China’s “Leftover” Women

Last week, 26-year-old newlywed college graduate Li Fang (a pseudonym) explained to me over dinner why she had been in such a rush to marry:

If I hadn’t gotten married now, I would still have to date for at least one or two years. Then I would already have passed the best child-bearing age and I would be a leftover woman.

In China, the sexist term “leftover woman,” sheng nu, is widely used to describe an urban, professional female over the age of 27 who is still single. This derogatory term has been aggressively disseminated by the Chinese government, warning women that they will become spinsters if they do not marry by the time they turn 30. The irony of the media campaign is that China’s sex-ratio imbalance has resulted in a surplus of tens of millions of men who will not be able to find a bride.

In 2007, China’s Ministry of Education added the term “leftover woman” to its official lexicon, according to state media reports. In 2010, the All-China Women’s Federation and other government groups carried out a nationwide survey of more than 30,000 people in 31 provinces. Their findings on “leftover women” have been publicized repeatedly by China’s official media.

I have roughly translated some excerpts from the official write-up of the survey (unfortunately leaving out the rich resonance of the Chinese puns.)

The article uses the heading “See What Category of ‘Leftover’ You Belong to.” The first category is leftover women aged 25 to 27 years, who are called “leftover fighters,” sheng dou shi, a play on the title of a popular martial arts film. It says these women “still have the courage to fight for a partner.”

The next category is 28- to 30-year-old women, or “the ones who must triumph,” bi sheng ke, a play on the Chinese name for Pizza Hut. It says these women have limited opportunities for romance because their careers leave them “no time for the hunt.”

The final category, 35 and older, is called the “master class of leftover women.” The term qi tian da sheng plays on the name of an ancient Chinese legend, the Monkey King. It says this category of woman “has a luxury apartment, private car and a company, so why did she become a leftover woman?”

Results from the survey continue to be recycled frequently in the Chinese media, including this report on the official Xinhua News website, November 11: “China’s Leftover Women Unite This Singles Day.” The article says, “More than 90 percent of men surveyed said women should marry before 27 to avoid becoming unwanted.” The message to women: If you want to stand a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting married in this country, don’t demand too much from your man.

What I find uniquely disturbing is that a respected American newspaper has regurgitated the results of the “leftover women” survey without questioning the sexist nature of the term, the origins of the study or the motivations of the government in disseminating it. The New York Times published an article in April based on the results of the Chinese survey, describing China’s real-estate boom and the pressure on men in China to buy a home in order to find a bride. It says “more than 70 percent of single women in a recent survey said they would tie the knot only with a prospective husband who owned a home” and provides a helpful link to the Chinese survey, but makes no mention about the survey’s extensive descriptions of “leftover women.” Rather, the Times details how Chinese women will stop at nothing to coerce a man to give her a home before she agrees to marry:

With such women on the prowl, even men who do have their own homes have come up with techniques to weed out the covetous and the inordinately materialistic.

It adds that because of China’s sex-ratio imbalance, as many as 24 million men could be perpetual bachelors by 2020: “The marriage competition is fierce and statistically, women hold the cards.”

China’s preference for boys, combined with its one-child policy, has resulted in the abortion of tens of millions of female fetuses. But does the resulting sex-ratio imbalance mean that women really have the upper hand in the marriage market? Although some women no doubt have married for money, I have so far found very little evidence that women overall have turned their scarcity into economic gain. On the contrary, my research suggests that Chinese women have largely missed out on what is arguably the biggest accumulation of real estate wealth in history, valued at more than $17 trillion in 2010, according to HSBC Bank. Many women have been shut out of the explosion of housing wealth because homes appreciating exponentially in value tend to be registered solely in the man’s name. Chinese parents tend to buy homes for sons but not daughters. And women often transfer all of their financial assets to their husband or boyfriend to finance the purchase of a home registered in the man’s name alone.

I believe that a key reason why so many educated women in their mid-20s act against their own economic interests when they marry is that they genuinely believe the government-propagated myth about “leftover women.” These women make excessive personal and financial compromises out of fear that they will never find a husband otherwise.

