurped the party.

I’m Here to Meet a Wife

By Wu Hao
  • Wang Huanyu founded Puamap, a program that purports to teach its students how to seduce women. He introduces a program on the first day of training, in the three-bedroom apartment where the 12 students and three mentors study and live together, in Chengdu, May 16, 2015.
    Wang Huanyu founded Puamap, a program that purports to teach its students how to seduce women. He introduces a program on the first day of training, in the three-bedroom apartment where the 12 students and three mentors study and live together, in Chengdu, May 16, 2015.
  • A Puamap mentor, Brian, teaches students how to chat with women, October 3, 2016. A week-long Puamap program costs 7,000 renminbi (U.S.$1,055).
    A Puamap mentor, Brian, teaches students how to chat with women, October 3, 2016. A week-long Puamap program costs 7,000 renminbi (U.S.$1,055).
  • A student takes notes during Brian’s class, May 16, 2015.
    A student takes notes during Brian’s class, May 16, 2015.
  • Software engineer and Puamap student Jiang Shuai gets his hair styled at a salon, May 15, 2015.
    Software engineer and Puamap student Jiang Shuai gets his hair styled at a salon, May 15, 2015.
  • After updating his hairstyle, Jiang (center) poses for new profile photos for his social media accounts, May 15, 2015. Improving one’s online presence is an important part of Puamap’s course.
    After updating his hairstyle, Jiang (center) poses for new profile photos for his social media accounts, May 15, 2015. Improving one’s online presence is an important part of Puamap’s course.
  • Brian shows a student how to take a better selfie at an art-themed park, May 16, 2015. According to the mentors, online profile photos should reflect a ‘high-quality’ lifestyle.
    Brian shows a student how to take a better selfie at an art-themed park, May 16, 2015. According to the mentors, online profile photos should reflect a ‘high-quality’ lifestyle.
  • Students head back to their apartment after shopping with mentors on a bustling Chengdu commercial street, October 1, 2016.
    Students head back to their apartment after shopping with mentors on a bustling Chengdu commercial street, October 1, 2016.
  • Puamap founder Wang instructs the students how to seduce women on dating apps, May 15, 2015.
    Puamap founder Wang instructs the students how to seduce women on dating apps, May 15, 2015.
  • Students check a woman’s profile on the popular dating app Tantan, May 15, 2015.
    Students check a woman’s profile on the popular dating app Tantan, May 15, 2015.
  • An employee at a technology company in Chongqing rests in the dormitory after the day’s courses, May 18, 2015. He said he couldn’t find a girlfriend because he was too shy towards women. He participated in Puamap because his family wanted him to get married.
    An employee at a technology company in Chongqing rests in the dormitory after the day’s courses, May 18, 2015. He said he couldn’t find a girlfriend because he was too shy towards women. He participated in Puamap because his family wanted him to get married.
  • The mentor Le Jie introduces himself to a woman and asks for her phone number, May 17, 2015. He says he does this daily, to ‘maintain’ his skills.
    The mentor Le Jie introduces himself to a woman and asks for her phone number, May 17, 2015. He says he does this daily, to ‘maintain’ his skills.
  • Mentor Lao Tong (left) and a student search for ‘targets’ to approach at a shopping mall, May 17, 2015.
    Mentor Lao Tong (left) and a student search for ‘targets’ to approach at a shopping mall, May 17, 2015.
  • A student kisses a woman he met on the dating app Tantan, at a karaoke parlor, May 18, 2015. The students’ final exam involves inviting at least two women they meet in the real world or on Tantan to a party at a karaoke parlor.
    A student kisses a woman he met on the dating app Tantan, at a karaoke parlor, May 18, 2015. The students’ final exam involves inviting at least two women they meet in the real world or on Tantan to a party at a karaoke parlor.
  • A woman invited by a student pours beer into a glass at the party, May 18, 2015.
    A woman invited by a student pours beer into a glass at the party, May 18, 2015.
  • Mentors and students play drinking games with women they invited, May 18, 2015.
    Mentors and students play drinking games with women they invited, May 18, 2015.
  • Two mentors chat with women they invited in the elevator as they leave the karaoke bar, just past midnight of May 18, 2015.
    Two mentors chat with women they invited in the elevator as they leave the karaoke bar, just past midnight of May 18, 2015.
  • A PUA mentor’s wallet, May 17, 2015.
    A PUA mentor’s wallet, May 17, 2015.
  • A student with two women he met earlier in a nightclub and invited to his hotel room, May 19, 2015. Later, he tried to sleep with one of the women, but she refused.
    A student with two women he met earlier in a nightclub and invited to his hotel room, May 19, 2015. Later, he tried to sleep with one of the women, but she refused.
  • A woman glances at Puamap’s students on an escalator in a shopping mall, May 15, 2015.
    A woman glances at Puamap’s students on an escalator in a shopping mall, May 15, 2015.

