Are you an educated professional woman, over 27 years old and single? If yes and you are in China, then you are a “sheng nu,” or “leftover woman.”
As a “sheng nu,” a rather derogatory term for older unmarried women, you’re very likely to be under great societal and family pressure to get married as soon as possible. With so many women in China facing such a prejudice, the “sheng nu” phenomenon even caught the attention of Japanese cosmetic giant SK-II, which recently released a new documentary-style commercial to inspire these women to stand up against the society’s discrimination against them and change their destiny.
Was “Sheng Nu” Really Part of an Orchestrated State Campaign?
Image Source: The Chairmans Bao
So, why is there such a term in China in the first place? Where did it come from? Ironically, “sheng nu” first appeared on the website of the All-China Women’s Federation, a government agency aimed at protecting women’s rights. According to American sociologist Leta Hong Fincher, who got a Ph.D. at Tsinghua University in China, the Women’s Federation used this term as part of an orchestrated state campaign to push “high-quality” women into marriage and having children.
In 2007, the Women’s Federation defined “leftover women” as unmarried women over the age of 27 and China’s Ministry of Education added the term to its official lexicon. Fincher, the author of a book entitled “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China,” reiterated in a recent interview with Hong Kong Free Press that the phenomenon of “leftover women” was actually created by the Chinese government through a “very aggressive state media campaign.”
Such an argument does seem to make sense. Right before the website of the Women’s Federation posted its first article on “leftover women” in 2007, China’s State Council issued an edict to address “unprecedented population pressures,” one of which is that men greatly outnumber women. The one-child policy led to a skewed gender ratio at birth – 118 boys to every 100 girls – largely due to sex-selective abortion. It is estimated that at least 24 million Chinese men will be left with no women to marry in 2020. As it is believed that the accumulation of unmarried men of marrying age will greatly increase the risk of social instability and insecurity, China wants these single, educated women to stop being so ambitious and get married already. Stability has always been the Chinese government’s top priority after all.
As it is believed that the accumulation of unmarried men of marrying age will greatly increase the risk of social instability and insecurity, China wants these single, educated women to stop being so ambitious and get married already. “
Chinese Government Pressures Educated Women to Increase “Population Quality”
The other major population pressure facing China is the so-called “low quality of its population.” Fincher wrote in her New York Times editorial published on October 11, 2012, that China had named “upgrading population quality” as one of its key goals, so it “appoints the Women’s Federation as a primary implementer of its population planning policy.”
“What better way to upgrade population quality than to frighten ‘high-quality’ women into marrying and having a child for the good of the nation?” Fincher asks in the editorial.
To support her argument, Fincher referred to several articles posted on the website of the Women’s Federation as evidence that there was really a state campaign to stigmatize unmarried women to pressure them into marriage.
One of such articles on the website indicates that it is the women’s own fault that they become “leftover women.” An excerpt of the article says: “The main reason many girls become ‘leftover women’ is that their standards for a partner are too high…As girls are not too picky, finding a partner should be as easy as blowing away a speck of dust.”
Another article even says in a very insulting manner that more education will prevent women from having a good marriage. “Girls with an average or ugly appearance…hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is they don’t realize that, as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their MA or Ph.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls.”
Zhang Jing, founder and executive director of Women’s Rights in China, echoed Fincher’s opinion from another perspective. She says that the Chinese communist government has a hidden agenda to keep women inside the box of marriage, the Voice of America reported recently.
Zhang also criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping for his lack of vision in addressing gender inequity as he openly encouraged Chinese women to put family harmony first while speaking to the All-China Women’s Federation in 2013.
Tradition of “Marrying Young and Up” Contributes to Large Number of “Leftover Women”
Although as an expert on “leftover women,” Fincher has been widely recognized in China for her insightful ideas on the issue, not everybody agrees with her. Many have regarded her opinions as “conspiracy theory.” They hold that the society’s discrimination against “leftover women” has little to do with the government, instead, it’s mainly due to the Chinese tradition that women should marry young and “marry up.”
Throughout the long history of China, women were always believed to have a bigger role in their families than in the society. Confucius, China’s foremost ancient thinker wrote: “The Chinese girl was brought up, then as now, with matrimony in view as her goal,” and “the woman follows the man. In her youth she follows her father and elder brother; when married, she follows her husband; when her husband is dead, she follows her son.”
Leftover girls resent family’s pressure-Image Source: A plus
According to these tenets, marriage in China had less to do with romantic love, and more with filial duty and societal stability. Although in modern times Chinese women are more independent and supposed to be equal with men in the society, most still face harsh judgments for remaining unmarried past a certain age. In other words, if a Chinese woman is still not married past the age of 30, people would likely think that there must be a problem with her.
