The “leftover woman” trope has been causing a stir in China in recent years – especially following the “yellowing pearls” article published on the All-China Women’s Federation website in 2012. This is “sheng nv” – urban, educated women over twenty-seven who are still single – uncovered.
Photo: Matthijs Koster
To an outsider, the “sheng nv” phenomenon may seem like just another facet of China’s more conservative society, a cultural phenomenon whose subtleties will always befuddle us to an extent, much like the thorny issue of face. After all, Chinese people are generally expected to marry younger than in many Western nations, where, indeed, not marrying at all is also an option. Though the median age of marriage is rising in China – especially in big cities such as Beijing, where the average age at first marriage in 2012 was 27, a year up from 2009 – there is still intense pressure to marry while under 30, and preferably before 27. Filial piety, so often cited by sociologists, plays a big part in this cultural issue: to follow social norms is to show respect to one’s parents and honor the family.
What are “left-over” women?
As it turns out, darker forces are at work. “Sheng nv” (literally ‘leftover women’, “剩女”) is officially defined as urban educated women over the age of 27, who are still single – a part of the workforce that has unquestionably contributed to China’s massive economic breakthrough. So how did urban educated women end up getting the short end of the stick, derided in the media, labelled as undesirable and somehow deficient, after everything they’ve done for the good of the nation?
The shame game
In 2007, the Chinese government issued an edict regarding the Social and Family Planning Program, addressing the gender imbalance and saying urgent action was needed to halt the “threat to social stability” that it poses. A state-sponsored campaign to shame women into rushing into marriage began, spurred on by comics in newspapers such as the People’s Daily and supposedly objective articles published on the Internet, including the well-known piece put out by the All-China Women’s Federation: "Pretty girls do not need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family … 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 PhD, they are already old, like yellowed pearls."
It is no coincidence that the women being targeted are “educated” and “urban”: they will, after all, produce the most “high-quality” children, who will continue to further the development of the country. By this logic, urban women ought to complete their degrees – with top marks, naturally – and then turn to the all-important quest for a husband.
The “leftover women” campaign has had practical implications from the beginning, deepening the gender wealth gap in China. A commonly held notion about Chinese women is that their first interest when getting married is whether or not their potential suitor owns a home. What often goes unspoken is the fact that in countless cases, women and their parents contribute financially to the purchase of the house. This has several implications.
As Leta Hong Fincher, a sociologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has noted: “Marriage is inextricably linked to housing in China, and when women are pressured into marrying, they almost inevitably enter into this pressure to buy a home and fall prey to financial, social and regulatory forces that end up hurting women. For a number of reasons, women don’t feel comfortable asking to put their names on housing deeds, which means males walk away with full ownership of the marital home. Wealth acquired through the property and its appreciation goes directly to the male.”
In 2011, China’s Marriage Law was amended to state that “marital property belongs to the person whose name is on the home deed” – where previously it belonged to both parties. In practice, this means women often walk away with nothing in case of a divorce – and stay-at-home women, encouraged to put their careers on the back-burner, thanks in part to the “Sheng Nv” campaign, are particularly vulnerable.
As has been pointed out in the past, women tend to “marry up”: the man usually comes from a higher socioeconomic bracket. This is true in many countries, but more so in China, where the cultural norm is that the man’s superiority in terms of wealth and schooling is almost always a given. Thus, a highly-educated woman will be less likely to marry a man who has not been educated to an equal or higher degree. For a number of reasons, highly educated Chinese women outnumber men of the same status who are also unmarried in their late twenties, lessening their marriage prospects.
What is never mentioned in the campaign to shame these women is the hard fact that at birth, Chinese men outnumber Chinese women: 118 boys to every 100 girls born, a consequence in part of the now-loosened One Child Policy. The aim of the government in promoting the idea of the unlovable “leftover woman” is twofold: “high-quality”, educated elites will have well-educated, wealthy children, who will contribute to China’s development; and social stability will not be threatened by a high number of frustrated bachelors.
To an outsider, the openness of the state campaign encouraging China’s “leftover women” to settle may come as a surprise. Cohabitation before marriage is seen as very normal in much of Europe and America; not marrying is becoming increasingly normal; in general, life decisions are made by the individual, with a lesser degree of social pressure.