 

Eventually, the PUA industry was held hostage, then taken over by its insurgent membership. A 2010 incident in which one of Strauss’ Hollywood sidekicks, “Gunwitch,” shot a woman in the face at a party, marked the start of PUA’s long slide into public disgrace, culminating in its leaders being refused visas, and practitioners credited with enabling rape culture and even aiding Donald Trump’s election victory among the 4Chan and Reddit-dwelling members of his base. (Strauss has since mostly repudiated the lifestyle, and labeled Trump a “fearmonger.”)

But even as Western PUA was sinking into a miasma of misogyny, the theory was fast gathering notice in China. While Gunwitch was facing trial for assault with a deadly weapon, Wu Jiamin had finished a New York apprenticeship under “Juggler,” yet another Game alumni, and was back in his native Beijing, where he rebranded himself “Tango” and began offering workshops on a forum called Paoxue (Sample post: “You Definitely Don’t Want This Type of Schoolgirl as a Girlfriend: If You Encounter Her, Keep Your Distance.”)

Around the same time in Chengdu, another amateur “artist,” Wang Huanyu, was struggling to transition from telecom sales to pig farming, studying seduction in his spare time. “I found the pickup skills of these so-called ‘PUA masters’ were actually not as good as mine,” Wang recalled. As his side interest grew, Wang abandoned the hog-hauling business and founded Emo-Pro, a precursor to Puamap, in 2012; Wu established his own Bad Boy Academy in Beijing the same year, offering workshops in simple pickup techniques. At first, the two tried working together, promoting PUA on opposite sides of the country and sharing the profits, but the relationship soured when one of Wang’s partners established his own company and allegedly tried to siphon off clients and resources. This is one of the most common industry complaints; practically anyone can climb on a barstool and declare themself a seduction expert.

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

Wu Jiamin, also known as ‘Tango,’ hosts a lecture about dating and marriage in Beijing, May 10, 2015. 

In 2015, Wang cut all ties with Wu and Bad Boy, describing them to me as “dishonest, barbaric, and malicious,” and set up a new company, Puamap. The timing was auspicious: the Chinese version of surveillance show Big Brother had just debuted—under the albeit-chirpier title Housemates, Let’s Stay Together—and one of the contestants was a “PUA Lovemaster” called Morpheus. Within a year, Wang’s office was employing nearly 100, including a squad of 10 mentors and dozens of marketing and sales staff to update the website, cram social media feeds with videos and advertising, scan bulletin boards, man a hotline, maintain the app, live-stream advice, and create a “community” for single men. The company now has offices in 13 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. The pickup artist was on his way to becoming mainstream in China, but he was still a long way from the glamour of Hollywood, or even the tawdry flamboyance of Mystery.

The Puamap apartment, exclusively leased to clients, was no L.A. bachelor pad. A student dive, with roaches scuttling between empty Coke cans, abandoned meals, and phone chargers emerging from piles of laundry, the only alcohol was a dusty bottle of Bombay Sapphire, the only visitors fast-food deliverymen.

PUA culture isn’t overly concerned with reality—it’s about getting women back to the man’s apartment.

