Watch out folks, there’s a new breed of women in town. China’s notorious shengnv (剩女)—literally translated as “leftover women”—are the lucky ladies who’ve reached the age of 27, but have not yet married. This term was added to China’s Ministry of Education official word list in 2007, and the government has been aggressively using it to warn women what will happen if they don’t marry early. Leftover women, sharing a name with the sloppy doggy bags carrying remnants of meals gone by, is an interesting social phenomenon in China. Why are these ladies being set apart? Why don’t men want them? In a land with a male dominated gender imbalance, how can this be happening?
Li Bingbing—a leftover lady herself—in “I Do”, a film on the phenomenon. Photo: china.org.cn
When considering the leftover women phenomenon, China’s gender imbalance cannot be overlooked. It widely considered one of the world’s most worrying demographic changes to occur in recent decades. According to a 2012 article in The Telegraph, the number of men in China exceeds the number of women by 30 million and this number is still expected to increase over the several decades. This serious imbalance is a product of the preference for sons and sex-selective abortions whose effect was only truly realized from the eighties onward after the one-child policy was implemented to control population growth. This significantly affects the marriage market—but with so many more men than women, why all the hype about the leftover women? This is where government propaganda plays a role. A 2010 report produced by the All-China Women’s Federation documented ‘findings’ on these leftover ladies and has been repeatedly publicized in an effort to scare young women and marry off as many shengnan (leftover men) as possible. Critics have labeled their effort as “a sexist media campaign by a government facing a severe demographic crisis”. And a crisis it is: the government’s census department predicts that by 2040, the population under the age of 40 will consist of 300 million men and 250 million women.
Types of Leftover Women
The government has certainly disseminated their derogatory definition of this class of women. Studies done by the China Women’s Federation have concluded that a leftover woman’s singlehood is a result of things like her narrow social circle, less active lifestyle, emotional issues, and inability to interact with the opposite sex. State media reports aside, what are these women really like? Let’s look at three common groups of leftover ladies and associated cultural institutions that might make men shy away from them.
1) The Highly-Educated and Accomplished
This group of women has chosen to focus on themselves, their education, and their personal accomplishments. They have stepped beyond the boundary of marriage by age 24, and instead have chosen to dedicate these years to advancing themselves as an individual. This decision is in complete contradiction to Confucius’s teaching that societal duty always comes before individual desires. Perhaps this type of woman is acting out of perceived necessity because she doesn’t have ‘the look’ that will score her a successful husband with large sums of money in the bank. So she decides to find success herself, and that she does. By the time she realizes that she would like to settle down, she’s wasted her prime years earning her MBA, PhD, or climbing the corporate ladder. Her value, in the opinion of society, has dwindled and she is no longer an object of desire.
Considering the deep-rooted belief in China that a woman must marry up in social class, this creates a complicated situation for highly accomplished women. The man’s superiority in the relationship is jeopardized, leading him to believe that this type of woman is too ‘high-maintenance’ for him. He would rather opt for the younger woman who, in his mind, is more manageable. This is an effort on the man’s part to adhere with tradition—to follow what they know and see—and do what’s considered ‘normal’. As sad as it may seem, we can’t necessarily view it as a flaw in the man (or the woman) but rather a problem of a dated social system that is no longer attuned to today’s changing environment.
2) The Modern, Progressive Woman
While it is no secret that some women in China use marriage as a means to acquire wealth, this group of women is different. The modern, progressive leftover woman is generally educated, well-to-do and independent. She has less of a need than her mother or grandmother to enter a marriage for economic reasons. So rather than focusing on tradition, she decides to pursue true love on her own terms. She listens – in disagreement—to her mother’s unrelenting reminders that true love doesn’t really exist and marriage should be approached with a materialistic attitude. The progressive woman doesn’t want to marry solely for the sake of being married. She doesn’t need to rely on a man for monetary reasons; she would rather pursue a companionship rooted in love rather than one she’s settled for. Her decision to stray from tradition is not accepted by her family, but she carries on, proud to be living life as she sees fit.
