Like many girls, Xiao Jing had always believed that one day, when she grew up, she would have children. Like her mother. But life was to deal her a bitter blow. It came three years ago, when doctors told her she was a 'stone woman'. 'I cannot have a child and I cannot have sex,' whispers the 21-year-old, a curtain of satiny hair falling either side of her face. Dressed in blue jeans and a purple shirt, Xiao sits hunched forward on a metal office chair in matchmaker Luo Jun's dingy ground-floor office, in a two-star hotel in Nanjing. As her eyes redden, then fill, she burrows for tissues in a black handbag with slim, lilac-tipped fingers. These days, tears are never far away. At 175cm, Xiao is tall and, as it happens, strikingly beautiful. At the hotel where she works as a waitress, no one would think she was anything other than a normal young woman, probably the centre of much male attention. But when Xiao turned 18 and still hadn't had her period, her mother took her to see a doctor at Nanjing's No1 Hospital. He did a brief examination, then delivered the devastating news. Xiao Jing had no uterus and no vagina. She was a 'stone woman', as the rare condition is known on the mainland. A second opinion yielded the same diagnosis. 'When they told me, I thought, this is so unfair,' she says, her mouth quivering. Doctors estimate that about one in 5,000 women is born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome, the result of a slip-up during foetal development. There are thought to be about 130,000 women with MRKH on the mainland, many of whom lived their childhood years in ignorance of their condition; some have one-third of a vagina, in which case their mothers can be forgiven for having not noticed, and some have a little indentation. Add other forms of acquired or inborn genital insufficiency in both men and women, and the number of people suffering from conditions that plunge them deep into shame and have a devastating effect on their ability to lead normal lives reaches into the hundreds of thousands. 'China's population is so big that the number isn't really all that small,' says Tang Jialing, head gynaecologist at the Guangzhou Women and Infants Hospital. Amid all the misfortune, there is also opportunity, and businessman Luo has been quick to grasp it. At the end of 2004, Luo set up the Cupid Matchmaking Agency in Nanjing to introduce people looking for sexless, childless marriages. To date, Luo says, he has organised three group weddings for a total of 32 couples. Pictures on his office wall show couples dressed in wedding gowns and suits in a banqueting room with red banners and tablecloths. Not all are MRKH sufferers. Luo says his 800 clients include men born without a penis or one too small to function, and others - often policemen, firemen or soldiers - who have suffered irreversible work-related injuries. But 95 per cent of Luo's clients suffer from congenital problems such as MRKH, or are hermaphrodites. Luo is a tall, thin man with a pointy chin, who regularly punctuates his delivery with, 'Understand what I'm saying?' He talks long and fast, shushing a petite, older woman sitting at the office's only other desk when she tries to join in. He says his unusual line of business began by accident after he set up an ordinary matchmaking service in 2002. 'One day this man came to my office. We talked a bit, and we went somewhere for a drink and to talk more. Then he confessed to me that the problem was he didn't have a penis,' says Luo. Luo says he advised him to seek medical advice. The man underwent corrective surgery, which failed. 'He got in touch with me again and asked if I could help him find a woman who would be satisfied with a marriage that had no sex in it.' Luo wasn't optimistic about the man's chances but agreed to put him on his list. Shortly afterwards, Luo was contacted by a woman from a village in neighbouring Anhui province whose twin daughters were born without uteri or vaginas. 'I was amazed to meet them,' he remembers. 'That's when I realised there are really quite a lot of people out there with this kind of problem.' Today, Luo says his is the only matchmaking agency in the world specialising in marriages that are sex- and child-free. So far, Luo has introduced Xiao to three potential husbands. His fee - a one-off sum - is 2,000 yuan, cheap by international standards but pricey for Xiao, who earns little more than 1,000 yuan a month. So far, she has had no luck. Xiao says one candidate was too old and she didn't like the other two. But Luo is in a rush. The average marrying age for mainland women is 26 but although Xiao is only 21, Luo says there is no time to waste. 