Another pressure that unmarried women may face in China is that they must marry a guy of higher social status in terms of intellect, wealth, and career. Such a social norm has skewed China’s marriage market, leading to a situation where many women simply can’t find a suitable man to marry. Now that Chinese women are more educated and financially independent, there are just not enough men with high status.
“Marrying up” also means that it’s mostly the man’s responsibility to purchase an apartment for the marriage. In Chinese culture, a marital home should be purchased, not rented. Nowadays with extremely high prices in China’s property market, however, buying an apartment would be beyond the financial ability of most men of marrying age if without a helping hand from their parents. In Beijing, for instance, properties sell at an average of 33,000 Yuan (around $5,170) per square meter, and the average monthly salary is less than 7,000 Yuan (around $1,098). Yet, according to a survey of young people conducted in some of China’s big cities in 2012, a man’s ability to provide a home is something that three-quarters of potential brides consider before marrying him.
Some people have summarized the Chinese tradition of hypergamy, or “marrying up,” in a simpler and more straightforward way. In a BBC Magazine report entitled “China’s ‘leftover women,’ unmarried at 27,” which was published in February 2013, a 29-year-old lady Huang Yuanyuan used letter grades to describe a man’s status. “There is an opinion that A-quality guys will find B-quality women, B-quality guys will find C-quality women, and C-quality men will find D-quality women,” she was quoted as saying. “The people left are A-quality women and D-quality men. So if you are a leftover woman, you are A-quality.”
The mismatch between A-quality women and D-quality men has largely contributed to the huge number of “leftover women” and “bare branches,” a derogatory term for unmarried men, in the country.
The obstacle that prevents an A-quality woman from finding her Mr. Right is that women are supposed to “marry up” also in terms of age. In other words, older husbands often take younger wives, but older women rarely marry younger men. The situation hurts the chances of older women, who must compete with younger rivals for men their own age. This leads to a scenario where women, especially A-quality women, often end up not marrying at all if they fail to marry early.
By the same token, men tend to “marry down” in China. But there is one standard on which most men is unlikely to compromise – physical attributes. It is widely agreed that Chinese men would always prefer to have pale-skinned, slender and pretty women as their wives. Under great pressures to marry a Prince Charming, many Chinese women resort to strict weight-losing regimens and even cosmetic surgeries to make them more “marketable.”
Desperate Parents Of Single Children Attend “Matchmaking Events”
Parents at match-making event-Image Source: Post Magazine
There is no doubt that most “leftover women” still want to tie the knot eventually, and many of them do not mind waiting until they find the right guy to marry. With many of the traditional values regarding marriage still prevailing today, however, the society and their families would not let them wait. So in China, it is a real struggle for women who feel trapped between the pressures to get married and a fear of settling for someone they have little in common with.
As it is generally believed in China that girls must marry and have a child to have a complete life, many “leftover women” are afraid that they will be regarded by their friends and neighbors as abnormal. And their parents may also likely feel that they are losing face, especially when their friends all have grandchildren already.
As a result, it’s common for Chinese parents to grill their children of marrying age about their single status. And it’s not unusual to see parents of single children at various “marriage markets,” carrying pieces of paper containing information about their children, such as their jobs, levels of education and salaries. They gather at such matchmaking events in the hope of matching their child with the offspring of another desperate parent.
Following the release of the video ad by SK-II, Chinese writer Yuan Ren wrote in her column for The Telegraph newspaper that families’ pressure applied on “leftover women” to get married are often very harsh. “For me, it’s the vicious attack on single Chinese women that really smarts…close family is usually when the most hurtful jabs fire.”
For many unmarried women, going back to visit their parents at their hometowns during holidays can be an extremely unpleasant experience because they may be lectured once again about their singlehood. China’s largest online marketplace, Taobao, has taken advantage of these women’s anxiety and created a lucrative business: “rent-a-boyfriend.” With a fake boyfriend, these desperate women at least could enjoy several days of peace in front of their parents.
For many unmarried women, not only do they feel pressures from their families, but also from co-workers. According to a feature article entitled “China’s ‘Leftover Women,” published on the website AJ Jazeera English, a 51-year-old named Lily Lu said that being single has definitely not been fun for her at her workplace. “I love my job and am protective of my position. But the worst part about being unmarried at my age is how my colleagues view me,” she was quoted as saying.