PUA culture isn’t overly concerned with reality—it’s about getting women back to the man’s apartment. For Western PUAs, this starts with “peacocking,” dandifying one’s appearance with conversation pieces like painted fingernails, or Mystery’s collection of outsized “exotic” hats, to draw attention and start the game. But Chinese tutors eschew individualism and expect students to dress and act alike. By the end of an average course, one could look from tutor to student and barely tell the difference until they opened their mouths. I recalled Brian’s opening lecture, about how girls don’t meet guys anymore—they browse them in apps, like a catalogue. The PUA catalogue is always artificial, always Trendiano.

The most commonly thumbed app is WeChat, used by practically every Chinese with a smartphone. If a Facebook feed were shorn of controversial content, political organizing, or social activism, leaving only the conformism and self-absorption, it would be WeChat “Moments.” This is where the online alternate universe begins, as Brian instructs the class to bolster their profiles with pictures of expensive cars, tropical holidays, and swanky hotels. To reach the goal of “meeting” a minimum of 10 girls a day, Brian suggested, forget about pictures of cafes and shopping malls (“anyone can go to those places now”); ensure that outdoor shots have clear-blue skies (“so save your money and go abroad”); and aim for “fewer, better . . . don’t be one of those boring guys who post five times a day.”

First, though, they’re told to change the app’s setting to English, so the geo-tagging appears “exotic and distinctive.” Despite their Han identity and fierce nationalism, many Chinese favor the foreign over the domestic; among elites, securing one’s wealth overseas is as essential as celebrating (or occasionally denouncing) localism. Even President Xi Jinping, who vigorously disdains “Western capitalist values” at home, sent his only daughter to Harvard, and now glorifies globalism at overseas pulpits like Davos. But politics are anathema on Tantan or WeChat, along with (we’re explicitly told) discussing one’s work or hometown. The web-meet may seem like a leveler for both sexes, yet it’s still freighted with caste.

Brian used a whiteboard to illustrate the taxonomy of Chinese women, a choice of five types from A, B, C, D to—a surprise outlier—S. (A common complaint about Chinese marriages is that A men only marry B women, B males only Cs, and Cs Ds, leaving female As stuck with a choice of dud Ds.)

Don’t worry about Ds, who are only good for sending late-night texts of the “Sup?” variety. Cs are borderline Ds with surprise characteristics that might merit an upgrade to B: Someone who’s good for an STR (Short Term Relationship) or ONS (One Night Stand). “Always meet a B at night,” Brian advised. The ultimate benison is a daytime date, reserved only for As (potential Long Term Relationship, LTR). Show her you care . . . with coffee.

As for the illustrious “S,” she means special, superior. The S is one who travels the world on an infinite shopping spree; she’s a white whale, unknowable, unattainable. There’s a whole other Puamap class devoted to the S type, tailored for male whales—richer, older men who swim in far classier waters than a three-bedroom dormitory apartment.

But it was oddly empowering to the students, like being taught a secret code, even though no one truly believed or understood it.

No one was worrying about scoring an S, of course; they were too busy amassing Ds, flunking Bs, chasing Cs, talking about As. None of this was particularly relevant to anyone seeking a life partner, as most were. But it was oddly empowering to the students, like being taught a secret code, even though no one truly believed or understood it: The game was to rack up as many potential hits as possible (at least 10 a day) while avoiding the bots and hustlers. More than a nuisance, the latter are a serious hazard: public trust, eroded by decades of violent purges, corruption, and weak law, has fallen to record depths; online data is insecure, with private information sold openly on sites like the vast online marketplace Alibaba, and dating apps like Tantan are riddled with security flaws that allow hackers to roam with virtual impunity.

This has enabled dating scams to thrive, with eager young bachelors making the perfect mark. A couple of students had admitted to falling for cons before, specifically the immortal “teahouse scam,” in which one or two women invite someone for a traditional meal, only to slip away just before an enormous bill arrives. (Journalist Hugo Dixon, the founder of Reuters Breakingviews, is one of the scam’s many distinguished alumni.) In the past, these grifters would prowl tourist spots for fresh-faced men, but apps have made the process of finding multiple victims as easy as swiping right, making the rookie pickup artist both predator and possible prey.

