Leftover women

China is in the news for many reasons. There is the on-going trade war with the United States….. The persecution of the Uighur minority. The country continues its dizzying rise to modernity, with cities being completely redesigned in a few years.

One interesting social phenomenon that has recently been documented is the rise of the ‘leftover woman,’ (Sheng nu). This derogatory phrase refers to a woman over 26 (or thereabouts), who is not married or in a relationship. From the point of view of the labeller, its not a positive term, and it’s unlikely that any woman would want to refer herself as such. Nevertheless, with more and more young women in China choosing to delay or in some cases avoid marriage completely, many young women are so scared of being given the classification that they are doing whatever they can to find a husband.

Marriage markets are popping up in towns across the country. Here, parents display photographs and mini biographies of their daughters in the hope of attracting potential partners. And on dates, where women are trained to act as demurely as possible, they are advised to not assert themselves in any way or mention their careers.

A weekly marriage market in Shanghai

Who might be considered ‘leftover’?

In theory, any woman above a certain age without prospects could be considered a leftover woman. However, it’s typically used to denigrate women who choose to ignore Chinese culture and tradition that says they should marry and start a family as soon as possible.

Any woman over 26 faces great social and familial pressure to look for a husband.

What are the reasons for the leftover women?

China’s growing middle class are increasingly well-educated; often much more so than their parents. They study more, often overseas. The one-child policy introduced in 1980, meant that women born in this period are considered by the older generation to be the most spoiled in history. Yet they are also perhaps the most fortunate, being born at a time of greater prosperity and fortune than their parents and grandparents. Women who grew up without siblings (even though parents typically preferred a son) had more of their parent’s attention and were able to enjoy a better education going further than what would normally be available to women in families with sons. As a result, many of today’s young women are focusing on their careers, choosing to provide for themselves and get ahead.

Lack of suitors

The men in China are sometimes unfairly depicted in American cinema as unreliable, addicted to gambling and alcohol. Whether this is the reality, there must be a reason why Chinese women are choosing not to marry. Whilst 28 is hardly considered old for women in Western countries, it’s different in China. Many men want somebody younger than them, which explains why so many Chinese women are marrying abroad. It is also worth noting that women are often so much more educated that men cannot accept the prospect of being married to someone more successful than they are.

“Leftover women” seems to be a handy term to describe a problem that isn’t really a problem at all. The emergence of women with greater economic independence and education is of great advantage to China, especially when women become successful internationally. The population of China has stayed steady and  -even though the one-child policy has been rescinded – families are having smaller families anyway, reducing the poverty and the starvation of the Cultural Revolution.

Women

With 15 million more men than women in China, there are is a shortage of brides. It’s strange that it’s the men who are often being left behind, – by a rapidly modern society – but women are the ones being labelled as ‘leftover’.

Hint of misogyny?

To some, the term “leftover woman” is an attempt to stigmata a certain segment of women who are using more freedom that is now available to them, exactly the freedom that men have always had available to them as a matter of course. And more to the point, people aren’t happy that women are no longer happy to just stay at home and look after children. At the heart of the issue is there are women in China, a country considered at the other side of the world geographically and politically, who are closer to women in the west than those in small villages only a few hundred miles away.

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