Why would the government do this? Maybe because China’s leaders are worried about the potential threat to social stability from tens of millions of unmarried men with nowhere to vent their frustration, so they want to marry off as many “leftover men,” sheng nan, as they possibly can. Eugenics may play a role too. The very people the government would like to see having babies are highly educated, urban women, who are increasingly rejecting marriage in neighboring Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

The Chinese government’s effort to promote marriage has so far been remarkably successful. Li Fang counts herself lucky because she did not become a “leftover woman.” But she has no legal claim to the home she shares with her new husband; the home is registered in his name alone. Because of a recent change to China’s Marriage Law, marital property now belongs solely to the official buyer whose name is on the deed. She does not share a bank account with her husband and does not know how much money is in her husband’s account. She just lost her job as a human resources manager because the company did not want her to take two weeks off for her honeymoon. Rather than ask her husband for more money now that she is unemployed, she says she will continue to draw down her own savings to pay for groceries, clothing and transportation. Does this sound like a “woman on the prowl”?

It’s only a matter of time before Chinese women like her wise up and recognize the “leftover woman” moniker for what it really is: a sexist media campaign by a government facing a severe demographic crisis.

Photo from flickr user doioutsidethebox under Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. gregorylent says:

    the mix of pragmatism and ingrained fear and insecurity in china boggles me constantly.

    • I couldn’t agree more. Why do women accept this crap. Marry an Australian.

      • Why should women HAVE TO get married at all?? We don’t need to have someone in our lives at all times, and that includes kids to be complete. Women shouldn’t accept this crap, and they should be fighting for things like a college education and a career. NOT to be married or push out kids. It’s a brave new world ladies, fight for your rights to be treated as humans instead of second class citizens and baby machines!

        • Why should women HAVE TO get married at all? Yes, it is easier to say so when you are not in the particular environment. People, even public media consider single women over 30 be a gink with physical or mental illness. Has anybody done any research on how many so called ‘research results’ published in China claimed that there were relationship between single woman and ‘mental or physical illness’??? These women are labeled by the whole society. Outsider cannot understand the fear and desperation they have. That’s why I moved to the States. Of course, there are problems here as well (many guys want only sex), but the external pressure is nothing comparable to what’s in China.

        • TracyD says:

          @SO
          I don’t know. Maybe because they want something more out of life?
          FYI, a lot of these leftover women have a college degree and a career. It is a widely accepted fact that most women who remain single after 30 are often the best educated and professionally capable. That does not mean they don’t want a fulfilling personal/family life. Stop trying to push your mode of thinking onto people you don’t really know.

      • ninjakamster says:

        By marrying an Australian, you probably mean a white Australian eh? You white men with your asian women fetish are so pathetic.

    • TracyD says:

      Those who lived their entire lives in First World comforts often happen to be “boggled” by others who are not as lucky.

  2. Blonde In Beijing says:

    Excellent article. Not all Chinese girls are on the prowl…and it’s precisely those who aren’t who are most afflicted by the negativity of the shengu term. Thanks for exposing the sexist government campaign and for shedding light on the ‘see what category of shengnu you belong to’ survey. Fascinating – I didn’t realize they had taken it so far! Seems almost like a pastiche…but the sad thing is, they really want girls to take this to heart. And many do. I’m working on reversing that. Looking forward to reading more from you!

  3. Thanks for explaining the figurative metaphors — good read!

    The perils of modernity…

  4. This is news? Really? Why is Ms. Magazine treating this like a new phenomenon? The whole idea of being an “old maid” (or whatever term one chooses to use) has been around for thousands of years.

    Interesting note: My family is from Hong Kong and I don’t think women are considered “old maids” until 35 or so, if at all. Lots of girls I went to high school with are in their early 30s and are single or newly engaged. I think the average bride there is pretty close to 30. As for men, I think they have issues too. A never-married guy who is single at say, 35 might be seen by women has having “issues”/something “wrong” with him (usually closeted, awkward or some sort of combination of the two). As for divorces and widowers – a lot of women won’t consider them, either.

  5. I find it is the same for women all over the world. We all fear living and dying alone and childless. Men play on those fears through popular media and folklore. It is very sad.

  6. Melanie Chiou says:

    Awhile back, there was a popular TV show in Taiwan called “The Loser Dog”(Bai-chuan)which is a scarily similar term to “Leftover Women.”

    What they call those who’s married- “The Winner Dog,” either way, we were compared to as dogs….