Trickier to navigate is hongbao culture, in which cash is considered a gift, favor, bribe, or tribute. “You’ll start talking with some girl online,” Brian explained, “get friendly, then at some point she’ll ask, ‘Hey big brother, can you send me a little hongbao?’” Some bristle at the expectation. “The key is balance and attitude,” Brian advised. “She wants a little money? Don’t just give it to her! Ask why. Be confident.” Maybe there’s a deal to be made: “If she wants something from you, you should expect something in return.”

As Brian and Tony roamed the room like proctors, checking the new WeChat profiles—here a picture to delete, there a blunder to correct—a vague image of the ideal “Chinese man” began to emerge: someone who’s fiercely ambitious, but expects a traditional wife; popular, though rarely has time to socialize with friends; a breadwinner, who lives in constant fear of disappointment. One student privately admitted to hating his father but could never disobey him; another said he was taking the course because he needed to marry someone before his grandfather died. “You’re posting too many pictures of meals,” Tony said, frowning at one profile. “Look, it’s all food, food, food. What are you, a cook or something? Mix it up.” He urged everyone to zhuang bi, a term meaning to pose, put on airs—to bullshit.

The next two days were achingly zhuang bi. A photographer arranged to shoot the group in a penthouse suite (a venue insultingly unlike their actual digs), arranging the students in various awkward positions: swooning on a queen-sized bed, eyes coyly closed; coiled in a window seat, gazing intently at the nightscape. The next evening, a “fancy” buffet was arranged at a Chinese restaurant. There was another hour of posing. Then the waitresses carefully removed the food.

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

Howard, an employee at a Shanghai technology firm, poses for new profile photos in newly bought clothing, October 2, 2016.

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

Michael, an engineer from Zhuhai, Guangdong province, poses for new profile photos in newly bought clothing, October 2, 2016.

 

During a hurried takeout dinner back at the apartment, Howard, an IT engineer from Shanghai so shy he was barely audible, raised an obvious flaw in the whole strategy. “What happens,” he croaked, raising his hand, “when you bring a girl back?” None of the students lived in fancy hotels; some didn’t even have their own apartments; a lot lived in dormitories, or with their parents. “It depends on the girl,” was Tony’s blithe response. “You, too. I mean, if you’re good looking, like a movie star, it’s never a problem!” His answer didn’t offer much hope for Howard. “But I’m really quite average,” he told me. “That’s why I’m here.”

Confidence, it was generally agreed, was the biggest problem: few had any, especially around women. Not knowing what to say, the students ended up saying nothing. “Try to introduce yourself a little, but not too much,” Tony warned. Chinese tend to pepper prospective partners with pragmatic queries: “Where are you from?” “Do you have a degree?” “What’s your job? How much do you make?” rather than intimate ones: “What are your hobbies?” “What makes you happy?”

To deflect these barrages, Tony suggested telling stories that demonstrated one’s tender nature. He offered an example: A friend’s partner once had to move to a different city for work; the relationship didn’t work out, but Tony’s friend still kept their train ticket stubs as keepsakes (impressive, as the machines usually retain them). Women like anecdotes like these about friends, Tony said: They “suggest you share the same traits.” And when a girlfriend asks about previous relationships (“she will”), be sure to relate all the details, down to the exact date of your last breakup. It sounded strangely obsessive, but Tony assured that, when it comes to prior dating, women find complete and total recall “thoughtful and considerate.” Puamap’s founder, Wang, assured that the company’s primary value is about “respect—respect women, respect yourself,” adding “equal communication between men and women will better develop their relationship with each other.”

After three days of theory, it was time to take things into the field. “Sarging” is the term for hitting a venue en masse, trying to pick up as many partners as possible. The mentors had selected Taikoo Li, an open-air cluster of flagship Muji, Hermes, and Armani stores quartered respectfully around a third-century Chinese Buddhist sanctuary. Nowadays, the venerated temple is a reconstructed fanggu (“imitation old”) replica, and most customers are young women live-streaming lattes, dazed couples, their middle-aged parents napping in cold-brew cafes, and PUA crews.