This non-traditional attitude doesn’t fare well with Chinese men. Despite the rapid changes taking place beneath their feet, it seems that a vast majority of men in modern China are still treading the traditional path. They’ve held on to the notion that the woman’s role is to manage the household so that the man can attend to public affairs. We can see where this would create a challenge in the case of the progressive leftover woman, wanting to stray from tradition and also be involved in “outside” matters. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to find situations where both the wife and the husband are bringing home the bread. But the hierarchy still exists marking the man as the pillar of the family. The woman, while possibly also working, doesn’t dare to be so career-minded at the cost of the household or future generations. This raises an immediate red flag in a man’s mind a non-traditional woman.
3) The One with the High Standards
The gender imbalance in China has proven to be advantageous to women active in the dating scene, allowing them to be more selective when it comes to finding a mate. This type of woman is exploring her options and upping her standards. Some critics believe that leftover women are single for this reason: their standards are too high. Perhaps this is true in some situations; the quest for perfection is ultimately a lost cause. But there isn’t any harm in weighing the competition. Chinese men will probably tell you that this type of woman is looking for something that can’t be obtained. Meanwhile, the leftover woman is blaming it on deficiencies in Chinese men. Fingers can be pointed in every direction in this situation. But this girl has options and she’s not afraid to pursue them, with or without judgment. We all know she’s not the only one guilty of this crime.
Unfortunately, spending years searching for the ideal man isn’t doing her any good in society’s mind. Cultural institutions imply that the further a woman strays from the ideal marriage age of 24, the harder and harder it will be for her to secure a husband. A 2010 study from the China Women’s Federation found that 90% of men think that women should marry before the age of 27, while more than 50% of women feel that the ideal marriage age is 28-30. Of course the age game isn’t a situation unique to China. But it is more than just a biological concern here, it is part of a timeline that’s been engraved into the minds of the people and they’re not easily forgetting it.
The future of China’s leftover women
China’s leftover ladies phenomenon will persist in years to come. This type of woman isn’t disappearing and society’s view that a woman—no matter her success—is nothing until she’s married probably isn’t changing anytime soon either. The decades-old gender imbalance continues to grow, leaving Chinese men in an unlucky position and causing an increase in the number of people who remain unmarried. Chinese parents are fighting stronger than ever to ensure that their child doesn’t end up in this category. Eager parents are pulling out all the stops -- marriage markets, matchmaking, blind dates, ultimatums, training courses – whatever it takes to carry on their namesake. Oh, and just because the men of China aren’t giving in to the leftover women doesn’t mean they’re completely without hope. Foreign men seem find these women very alluring and are lining up to date China’s “leftovers”. Rest assured ladies, life will go on.
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I think a lot of this may be true in many societies, and not just China: "Overly" educated, Wealthy, and women with high standards. To many men this can be very intimidating; not only in China. How many manual laborers do you see married to doctors, or poor men marry rich women? Not do say that these sorts of marriages are non-existant in western society, but I think people will generally marry within the same social/economic class. Perhaps though in the west its the woman who does the rejects the man of "lower-class". I think the difference is that in China, a lot of guys say that they would never marry a wealthy woman because they would be unable to provide for them. Even this is a pretty reasonable fear though.
Feb 28, 2013 00:53 Report Abuse
While I continue to lust after these "left over" women I also value my sanity. There's an opportunity here for a smart individual to gather these women together onto a website and market them to western guys. Oh, that's already happening? OK. ToyJToy is correct. This problem is not limited to China and many well educated, affluent, western women ignore the call of motherhood and their maternal instincts to live a different life. My concern is what on earth will 50 million single, Chinese men be doing to fulfil the male need of "wine, women and song"?