It is unclear how the “leftover women” issue will pan out. Women’s rights organizations in China are thin on the ground, and many women succumb to family pressure to marry. Others, increasingly, are staying single, in defiance of what they see as an oppressive social norm that holds no relevance to their life. What is certain is that these highly-educated women are paving the way for unprecedented social change, in China and elsewhere. And for this, they ought to be applauded, not derided.
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Keywords: Sheng Nv gender imbalance in China leftover women
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This arcticle should be called "Leftover Chinese men". How many Chinese men go to Vietnam to find wives now, because they cant get a wife back home? Western men know how to treat a woman far better than a Chinese man. I should know, I was married to one. Good God, why do Chinese women stay married to these pigs??
Sep 17, 2014 01:33 Report Abuse
it part of the overall plan to combat the myth of human overpopulation. I also think the reason the US medical system is in shambles is due to this supposed "overpopulation problem". Agenda 21 goes a bit further saying we are causing too much problems to the environment, thus the hordes of humans need to be huddled into giant urban areas like rats crowded into a lab cage. The future is quite grim for the future non-elite masses of humanity IMHO
Sep 06, 2014 10:06 Report Abuse
The shame campaign to get married by the age of 30 did not begin in 2007. It has been part of the Chinese culture for eons. Another problem is that most Chinese women are forced, by their families, not to explore and marry other nationalities. Many of them might also be educated in their fields of study but do not have proper education to "carry" themselves in western society making them unattractive to many foreigners. Most are not adventurous and need to be close to their families permanently. Even most educated Chinese women are not open-minded and are unemotional, hardly ever stressing their opinions. They feel like the man needs to make most of the money, pay for everything and make all the first moves. They have problems with communication and would usually choose a bad mannered Chinese man before choosing a foreign man. Chinese women complicate their own lives and only they and their families are to blame. If they want to follow old traditional ways then their education is not going to help them. Many of the Chinese traditional practices need to be eliminated before social progress can be made.
Sep 04, 2014 09:58 Report Abuse
Asian men features.... Asia is not composed of china only. there are many countries in it. features you are talking about r Chinese only. though Chinese men attractive. they are not that bad as we consider them. the fact is money matters every where. for marriage house, car, sweet bank balance, high class job to some extent is considered the top priority for both of the families- girl and boy together. when one is compromised, relationship is called off. i have friends who are well educated, they are doctors, engineers even Ph.Ds in them. most of them are unmarried because they can not afford to buy the house right now and the expenses on marriage and after marriage as well. so money talks every where. its never about handsomeness or being sexy. Chinese looks for a good provider and kind guys.
Sep 03, 2014 15:23 Report Abuse
Eorthisio. Spoken like a true racist. Western men do abuse women. 22.1% of women in the USA have experienced a violent assault from a male partner according to a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice Report. Why don't you just admit you are a racist? It'd save me the time of having to point it out every time you post rubbish like this.
Sep 04, 2014 14:42 Report Abuse
I don't know why you guys are dumping on Eorthisio! He is absolutely right! Domestic Violence: 25% of women have been a victim of domestic violence. 1/3 of marriages have domestic violence in CHINA Look up these: Incidence of Domestic violence in China is as high as 30% ... twittweb.com/incidence+domestic+viol-19418832 Related tweets — «Incidence of Domestic violence in China is as high as 30%. The divorce rate here is also rising. Abuse, Fear and Shame in China - NYTimes.com www.nytimes.com/.../abuse-fear-and-shame-in-china.html Jan 29, 2014 · Domestic violence isn’t a country ... 25 percent of married women in China have experienced domestic violence. ... in print on January 30, ... (In short... Chinese men beat the shit out of their wives. Just ask the women!!!!!) Equality: Most men in China DON'T want a woman with a higher education or complete independence. Sexuality: Western men have more experience in talking to and handling women. This is true. 30 years ago, Chinese men didn't have game at all. They smell like garlic from eating that crap straight and don't use deodorant at all. On tiny ding dongs and western features being more attractive, I don't agree. BUT, most Chinese men smoke and DON'T work out. When they do work out, they drink baijui and smoke. So, they look horrid due to this. Chinese men get angry at the truth, but it is true. 1/3 marriages have domestic violence. That is a lot of ass kicking.
Sep 04, 2014 17:38 Report Abuse
A woman 27-30 is considered "left-over"... dare I say if shes 33 or older she's a dinosaur then ? In the similar vein, there are more men than women insomuch that men are looking to places like Vietnam for wives. Only in China, so yeah Im not shocked nor surprised either.
Sep 06, 2014 10:18 Report Abuse