Zhang Lin, another unmarried woman interviewed in the article, said that she felt open discrimination from her coworkers. “My female supervisors talk about me and treat me like a weirdo because I’m unmarried. They make me feel like I mustn’t be able to do my job properly because I don’t have a husband. It’s the worst feeling and it’s always there.”
Should “Leftover Women” Really Lower Their Standards in Finding Husbands?
As more women and advocates of women’s rights have complained about the stigmatization of older unmarried women over the past several years, the All-China Women’s Federation has stopped using the term “leftover women” and removed all the articles regarding the subject from its website. But it doesn’t mean that “leftover women” is no longer an issue in the eyes of the Chinese government.
In big cities, local government organizations still frequently arrange matchmaking events for unmarried men and women, including these marriage markets that usually take place in parks, such as Zhongshan Park in Beijing and People’s Park in Shanghai. Also, in almost all cities, there are government-run marriage agencies to help people find a spouse.
Image Source: Journal Global
At the same time, government officials and state-run media still urge women to lower their standards in looking for a husband. According to a 2014 Post Magazine article entitled “A good man is hard to find: China’s ‘leftover women’ look for love abroad,” an official in charge of the annual Matchmaking Expo in Shanghai accused women of demanding too much in men. “Women should be lowering their expectations and learning to tolerate men’s flaws,” says Zhou Juemen, general manager of the government-sponsored Shanghai Women’s Activity Center.
According to the same article, many unmarried women in their late 20s or older are dating outside their ethnicity to increase their chances of finding a husband. It says that “leftover women” are increasingly likely to choose Western men to date because they are generally believed to be more open-minded and egalitarian in terms of gender roles.
But cultural differences in inter-racial relationships are hard to overcome. The article quoted Jessie Zhou Jin, who moved to London a few years ago, as saying that dating Westerners had not been a pleasant experience. “I suffered a lot because they all seemed so cold and uncommitted.”
Mei Deng, another unmarried woman featured in the article, also had her share of frustration about dating Westerners. “Most foreigners come to me for sex not a relationship,” said Deng, who moved to Australia in 2013. “I thought a relationship should be built first and sex comes after, but casual sex is very normal here.”
“Leftover Women” May Eventually Get a Break as People’s Mindset Changes
Although there may be no easy fix for the issue of “leftover women,” there have been positive signs that these women will be facing much less discrimination as time goes by. While traditional ideas about marriage in China aren’t being abandoned altogether, they are evolving. Not only are “leftover women” changing minds about themselves, but also the public mind is more favorable toward these unmarried women as well.
The above-mentioned Zhang Lin in the feature article “China’s ‘Leftover Women” said that she no longer felt humiliated about being a singleton. “Before I was made to feel shame, and now I’m proud, comfortable. The mindset, in bigger cities especially, is changing,” Zhang was quoted as saying. “China’s becoming more open and people are starting to talk about it and even laugh about it. Slowly, we’re getting over being ‘leftover.’”
The All-China Women’s Federation, which used to play a big role in stigmatizing “leftover women,” seems to have adjusted its stance on the phenomenon as well. Mu Hong, director of the International Department of the Women’s Federation, said in late 2014 that it’s never too late for “leftover women” to get married.
Being interviewed during the APEC Leaders’ Meeting Week in Beijing, Mu said that women should be independent and enjoy the right to pursue their career, love and marriage. “As long as it’s something beautiful, they should pursue it, nobody will be left over.”
The change in attitude toward older unmarried women is also reflected on China’s social media after the SK-II video went viral. On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, there were more encouraging words than harsh criticism about “leftover women.”
According to a report by the VOA on the ad, Weibo user Na Mi Zi commented: “They are under so much pressure, from a mundane point of view. But really, it’s more important to just be yourself and happy.”
Such comments may indicate the China will eventually become a country just like the United States and Britain, where single women in their late 20s or even 30s do not feel the pressure to get married at all.
Just like in China today, there was a time when American media also made a fuss about older unmarried women. A 1986 Newsweek cover and featured story said that “women who weren’t married by 40 had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of finding a husband.” At the time, the story did cause a wave of anxiety and some skepticism among professional and highly educated women in the United States. But today, according to a U.N. study in 2012, nearly half of all women between 25 and 29 in the United States are single, and apparently nobody cares about it. In Britain, the percentage is even much higher. According to the same study, 74% of British women aged 25-29 were single in 2012, which obviously is not something disturbing at all in the country.
According to statistics, in China there were about 15 million unmarried urban women in their late 20s and older by 2010. It will definitely be a relief for these women if China is steadily evolving toward an open society just like that of the United States. But to the Chinese government, it can be disastrous because it means that the chance for the legions of unmarried single males to get married is even slimmer.
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