Right, a Mao-era propaganda poster showing women working; left, a contemporary Chinese cartoon mocks a female university graduate who can’t find a husband because her standards are too high
Many languages have a pejorative phrase for a single woman who is perceived to be past her sell-by date for marriage: “left on the shelf” in English; “failed dog” in Japanese; “waiting to dress the saints” (an activity reserved for virgins) in Spanish.
But while old stigmas surrounding unmarried women rumble on in the west, in China they are gathering a worrying new prominence. Sheng nü, or “leftover women,” are defined as unmarried women over the age of 27 by the All-China Women’s Federation, a state organisation. The word for “leftover”—sheng—usually describes rotten food.
Since 2007, the phrase has been adopted enthusiastically by the press, mostly aimed at the young professional single women living in China’s cities. Just days after International Women’s Day in March 2011, for example, Xinhua News—the state news agency—ran a column entitled, “Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy?”
“Pretty girls don’t need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family,” it said. “But girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult. These kinds of girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don’t realise 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.”
Articles such as this have become common in the Chinese media, says sociologist Leta Hong Fincher, author of a new book on the issue—Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. Women still in their 20s are under huge pressure from family and friends to secure a husband before it’s too late, often making financial and professional sacrifices in order to do so. Healthcare professionals add to the pressure by claiming that women may not be able to have children once they are in their 30s and so should settle down younger.
One woman Fincher spoke to while she was writing the book provides a heart-breaking demonstration of this. Twenty-six-year-old Chen Su, an economics graduate working at a marketing firm in Beijing, describes her boyfriend as “selfish and insensitive.” She avoids seeing him more than once a week because, she says, “the conversation…