'The pressure on her will grow as she gets older. Her friends are marrying. When she gets to the age of 28 or 30, what will she do? It's a big problem. So we want to solve it before she gets to that age,' he says. Luo counsels clients and encourages them to cry, saying many have a need to release deep-rooted emotional pain. Yet like many people offering services in a country in which psychology was banned for decades because communist orthodoxy taught that only the party could solve problems, Luo lacks any kind of professional training. Nor does he have medical expertise. Despite his apparently well-intentioned concern, experts worry that Xiao and others are heading down the wrong road. MRKH is treatable using a vaginal dilator to build a vagina (sufferers often have a dimple that can be expanded). Those who want to have children have the option of working with a surrogate mother. Some women need surgery to construct a vagina, though this is usually avoidable, says Dr Marc Laufer, chief of gynaecology at the Children's Hospital Boston, the biggest centre for MRKH patients in the US. Xiao says neither doctor she visited in Nanjing told her about the dilator. Nor did they mention surrogate motherhood, which is illegal on the mainland but practised nonetheless. Instead, they recommended surgery. Xiao says she may consider that in a few years. 'They told me I would never have children, but that I could have sex.' Everywhere, shame makes it hard for sufferers to seek help. Laufer sees hundreds of women a year. 'We advise young women to select who they share this information with. Young people can be cruel,' he says. Widespread poverty, ignorance and paralysing shame at discussing sexuality make it even harder in China. Attitudes are slowly changing and doctors are experimenting with the best ways to treat patients. But for now, physicians at the Guangzhou Women and Infants Hospital, one of the country's leading centres, see just six patients a year, saysTang. Ignorance is the biggest enemy. 'There are women in villages who have this [condition] who don't even know to go to the doctor for help,' says Tang. 'Some men marry believing their wife can still conceive even if she doesn't have a vagina.' Even in Hong Kong, too few seek help. Dr Grace Cheung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong sees about five sufferers yearly at the Prince of Wales hospital. Disorganised services deter many. 'The problem is that the people who deal with this can be a collection of people - gynaecologists, surgeons and paediatric surgeons - and it just doesn't get treated,' says Cheung. Hong Kong is trying to consolidate services to provide accurate information and follow-through help. 'We hope China will do it too,' says Cheung. In March, she organised Hong Kong's first conference on the issue, at the Chinese University, which was attended by mainland experts such as Tang. Treating the patient's physical problems is just one aspect. Counselling is also crucial. 'I cannot stress enough the importance of counselling - not just for the patient but also her parents. Their whole image of being female is ruined. They don't know what they are any more. You need to counsel them and you need to counsel them correctly,' says Cheung. Typically, parents bring their daughter to the doctor when she fails to get her first period, usually in her mid-teenage years. Often they are motivated by the fear they will never have grandchildren, says Cheung. That weighs on Xiao's mind, too. An only child born after the beginning of China's one-child policy, in 1980, she finds the pressure to continue the family line enormous. She has never had a boyfriend. 'The problem is that in China, his family would never agree to a marriage. And that's been very hurtful to me,' she says. Cheung is concerned that if Luo succeeds in matching Xiao to a man who cannot have sexual intercourse, her prospects for happiness are slight. 'We believe that everybody [with the syndrome] can have sex,' she explains. Luo's plans for MRKH sufferers go further. He is lobbying the National People's Congress to recognise them as handicapped, hoping that a group identity will help remove the extreme social stigma. Some might even be eligible for special treatment, such as free medical care. 'A lot of people talk about China's human rights problem,' says Luo. 'But if we can get this passed into law, then that will be a big step forward for human rights.' Xiao seems unsure. 'I don't care if I get welfare from society or not. But I do really fear that people will find out I'm different.' Laufer thinks treating MRKH sufferers as handicapped is a mistake. 'I don't think these individuals are handicapped,' he says. 'There's a lack of information about this and that's what we're trying to improve.' For now, Xiao is hoping Luo's no-sex marriage service will solve her problem. A shy young woman, she won't say whether she thinks it is a good idea to embark on a sexless marriage. 'When the doctor told me what was wrong, I thought it was so very unfair. Then I heard about Mr Luo and I thought maybe something will work out.'