    • Women being called “dogs”? Well, this is because Chinese culture is deeply misogynistic. It is a culture that has treated women as slaves for more than a millennium. When females are only meant to be sold to other families as slaves to bear their children, clean their houses, do their laundry and cook their meals, then it’s little wonder that modern day Chinese continue to feel great contempt for women, including women themselves . The saddest part is when we Chinese women collaborate with our own denigration and abuse. When I talk to my friends from Taiwan and they tell me their fears about needing to “maintain their femininity” I can see they are beyond reach. Because if they have already bought into the myth of Chinese f emininity–being pleasing to men, always looking pretty, pouting but never quarreling, and always listening to what their fathers and husbands say–then there is little I can say to change their minds. One friend from Taiwan complains that American women lack femininity and that is why American men don’t like them. Being American I have never seen this happen so I had to wonder if the normal give and take and negoyiating that goes on in relationships that sometimes cause relationships to end is a completely foreign concept to her.

  7. What this author and appears other fail to relise is china is a communist counrty. women along with the men don’t have the vote so they (the Government) doesn’t have to cater to women and they don’t. There is no welfare and government payouts so for long term future security families with tend to prefer a male child over the burden of a female child. Also the government to prevent the incentive to divorce that the west has, has set up a system that a woman divorces she just leaves. and doesn’t get the cash pay out and government enslavement of the ex as they have in the west. Reality and long term stability is not feminist or PC.

    That second to last paragraph of the article is really interesting. I guess that woman is surely in love to marry under the conditions described. Also doubles as an incentive to find a job and continue a career. With out his child to take care of the husband see no reason to waste income and money on a deadbeat. Really easy to weed out the gold diggers huh?

    • Bad Indian Woman says:

      I thought the whole point of being Communist was to treat all citizens equally. Or is this some version of Animal Farm, where “some animals were more equal than others?”

      If China’s Communist government cannot provide health care, social security and retirement benefits to its people, then what’s the point of being a Communist state?

      Its the same here in India. India’s democratically elected government also does not think it necessary to provide retirement benefits to earning members (like they do in the US via the social security system).

      There is strong son preference in India precisely because people see sons as providers of care and support during old age.

      Of course, the burden of the actual care fall on the daughter-in-law, not the son, but nobody seems to remember that.

      India certainly is a country which does not deserve women since it is so severely patriarchal and male-dominated. After marriage, women are thought to belong to the husband’s family, mind, body and soul.

      Many Indian women are discouraged from keeping ties with their birth family after marriage and can only visit if the husband and in-laws allow her to. She can only help and support her parents if her husband and in-laws do not object.

      So it is little wonder that Indian parents think of daughters as burdens and prefer sons.

      There is common folk saying in Hindi, “Having a daughter is like watering your neighbour’s garden.

      I hope India suffers a demographic nightmare for devaluing its women so much.
      May this country pay for treating women as second-class citizens.

  8. Honestly, if a woman truly placed getting married high on her priorities list, would she ever have to worry about being a “leftover woman”? When you place your career first, you are consenting to be a leftover woman.

    I think this is a mild form of social shaming that will eventually become an effective way to get women to manage their priorities.

    • Priorities?

      Shaming women to forgo becoming independant workable actively participating figures in society and community by being reduced to fear of no marriage?

      how medievil, this is not progression to equality this is regression back to the days where a woman’s worth is one forth that of a mans and she can’t drive, can’t work, no education save what is needed to make a good wife and mother.

      If women must be called Left Overs then I say call all those preferred chosen alive males of the single child law nothing more than Semen, expendable vessels of genetic code, most of whom will never make it.

      One cruel heartless generlised gender based label deserves another…..

    • Why on Earth is it an either/or? Why can’t a woman value her career AND finding a husband, as if one somehow how takes away from the other? And why does she have to be on an artificial time limit: Marry by 27 or no one will want you, rather than marry when you are ready? Or, perhaps more pointedly, how come a career and money make a man MORE attractive and a woman LESS attractive? Why one Earth should a career be some sort of turnoff for a man, unless he’s so insecure that he must be far “better” than the woman? And how come men don’t have an age at which they get written off? How come women get told what their priorites should be, instead of deciding for themselves?

      • Natalie Rose says:

        It’s absolutely not an either/or situation, even if some folks would like you believe it is. We live long enough nowadays to focus on school/career and then worry about family and the like once you’ve become financially stable. I mean, obviously I’m coming from a completely difference perspective being both an American and a lesbian, but why the heck do you suddenly have to get married by 30, now? Plenty of people get married in their 30s, 40s, 50s… I was talking to my Dad last night about feeling a little behind all my friends from college, who are all either now married/engaged or living with their S.O., and he told me he had never even lived with a partner before he married my mom– when he was 36, by the way. I’m a few weeks shy of 26 myself, but to be honest, a lot of the women I date are in their 30s. They didn’t magically become undesirable at 30– and the same goes for any age. Why should anyone else but ME determine when is the right time for me to settle down? Everyone has a different trajectory, for cryin’ out loud.