Feb 28, 2013 07:20 Report Abuse
"This is where government propaganda plays a role. A 2010 report produced by the All-China Women’s Federation documented ‘findings’ on these leftover ladies and has been repeatedly publicized in an effort to scare young women and marry off as many shengnan (leftover men) as possible." So the leftover ladies phenomenon is actually a government-created effort to address the leftover guys phenomenon? mind = blown
Feb 28, 2013 09:28 Report Abuse
> narrow social circle, less active lifestyle, emotional issues, and inability to interact with the opposite sex Much of which is caused by the fact that as teenagers all they (can) do is study, study and study some more for the all important gaokao. And after university graduaction many focus fully on work. A lot of Chinese people have a very small social circle and few close friends. It's also the reason why mid-twenty Chinese young people still appear like teenagers to westerners. > "Perhaps this type of woman is acting out of perceived necessity because she doesn’t have ‘the look’ that will score her a successful husband with large sums of money in the bank." Perhaps not ... beauty is an important success factor for a career in China. If you're not pretty enough you can get your face knocked into shape. Why did you think the cosmetic surgery clinics are doing such good business. > "They’ve held on to the notion that the woman’s role is to manage the household so that the man can attend to public affairs." This is also not necessarily true anymore, since a lot of kids are left with their grandparents while the parents both work to make ends meet. In the worst cases they both work in another province, only seeing their kids during Spring Festival. Katie, this is a nice article but not much more than a summary of other articles that have recently been published. Most of it simply echoes what was written in this article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21320560 For a more in-depth analysis I recommend the book "Behind the Red Door". Which reminds me, there's another reason why 'leftover women' are not very popular. The fact that they are unmarried does not mean they do not have sex. And a lot of Chinese men still prefer to marry a virgin. There's lots of interesting stuff about this in the mentioned book ... > "Foreign men seem find these women very alluring and are lining up to date China’s “leftovers”." Well, I got married to what Chinese would consider a leftover woman last year. Thanks for not wanting her ! :-)
Feb 28, 2013 14:51 Report Abuse
leftover women in china has to do with one thing. men in this country do not know how to treat women (in all aspects). for those comparing china's leftover women with single women in other countries, you are wrong to do so. in other countries, people are free to remain single. there is no pressure put on people to marry and have a child. in other countries , you do not have to marry in order to legally have a child. chinese men are still trying to live in a world where women are 2nd class citizens and property , sold from their parents to a man. they do not realize that that world no longer exist. exhibit A, how many of these leftover women will still be leftover after meeting a good single foreign guy? exhibit b, look at that garbage the govt says about these women.
Feb 28, 2013 17:14 Report Abuse
You have made some good points, one thing is the chinese guys dont want to marry them , but get jealous to see them with a foreigner. The women should be allowed to do what they want without any governmental pressure, its a bit funny , it seems in this country everything is runned by the govt, they will even tell you the style you have to use on the bed, excuse me for that. People should be free because freedom is progressive.
May 21, 2014 16:54 Report Abuse
Item (4) should be added: ugly women. I'm not sarcastic at all, this is real tragedy for a woman to be unattractive. For me personally, if the person doesn't attract me physically, disregarding how nice personality and clever she is, relationship is impossible. I wonder if all men are like me. Ugly, physically weak or disabled man still can develop and realize himself in his profession, hobby, sport, accumulating money, etc., but this is not the way for woman, because the woman who had never given birth to a child feels like the gun which never made a single shot. What is the way for non-good looking women to avoid lonely life - unfortunately, I don't have an answer for this question. :(
Mar 01, 2013 00:52 Report Abuse
Oh God.. how handsome do you think you are to judge a woman in this way ???? "Mr " Max .... Do you think a woman will look at you ???? and not only about your look, but look at you how you are thinking.... And for nothing a man has money if he is stupid and when open his mouth , a woman must to run away as far as she can.............. For the way how you judge a woman, I am sure you will be in the group of "single men" here !
