It's hard to describe the feeling when I first visited a group of guys - 80 or so, most aged in their 20s and hailing from all walks of life - gathering to learn and hone subtle techniques to "pickup" girls. As the only female in the crowd being studied by shy yet curious eyes, I felt I was in the eye of a hurricane of masculine hormones.
This is the so-called "pickup circle," a community all but unknown to women and far from mainstream among men. But for these self-declared "pickup artists" (PUAs), it is an important social network.
Vincent Qi, a 28-year-old psychology graduate who studied in the UK, is an organizer and tutor of a group in the circle. He claims there are more than 150,000 active PUAs registered on Paoxue, a Chinese social networking website.
Chatting online and meeting in person, guys of different ages and backgrounds gather to share their experiences of intimate encounters. They also share techniques used to attract unacquainted girls with the goal of taking them home. Some PUAs like Qi view it as a job and earn money by teaching others how to seduce women.
"There are no specific criteria for being a PUA, but most acknowledged artists have developed their own theories for picking up girls or at least looking attractive to girls and aspiring for success," said Qi.
Last weekend was the second summit of the pickup circle. More than 10 PUAs from various parts of the country delivered lectures in Beijing, attracting over 200 participants both from and out of the capital.
Search for self-identity
Sensing my doubt over how effectively guys can learn about women without communicating with them directly, Qi admits it is necessary for men to understand women before they can master the art of seduction. However, he insists there are also aspects that men can only learn among themselves.
"Picking up women is not only about the male-female relationship, but also about the inner growth, mental maturity and self-identity of real men as well," Qi said. "From learning pickup strategies, guys also learn how to get along with their surroundings and how to recognize and treat themselves."
Many people in this day and age suffer various kinds of psychological problems, which influence their mindset and behavior directly. Such problems sometimes stem from family issues during childhood or lack of love and attention during adulthood. This can make some men painfully shy and anxious about interacting with women.
Pickup groups aim to help such men - who often have affectionate and down-to-earth personalities - better connect with women by breaking the ice in social situations. Qi added that his group offers doesn't just help men succeed in love, but also in other areas of life.
"Fathers should be the first and most important mentors for boys, but some fathers fail to be good role models. These boys need to learn from other guys," Qi smiled. "You can never turn to a woman to learn about the sense of a man's mission."
Ultimate pursuit of love
Many guys in the pickup circle are labeled as "irresponsible" and "relentless" towards women. The idea of "using girls as guinea pigs" particularly irks feminist groups, who question the necessity of playing with women's emotions to help men grow in confidence and stature.
"It's really poor when guys only focus on the pickup techniques, like suppressing women emotionally and taking them to bed on the very first date," Qi said sternly. "If you stick to these techniques, you will easily neglect the real meaning of staying with a girl - to love her and enjoy happiness."
Qi confessed that when he initially mastered pickup techniques he took advantage of the skills by dating and sleeping with many women. It was only two months ago that he experienced a change of heart, when he broke up with who he describes as a "really brilliant lady" who deeply loved him. From that moment, he recognized how selfish and miserable he had been.
"My ex-girlfriend let me know that love is not to gain but to give," he mused morosely. "Her departure also allowed me to reflect on what I've learned from traditional pickup theories that teach me how to gain and achieve instead of how to love and cherish."
Qi insisted his last relationship was a catalyst for change and he now hopes to share his experience with his "students" to help them in their journey for love.
"I really learnt a lot from my relationship with my ex-girlfriend. Understanding men and women is much more complicated than merely picking up; it's something that deserves a lifelong learning commitment from everyone." Qi said.