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.