When flowers bud and willows are draped in new green, Peking's parks fill with young couples earnestly whispering to each other.
This week my Peking diary is filled with notes on love and marriage in a society that remains, by and large, pretty strait-laced.
First I wandered round to Sun Altar Park a couple of miles east of the Forbidden City. Five fen (about 3 cents) got me inside the gate and down to a cluster of old-fashioned tile-roofed buildings, one of which bears a new sign brushed in bold black characters: Chaoyang District Marriage Introduction Office.
The motherly Woman's Federation Cadre and fresh-faced Communist Youth League worker who received me let me flip through the cards young men or women looking for a partner have filled out.
''Male. Born 1956. Musician of Peking Shadow Play Troupe,'' reads one card. The applicant's height is 1.73 meters. His family is of worker background and he is a high school graduate. He is looking for a girl who is a teacher, a doctor, or a white-collar worker, who has integrity, is well cultivated, lives simply, and loves music.
''Female. Born 1958. Normal school graduate, waiting for a job,'' reads another card. This applicant is 1.63 meters tall and would like to meet a young man over 1.7 meters, between the ages of 25 and 29, of average appearance and ordinary family background, with an education equaling or superior to her own. ''If working now,'' the card continues, ''he must be in a technical profession.''
''You see,'' explains the blue-tunicked Communist Youth League worker, ''in many ways we are still a pretty traditional society and it is not so easy for young people to meet each other in a normal way. That is why our Chaoyang District opened up this office a year ago. Several other Peking districts also have such offices, but we are the first and so far the most successful one.''
The office was deliberately placed in a park, to make it approachable. The first step is to fill out a card. The second is to look through cards on file, looking for a suitable prospective partner. The third step is to meet, the office acting as intermediary.
A stroll through the park, or a bench under a pergola, makes a natural setting for an ice-breaking first encounter. If the two people do not hit it off together, the office will arrange a second introduction, or a third, or as many as may be necessary.
''Sometimes, though,'' said the youth leaguer, ''we have to tell the boy, or the girl, that his or her expectations are too high and that he should set his sights on more realistic goals. For instance, girls usually prefer men who are white-collar workers, or who have some kind of professional qualifications. Boys look for girls with pretty looks, or who have some special talent such as music.''
From introduction to wedding may take six months, a year, or longer. The government is encouraging simple weddings, but here again, old habits die hard.
On a train from Peking to Harbin, a factory director with a son and daughter of marriageable age spoke resignedly of the money he would have to spend on his son's wedding.
''The wedding feast itself will easily cost 1,500 to 2,000 yuan ($1,000 to $1 ,333),'' he said. ''Then there are all the things I have to get for the newlyweds - furniture, television, a sewing machine, a bicycle, a tape recorder, perhaps even a washing machine. These are all things the father of the groom is expected to provide.
''Of course, when my daughter gets married, it won't cost me as much. So I suppose it all evens out in the end.''
As one means of cutting down on wedding expenses, Peking Municipality and various organizations are sponsoring group weddings. I visited one such event recently in the restaurant of the ornate Palace of Nationalities on Changan Boulevard.
The hall was festooned with ribbons and streamers and filled with large circular tables - 10 to 12 people per table. Thirty-eight couples from the Arts and Handicrafts Cooperative were to plight their troth to each other this afternoon, and each couple was allowed 12 guests each. Twenty yuan (about $13) per couple covered all expenses except beverages.
The band struck up and the newlyweds (the registration of marriage had already been performed at the various district offices) appeared from behind a screen, laughing embarrassedly and brushing off the confetti that unseen hands behind the screen had showered on them.
A well-known young comedian was master of ceremonies, ordering the young couples to line up and to bow three times, once to their parents, once to their superiors and co-workers, and once to each other. Peking city officials then presented each couple with gifts of small porcelain.
Afterward, while a succession of singers, dancers, and comedians entertained the assembled company, the young brides and grooms, going back to their families' tables, plied guests with sweets, peanuts, and soda pop.
''It's much better this way,'' said a 26-year-old construction worker whose wife cuts carpets at the Arts and Handicrafts Cooperative. ''It's true we're answering the party's call (for simpler weddings) but we're also very happy to have more money to spend on our new home.''
His wife shyly nodded agreement. ''We're fortunate,'' she said. ''My husband's work unit has provided us with a one-room apartment, so we will not have to live with either parent. We're not even taking a honeymoon now. We'll just move into our own apartment.''