Before the others arrived at around 10:00 p.m., I’d activated WeChat’s “Look Around” feature, which allows users to check out others close by, and quickly received a stream of queries, all wondering if “big brother” wanted to hire female company for the night. With its façade of tradition and hint of impropriety, Taikoo Li seemed the perfect pickup place for guys whose WeChat profiles suggested they all lived at the Ritz-Carlton. And unlike its cluttered sidewalks and crowded parks, China’s malls are comparatively relaxing places to meet. Anyone with the confidence to “sarge” and clinch someone’s details, aka daqian (“pull the trigger”), can do surprisingly well in a well-manicured mall.

Official Wu was one; after carefully assessing two girls, he jogged over, intercepted, and went to work. As his classmates anxiously watched, Wu returned a few minutes later with a smile and a pair of numbers. His victory belonged to the group; it was greeted with a ragged cheer and claps on the back, but the failures that night—and there were many, so many—were endured alone. The pickup artist dies a hundred lonely deaths, but none is so painful as the public one. By the time the group called it quits after midnight, most had pulled the trigger, only to shoot themselves.

* * *

Long hours, high pressure, lots of homework, no girls: PUA school felt a lot like regular school. Only one woman tended to hang around the apartment, and she was being paid. The Queen had learned the game the hard way: by being picked up, then dropped by a pair of conniving artistes on Tantan. After confronting one, she learned the truth. Some people might get upset; the Queen applied for a job. The recruitment process for female PUAs is fairly straightforward: you have to be a woman. Compared to her previous career, sales assistant in a fourth-tier mining city, though, the Queen was frank: “It’s a life full of games.”

There’s glamour, or at least some passing version of it, as well as opportunity in PUA, though the latter is slight, and there are dark currents that can pull under the unwary.

Whether it’s the job or just her, the Queen doesn’t have much faith in relationships. “Human beings are a very lonely species,” she admitted. She has little sympathy for her hapless students: They’re too “selfish,” “casual,” lacking in morals or respect for others; “some are almost autistic”; either they retreat from encounters by fussing over their phones or they’re “too heavy.” Upbringing has much to blame, she says, with many emerging from sheltered, conservative households where there’s “very little love . . . it shadows them from childhood.”

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

The Queen and Brian teach an online PUA course through live video streaming at Brian’s apartment, May 19, 2015.

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

The Queen teaches students how to talk to women, October 3, 2016.

 

The lifelong dysfunction of a bad lot in marriage is something many Chinese have endured together. Arranged unions were common up until the 1980s, when sex education and divorce remained taboo. Modern society is almost unrecognizable from that conformist era, but the new freedoms have not guaranteed greater individual happiness. A law against domestic violence was only passed in 2015, and prosecutions are vanishingly rare. Millennials are still rushing into marriage, due to unrealistic parental pressure; quickie divorces are on the rise; and sex education remains taboo.

Gan Shanbiao, a production manager from Shanghai, thought some of these cultural issues were at the root of his emotional difficulties. “I’d say it’s familiar to a lot of Chinese families,” he remarked. “Look at mine. My parents have a bad relationship—they’re nearly divorced, actually. Families are the most important thing in Chinese people’s eyes, but I worry I’ve inherited their problems.” Gan’s anxiety about overcoming these issues, though, seemed less a congenital condition than an entirely rational response. “It’s a process that’ll probably take a long time. This seemed the right place to start at least.”

With tutorials on fashion and flirting, the PUA course offered a grab bag of learning opportunities. Initially disappointed, Michael was pleased with his scholarly new WeChat profile portrait, in which he sat in a café, studying a volume of literature by candlelight, while wearing a dressing gown. And the “Relationship Class” had further energized him. The teacher “taught us four key steps to win a girl’s heart. First, get her number. Second, get to know each other. Third, develop a relationship,” he repeated. “Now I can do all this quickly, without wasting time asking questions.” What was four, I wondered, dumbly. “Sex!”

