Long Hongxiang has the most important job in this remote hamlet deep in the mountains of Hunan province: local matchmaker. For almost eight decades, the three-foot-high, Yoda-like "grandma" of Lower Qiantan has kept a close eye on local singles, bringing together young men and women she feels have a future together.
When she spies a young man approaching marrying age – she thinks 18 is old enough – she moves in and lets the families know she can help find a suitable mate. She charges 4,000 yuan (about $635) for her full service, which includes approaching the bride-to-be's parents and negotiating the dowry. She has a track record that justifies the price: Grandma Long claims to have arranged more than 100 marriages over the course of her long career.
She says only one has ended in divorce. And that one wasn't her fault.
But the real challenge these days is finding an eligible young woman who stays long enough to get hitched in Lower Qiantan, a collection of mud-brick homes connected by stone staircases that's home to 700 people and only a handful of cars.
China's demographics – a preponderance of men that is partially a result of the country's population-control policies and selective abortions based on a preference for boys – combined with the pull of faraway factories, and richer husbands in other places, have made Grandma Long's job more difficult than in any previous decade. (The residents of Lower Qiantan are from the Hmong ethnic minority and thus allowed to have two children, more if neither of the first two is a boy.)
"We have to wait for the girls to come back, then I can do my work," Grandma Long says, her face deeply wrinkled by a long life of laughter and worry. Her busy period will come early next month when those who went away to find their fortunes come home for the week-long Chinese New Year holiday.
In the interim, she looks out for a village of lonely young men. Local bachelors say there are about 80 single men in Lower Qiantan who are over the age of 18, and not one single woman to court.
It's a problem that is faced by villages across China, where the rate of boys to girls is almost 118 to 100, and even more skewed in rural areas like southern Hunan province. That math means tens of millions of Chinese men are destined to die single.
"I have no demands. I'll accept any woman I can find," said Wu Jinsong, a 24-year-old who was gathering firewood recently in the mountains around Lower Qiantan, a place that modernity, in the form of a few mobile phones, is only now starting to touch. Internet dating isn't an option here; no one in town owns a computer.
Men who have managed to get married say it costs them and their families upwards of 100,000 yuan – cash, plus goods, plus the cost of the wedding itself – to seal the deal. The men complain that families with young women have raised dowry demands as the number of eligible females has shrunk.
The situation has upended some long-standing truths in Lower Qiantan. Local families who for centuries prayed for sons who could take over the farm and take care of them in their old age now see sons as a potential financial burden whose wedding costs can push a family deep into debt. Meanwhile, a daughter who marries well can provide for her parents for years.
"If you have a daughter, you can laugh. If you have son, you will cry," said Wu Longbao, who got married last year at age 29 and whose wife is now expecting their first child. But, he said, you still need a son to tend the farm.
Grandma Long – who says she thinks she's 98 years old, though she doesn't remember precisely which year she was born – isn't giving up. This week she was planning to make the two-hour walk, leaning heavily on her thick cane, to the weekly fair in the next town to see if she could find any women who might be interested in meeting a young man in his 20s whose case she recently took on.
Her strategy is this: If she can convince a young woman at the fair to meet with her client, she'll make arrangements for them to meet on the outskirts and maybe exchange phone numbers. From there, it's up to the young man to make a good impression.
"I pay attention to the family situations and the age of both the man and the woman," she says. An older man can marry a pretty young girl if he's rich, but otherwise it's best to match people of similar age and backgrounds," she explains. Romance doesn't play a role: "I don't worry about whether love will result. That can be fostered after the couple is married."
She says the only reason one of her marriages ended in divorce was because the couple waited too long to tie the knot. Both husband and wife were in their 50s when they got married, too late to have the children she believes tie a family together for good.
Matchmaking was much easier in the old days, Grandma Long says – referring to pre-revolutionary China – before people went elsewhere to work, and before the young couple themselves had any say in whom they would marry. "I would come to the gate of the house, and tell the family, 'There is a man available and these are his conditions, and, by the way, he's blind in one eye,' " she says with a nostalgic smile that suggests she's referring to an actual case.
"If both sides agreed – and of course the couple didn't get to see each other first – they were not allowed to show regret, even if the man was blind in two eyes!" she says, laughing, in a carved wooden chair that she set up under a poster of Mao Zedong. "Back then, you could tell a beautiful lie to both families. Now I get paid more, but I can't lie."
Even with the matchmaking business getting harder, Grandma Long says she'll never retire – because her work is also the secret of her longevity. "The people here say, and I believe it, too, that if you match two people successfully, you add another three years to your life."