Mar 01, 2013 15:41 Report Abuse
Don't blame Chinese men in this ! Is not true that a Chinese man don't know to treat a woman ! He know more than good and with more more respect than a western man ! A Chinese man like to help a woman with money, but Western man will never do this ... For Chinese man to give money gift is a sign that he is powerful and he can offer material stability, but a Western man say only words ! I am western woman here, but I would never dating with a Western man , sorry you all, but WEstern men don't know to treat a woman , all what they think they know well to do is about sex and impress with their size probably a woman, but not the size is important in a man, but how he play his size and role as a man =))
Mar 01, 2013 15:35 Report Abuse
Please say the truth and shame the devil, you are not a foreigner, infact you a chinese guy, your point is even defeated, giving money to a woman means stability? Who told you that? A woman should be trained in such a way she can stand alone, with or without a man, this is why the chinese men a scared of educated women because they cant be bullied, you cant bully a foreign woman. about 80% of chinese women are too strong for the men, I mean intellectually.
May 21, 2014 17:00 Report Abuse
If we agree that the category of "left over ladies" is propaganda made by the All-China Women's Federation, let's just stop using the term! This is a fake problem to pressure women into thinking that their only value in society is as a wife or mother. The real story is that Women's Federation is making the woman's life in Chinese society even more limited and oppressive. At least one good thing to come from Maoist times was the message that women could contribute greater value to society beyond the traditional roles - why was this good idea abandoned so fast? If marriage can be seen as a union of equals bringing different strengths to the relationship, rather than a superior man and a lower status woman, maybe these "left behind women" could become desirable "single ladies". Young Chinese couples complain so much about the cost of raising a child, I am sure that society could accept the idea that both husband and wife can be high achieving (and high wage-earning) individuals.
Mar 01, 2013 17:56 Report Abuse
They exist because modern intelligent women are no longer willing to marry stupid men who only expect them to cook, clean, give birth to babies and shut the f* up. Now women can get their PhD, get a nice job and let all men go to hell. What is so nice about marriage? Cooking for him while he's drinking his beer and playing QQ? Taking care of screaming kids? Trying to please his stupid mommy? And yes, very few men are good at making women happy sexually. So why the hell should an educated independent woman want a babyhusband?
Mar 01, 2013 21:38 Report Abuse
speak for your self i like to see what will happen to woman if they have no more men in the world can you live, i bet not the human race will end. sex is a part of life that's why God made sex to feel good unlike most Chinese woman i see just want a semen bank and no need for men. and most women in china are lazy they do nothing to help the man they are on the phone playing cell phone games all the time and or chatting to there other 5000 lovers as they can not get a orgasm from the men they are with. most Chinese girls don't even know what sex is only to have a baby to pay for her when she is old and dont say chinese girls are no as not many here speak love and mean it from their heart dont look at the speck in mens eyes when most chinese women have a plank in they own eye
Mar 07, 2013 14:26 Report Abuse
i like to say you are not looking at the big pitcher here, as i have told my boy students most girls are become greedy in china even before they have left university they are looking for a rich man to marry they will not go for others. even the man can be rich later most girls will not be with him. i know a girl that married a man and the wedding was 880,000 RMB and they had married for 6 months and divorced and the girl went to find a man that was working in a just a bit better company with more income she married him in a month and was divorced from him in 8 weeks after he was told from the hospital he has cancer and would die in less then a year, there was a report on Australia the 10000 most Richest People in the world and china has 370 of them. most girls are not looking for love in china they are looking for money and i must say most of the girls, i have met come to the money in the end even they say they only want love. all the BS i hear in china about custom and hard up stories about how they have nothing in china, and you see them getting about in 700,000 RMB cars and most of the cars are worth more then the house they live in, most have cell phones the students i see have now are well over 5000 RMB and they still look for better, they are not happy with it. its all greed they don't respect life i was in the office the other day and even the teacher of 10 years told me Chinese peopled respect life only for money unlike other counties.
Mar 07, 2013 14:20 Report Abuse
Because a lot of men would rather be single than put up with the whiny, narcissistic, money grubbing, shallow, and nihilistic attitudes of women here, such as being asked how much money you make, if you own a house and car, and demanding gifts for family and themselves using sa jiao is a weapon. Want to know why there are leftover women, Chinese girls? Buy a mirror and start looking in it.
May 23, 2017 08:04 Report Abuse
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