Lao Tong ran the first sex class, a two-hour debrief on ONS (One-Night Stands) or what he termed “fast food” relations. Lao’s own story followed the standard PUA trajectory, from Average Frustrated Chump to Master of Seduction. (The final stage, Depressed and Disillusioned, is rarely mentioned.) “I used to be a good guy too,” Lao told me, after class. “The frustration and suffering was too much to bear.”

At college, Lao said, he was “a headless mosquito,” unable to grasp why his girlfriend was so affectionate one day, indifferent the next. So Lao decided an extravagant gesture was needed: he turned up in an expensive rental car, bearing an engagement ring, and was promptly dumped. The subsequent stages of grief (anger, confusion, Internet searches) led him to the PUA community, which provided confidence, succor, and, it must be said, opportunity for revenge. “We men are different from women,” Lao said. “From a young age, from school to society, they’re surrounded by men chasing them, even when they are ugly.” Resentment begets ugliness, until PUA becomes a hazing ritual where revelation only comes through humiliation: “When I look back at myself two years ago, I feel like a fool [but] every man has to experience this to teach them.”

Lao compared seducing women to a nervous driver learning to park (“a veteran knows instinctively”) and kept his own instincts sharp with regular challenges, like picking up five girls in a single week. The secret was “understanding what girls mean.” He believed “men only go to bars for one reason, to pick someone up. And girls go to get picked up.” It’s poor form to mention sex directly; instead “ask if she wants to come watch a film.” If she agrees, it means she’s “80 percent interested.” (Like many in the PUA community, Lao deplores “mixed signals,” particularly LMR, “Last Minute Resistance.” “You already came home with me,” Lao pointed out. “You change your mind now?”)

I could see how easily some of Lao’s teachings could take roost among restless bachelors, men who’d thought they’d obeyed every societal rule and still been found wanting. Puamap doesn’t teach misogyny, but it’s always out there waiting—Kong Weiwei, a Guangzhou-based women’s rights activist, has said the industry vilifies those who call out their methods. One PUA, “Hi-girl,” had shared Kong’s contact information with a WeChat group of aggrieved men, inciting them to take part in what Kong termed a “frightening rape conspiracy.”

Fortunately, a whistleblower alerted Kong to Hi-girl’s activities, by sharing screenshots of the “plot.” “As a woman, I was seriously scared,” Kong wrote, describing Hi-girl’s thuggish tactics as “an ugly revenge deeply rooted in this industry, and becoming worse and worse.” In another post, Kong shared screenshots of another PUA calling himself “The Danger of Temptation” who posted sex tapes, along with images of a girlfriend’s suicide attempt on WeChat, to promote his course, while boasting, “I wanted the girl to prove her love for me with her death.” (Kong didn’t respond to requests for an interview.)

Few of the Puamap students ever sounded angry or frustrated; they sounded tired. The October holiday was their only annual break to themselves, and they were spending it on yet another class. Society had weighed value on academic success, and they’d achieved that. The reward was a hyper-competitive employment market, falling graduate salaries, and a forbidding housing ladder that’s climbed to Manhattan or London levels within just 30 years (as a kicker: Chinese land is only privately leased for up to 70 years; new builds are expected to last 30 at best). With roughly seven million new graduates entering the market every year, living with one’s parents isn’t embarrassing; it’s essential.

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

Young men attend a lecture by PUA mentors from Bad Boy Academy in Beijing, May 10, 2015.

Yang (a pseudonym), a showboater, said he’d no previous problems with girls but Puamap had helped hone his technique. In a private karaoke room the following night, Yang sized up the female guests, scanning for obvious IOIs (“Indicators of Interest”). In a pre-game text message, Puamap had helpfully identified nine, from the obvious (“She’ll sit next to you, even when there’s space everywhere else”) to the negligible (“If you stop talking, she’ll start”), and encouraged Kino methods to escalate any IOIs. “If she needs the bathroom, take her hand; on the way back, try touching her bum; if she objects, just hold her hand again.” It was straightforward stuff for any accomplished PUA: The trickiest part was getting the girls to look up from their phones.