      • The reason for a career and money to make a woman less attractive is that such as woman has less time and incentive to serve her husband’s needs. By the Chinese propaganda, a married man is supposed to have the freedom to pursue his career and his wife has the responsibility to release the man from trivialities such as housework. A woman is supposed to always put family before her own career, otherwise she is not a good wife. The Chinese propaganda basically says that there is nothing wrong with a man asking his wife to sacrifice her career for him, and it even indicates that it is acceptable for a man to have a mistress as long as he is financially successful and provides a decent life to his wife.

        Men’s needs are prioritized over women’s needs in China, and it is in line with the general rule of protecting the interests of the privileged in every aspect of social lives and economic activities. If one understand the core philosophy of the Chinese government, everything else will be very easy to see through.

  9. I think it has to do more with the fact that now that Chinese women have financial independence, many of them are choosing to *not* marry unless the guy is suitable for them. The propaganda machine is churning out this sort of material because its the men that are worried about not finding a mate — of my late-20s and early-30s friends here in Beijing, its mostly men that complain about not being able to find a girlfriend. (Versus the women who complain often complain about their husbands and/or their husbands cheatin ways).

    Just my two cents ;)

  10. I think it’s also crucial to take into account the intersectionality of gender and class on this issue. While “leftover women” are most likely to be middle-class, well-educated urban dwellers with stable income, bachelors tend to come from lower-class, rural/suburban background.

  11. YoyoBear says:

    Wow what a bunch of bull honky! You think sheng nu is sexist while American got the term “cougar”, you guys even have a damn TV Show named Cougarville!

    • Habibi L'amour says:

      I know what their government is saying is disgusting but is it really that different to what the western media says? Except here they don’t put an age limit on it and it’s more “get a man”/silencing the experiences of single women instead of “you’re a leftover if you don’t marry”…..more positive reinforcement than negative. Western media also tells women to not be picky either.

  12. izabella says:

    very nice
    I want to add some insight through this article : http://thinkingchinese.com/sheng-nu-leftover-women-women-independence-social-disgrace

    cheers!

  13. I teach at a university in Shanghai, and of course deal with young women. The women are so eager and attentive to learn, while the young men, in general, I’m sorry to say, are lazy and unmotivated. The pressure on these young women to marry before a certain age is palpable. With the culture being one of a ‘group mentality’, it isn’t easy for a Westerner to understand how difficult it is for these young women to just ‘shun’ the sexism. On the other hand, the young men complain about not being able to find a girlfriend. Complex social situation…..

  14. TracyDomenica says:

    Is the author trying to prove that these single women don’t exist? Or that all women in China over age 30 are enjoying the personal life they want, or are on the brink of having one?

    Other than pointing out the alleged sexism of “government propaganda”, the author completely ignores the fact that there are a significant group of high-achieving women who are not satisfied with the prospect of being single, but who are, frankly, boggled down by the convention of “marrying up”. They will be the first ones to object to a union in which the man, at least, is not their financial equal. Their unwillingness to “settle” is often a polite way of saying that they demand material comforts that are simply beyond the financial means of most single men.

    Last year, a Beijing woman publicly berated her boyfriend in the subway, saying a man is “trash” if he cannot provide her with a house; her histrionics was taped by strangers and the video has gone viral online. Is that the face of modern women that Ms. Magazine wants for China?

  15. I loved a home base job, I enjoy it at least I have more time to spend to my family,.

  16. fly2AWAY says:

    I don’t see the problem. There are many more young men than young women in China due to unfortunate government family policies. A 30-year-old woman need merely find herself one of the men under 20 to marry. Sure, there might be some problems with the parents in Chinese culture, but the gender imbalance is so severe this can be overcome.

  17. I don’t believe the government actively promotes this stigma any more than all of society does- in fact the article says the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) has abandoned the term. The government allowed publication of my book “Do not marry before age 30″ which attacks the leftover-woman stigma, and it has actively promoted my book across all government-owned broadcast and digital media. And the ACWF named me one of its 10 Women of the Year for 2012. The book now is a major best-seller across China, having sold 100,000 copies. This is a horrible cultural stereotype but in the name of helping Chinese women be freer and happier, let’s identify the real source of this leftover-woman stigma, so that we can properly address it. It comes from deep-rooted cultural traditions about a woman’s role in society. Joy Chen (www.joychenyu.com)

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