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China’s “Leftover Women” Crawl Toward Emancipation

Nov 18, 2016

In 2015, the prestigious international skin care brand SK-II launched a global campaign to inspire and empower women to shape their own destiny, called #changedestiny. As part of that campaign, a Swedish advertising agency was commissioned to create a 4-minute video, “Marriage Market Takeover,” specifically targeted at a segment of Chinese women called “leftovers” by government definition because they had not married by age 27.  That video quickly went viral.

“Leftover Women” (sheng nu) and 3S women (single, born in the seventies, and stuck) are derogatory terms used to refer to women stigmatized – including by their own parents – because they are single. Physical attractiveness is considered key for women seeking a husband. In the SK-II video one mother said, as her daughter sat next to her fighting back tears, “We always thought our daughter had a great personality. But she’s average looking, not too pretty.  That’s why she’s leftover.” Not surprisingly, plastic surgery to enhance women’s attractiveness is booming in China. But some marriageable Chinese women are consciously holding out for someone they consider “Mr. Right Forever” rather than succumbing to pressure to marry “Mr. Right Now” before they turn 27. Others are focused on careers. Even among those single by choice though, there is no feminist revolution, but instead a slow, emotionally charged crawl away from traditional, societal, and not inconsequential governmental demands on them. 

The Chinese government instituted a one-child policy in 1979 that was maintained until its phased-out in 2015. During that period, families seeking to perpetuate the family lineage would sometimes resort to gender abortions to make sure their one child was a male. Consequently, some 20 million more men than women were born since 1979, creating a gender ratio as of 2015 of 1051 males per 1000 females.
Just as the Chinese government partially created the gender-ratio problem with the one-child policy, the Chinese government also now has good reason to want women to marry young. The Chinese Ministry of Education released a statement in 2007 officially defining unmarried women over the age of 27 as sheng nu. It then went even further, stating that failure to find a husband was due to overly high expectations for marriage partners. Women, it seemed to the Chinese government, were being too picky. Subsequently in 2011 the All-China Women’s Federation, a state agency established in 1949 to protect women’s rights and interests, posted a highly controversial article titled “Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy.”
An excerpt from that post is worth noting:
Pretty girls do not need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family.  But girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult…These girls 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 PhD, they are already old – like yellowed pearls.” 
That post and others posts, including some on matchmaking and dating tips, have since been removed. The term “leftover women” has also been replaced on the All-China Women’s Federation website with the equally disparaging term “old unmarried women.” But common usage of the term sheng nu remains, as does the implication and societal stigma.
State interests in seeing women marry are twofold: to address the gender imbalance it created, and to “upgrade the population quality” (suzhi). First and foremost, among Chinese government concerns is the stability of its over 1.3 billion populace. Frustrated men unable to find brides are considered to greatly increase the risk of social instability and insecurity. The Chinese National State Population and Family Planning Commission estimates that by 2020, there could be 30 million more (?) marrying age males than available females, and that’s not good.
 Consequently, according to Lita Hong Fincher, author of The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, the government is actively trying to pressure single, educated women to stop being ambitious and independent, and instead get married and contribute to the gene pool.  While Chairman Mao proclaimed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution that “women hold up half of heaven,” apparently he meant the “get married and procreate” half. 
But in creating a growing middle class comprised of well-educated men and women, China also provided women the means to live independently. Some choose to do so, though they are sometimes viewed apprehensively – not as stable as their married counterparts -- by employers.  But in 2013, Forbes magazine specifically cited self-made Chinese women as “on the move” among those on its annual billionaires list. Nevertheless, a 2010 CNN survey of 900 women university graduates across 17 Chinese universities found that some 70% said, “their greatest fear is becoming a 3S lady.” Consequently, 90% of Chinese women are married by age 27. That fear stems largely from societal cum familial pressure. 
A father in the SK-II video said if his daughter didn’t marry it would cause him “heart disease” – a broken heart.  In Confucian cultures, respecting your parents is paramount. Confucianism is also very patriarchal.  Confucius wrote, “The Chinese girl was brought up, then as now, with matrimony as her goal.“ Consequently, significant pressure is exerted on women to get married so as not to dishonor parents. This pressure especially plays out during Chinese New Year, when adult children return to their parents’ homes. Boyfriends for hire are a commercial consequence of the pressure felt by stressed out single women, wary of holidays at home alone.
Familial expectations related to marriage and children are also a factor within Chinese families. A 2016 editorial by Yuan Ren on what it’s like to be unmarried at 30 (“as good as dead”) noted that in Chinese families there is an all hands-on deck expectation. “I have emptied urine bottles of my grandparents countless times in hospital without a second thought. Family is family.” Children are expected to take care of elders.
Structural issues come into play for “A-quality” Chinese women as well. Chinese women are expected to “marry up” the socio-economic ladder, while Chinese men marry down. “A” quality men marry “B” quality women; “B” quality men marry “C” quality women, “C” quality men marry “D” quality women. That leaves “D” quality men for the “A” quality women. According to Yong Cai, a University of North Carolina researcher who studies China’s gender imbalance, “men at the bottom of society get left out of the marriage market, and that same pattern is coming to emerge for women at the top of society.”
In fairness, women aren’t the only ones stressing about marriage in China. Part of the “marrying up” tradition for women means that men are expected to come to the marriage with a house and car. But real estate prices in China are such that some men can’t afford to fulfill those expectations. The commercial media has capitalized on the predicaments faced by both men and women on the marriage market.
The dilemma of blue-collar Chinese workers was the subject of a popular music video called “No Car, No House.” A group of women responded regarding their demands with another music video, called “No House, No Car.” A television comedy series titled Will You Marry Me and My Family centers on a career woman in her 30’s whose family is desperately trying to find a spouse for her. There is little subtlety in media messages either. One series a few years ago was called Old Women Should Get Married.
In fairness as well, China is not the only country that stigmatizes single women. The term “spinster” – conjuring up the image of matrons in dowdy clothes with tight hair buns – was used in the relationship history section of marriage certificates in the United Kingdom until the 2004 Civil Partnership Act mandated replacement with the word “single.” Japan has used a term meaning “Christmas cakes” to refer to unmarried women beyond what was the national average for marriage – alluding to nobody wanting a Christmas cake after December 25. In 1986 in the United States, Newsweek magazine featured an article stating that a woman’s chances of getting married after 40 were less than her chances of being killed by a terrorist. That article was a reference to an exchange between the women characters in the 1993 Hollywood blockbuster Sleepless in Seattle.
Where single Chinese women suffer considerably more potential humiliation than their Western counterparts though is in the Marriage Markets, where parents go to “advertise” their children. The SK-II video shows these marriage markets, including using one as an opportunity to have their single daughters accepted by their parents. The ad further shows single women, in a positive vein, that they are not alone.
Lita Hong Fincher believes that Chinese women are at a turning point. The term “the sheng nu economy” recognizes that educated single women are an economic force. Some Chinese women have also taken to dating foreign men, looking for mates with less patriarchal views. Premarital sex is also becoming more common among women in China. Urban divorce rates are going up, and online dating has not skipped China. Women have options. Seizing those options, however, is tempered by feelings of traditional obligation and expectations. A feminist revolution in China is unlikely, but change is happening. 
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