Still, when a lone singer sidled toward him on the sofa, Yang recognized the significance—and knew how to respond. “I said she had a lovely voice,” Yang told four fellow students over tapas the next night. “Actually, it kinda sucked.”

Four hours, another U.S.$40 on food and drink, and a “seven star” hotel, slickly arranged via a booking app, Yang finally had the singer alone. First, though, he had to deal with some textbook LMR. His new friend wanted to play with her phone, not him. The course is clear on how to deal with this kind of thing. Yang suggested she take a shower, playfully manhandling her into the bathroom, shutting the door. It wasn’t easy: “I had to push her. She was a little fat.”

When she emerged 20 minutes later, though, showered—and fully clothed!—Yang was ready. PUA emphasizes psychological attrition, a fight to the finish in which men are forever pestering women, and women are forever trying to go to sleep. It wasn’t until dawn that Yang finally convinced her to have sex; afterwards, she wanted to talk; now it was Yang who was up for sleep. Yang rated the experience “three out of ten.” Checkout time had been awkward, and the sex desultory, but Yang’s tale encouraged Guo Jiaokun—a hospital administrator from Henan province who’d suddenly started wearing a black t-shirt with silver razor-blade necklace—to find his feet. Before Puamap, Guo had always been clumsy or quiet around girls. That night, he quickly left to meet a Sichuanese woman he’d cold-closed the previous night.

LMR is a frequent frustration for hardworking PUAs. It was Fei Ge’s class that taught how to overcome it. If Lao Tong had been the support act, Fei was the headliner. “I’m taking PUA culture to the next level!” he cried, commanding the room as if addressing a stadium, rather than a shabby apartment with bunks crammed into bedrooms.

This was the week’s Glengarry moment: the closer. The energy levels in the previously lethargic room began picking up. Backs straightened, phones were laid aside. “He’s so passionate,” someone whispered. “There’s lots of simple girls who’ll come into your bedroom and not know anything,” Fei declared. “Once she steps into your room, it means she’s ready for anything.”

Fei recommended studying Korean TV for tips about their men’s overbearing techniques (“if you hold a girl very hard, she’ll melt in your arms”), and while some argue these shows depict “misogyny, sexual harassment, and dating violence in a romanticized light,” Fei disagreed. “If she stops you or says ‘No,’ back off, wait for a bit, then come back,” he instructed. “As long as she doesn’t leave . . . if she stays, you’re still in with a chance!” (Puamap’s founder, Wang, said the company’s teachings “do not increase or reduce gender discrimination against women.”)

“Embarrass her, you’ll feel like a king!”

The class lapped it up, even as the talk segued into darker, angrier territory. “There’s a type of girl I call the Top Bitch,” Fei scoffed. “Why do I call her the top bitch? Because she brings a man back to her bedroom, maybe seven or eight men in a row, and it’s still the same sheets. She changes her boyfriend more often than she changes those sheets!” He returned to his theme of orgasms, which led back to the sheets. “You can make a girl come 10 or 20 times in a row . . . the sheets will be sodden. Make her smell them. Embarrass her, you’ll feel like a king!” The listeners roared as Fei launched into a long, elaborately detailed, laboriously re-enacted demonstration of a fictional seduction, using the male pupils as female stand-ins: How to kiss, caress, calm, unclasp a bra, cup a breast, and finally (complete with sound effects) how to finger, Fei’s two digits motoring away in the pit of a student’s knee.

By the end of Fei’s 90-minute performance, the whole class was fired up, lining up to shake Fei’s hand, take selfies and add him to their WeChat. “That was great!” murmured Shaun, who I’d spoken to before and found shy. Now he was garrulous. “It answered all my questions. . . In China, when a girl gets wet, we don’t know what to do. I always ejaculate too quickly—it’s because of my age [31]—but it won’t be a problem now.”

After Fei left—having all but signed autographs—an unmistakable afterglow settled over the room. The students sighed, and resumed their studies: Filtering photos, curating profiles; imagining European holidays and souping-up self-portraits; frowning over replies. There was no sound at all, save for the patter and ping of lonely men looking for love.

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