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 is mediocre.” He’s jealous. They fight a lot. But he has proposed to her and she is inclined to accept. “I am almost a leftover woman,” she tells Fincher. “I don’t have enough courage to break it off.”
Similar stories abound. Zhang Jie, a 25-year-old engineering graduate who works for a multinational consulting company in Shanghai, married a colleague 11 years older than her who proposed one day at work. They had never been on a date and, six months after marrying, were still not living together. But “Zhang and her parents agreed that if she did not jump at the chance to get married now, she might become a leftover woman,” writes Fincher.
The resurgence of this pressure on women is surprising for a number of reasons. During the Mao era, gender equality was held up as an ideal for the country to work towards—Mao believed that including women in the workforce would help increase China’s productivity. The Women’s Federation was established to protect women’s rights, women’s political participation increased and they were given the right to own property, among other advances.
The extent to which Mao’s reforms actually improved the lives of women is another matter, under pressure as they were to work long days and produce large families for the good of the country—but the goal of equality was nonetheless there.
As China has developed economically, one might expect to see the position of women improve—the two are often seen to go hand-in-hand. Moreover, the one-child policy has led to an imbalance in the population: a preference for sons means there are now about 20m more men than women aged under 30 in China. So, in theory, it is men who should be worrying about being “leftover,” rather than women.
But deeply-entrenched attitudes towards gender and skewed media coverage means that this has not played out, says Fincher. Instead, the country seems to have taken a significant step back, with the female employment rate dropping dramatically in cities and the pay gap widening.
“In the early communist era, the Communist Party was really pushing women’s participation in the workforce. You saw that in the propaganda as well: they held up these images of extremely strong women who could do anything that men could do, and female labour force participation was practically the highest in the world,” she tells me. “That’s definitely no longer true, and in large part it’s because the Communist Party no longer sees it as very important to keep educated women in the workforce…
“The Communist Party often says that marriage and family is the basic ‘cell’ of society, and that a harmonious family is the foundation of a harmonious society. When women are more educated, they naturally want to focus more on their careers, and so they naturally want to delay marriage, and they’re starting to see the signs of that in China.” This, she believes, is of concern to the Chinese government, which has introduced state-sponsored matchmaking events to try to bring couples together. “It’s a backlash against evolving values among women,” she says.
As well as being fed the message that there is something wrong with being a single woman, there is also a financial imperative to marry, says Fincher: with property prices in China’s cities reaching vastly high levels, families often pool their money to help younger generations buy homes. Money is funnelled to sons, nephews or male cousins, who have a greater perceived need to own property, while women are expected to marry in order to secure a home. Some of the young professional women Fincher interviewed had even been expected to give up their own savings to help male relatives buy property, leaving the possibility of buying a home for themselves out of the question.
Legal and political developments – intentionally or otherwise – have not helped. The 1950 Marriage Law, for example, which gave women shared ownership rights over the marital home, was reinterpreted in 2011 to restrict this right. This makes it harder for women to break out of unhappy marriages, since—even if they contributed financially to the purchase of a home—they may not have any rights over it in the event of a divorce (China has a rapidly rising divorce rate). In one city there was even a proposal to fine women who had children out of wedlock (this was halted by a public outcry).
Feminism has a long history in China, stretching back to the early 20th century and the Xinhai Revolution, but it’s difficult for a coherent feminist movement to take hold today, says Fincher. “Women’s issues and feminism as a whole is really dominated by the state agency, the All-China Women’s Federation. If feminist activists… want to have any form of organisation—if they want to associate with other feminists, or organise any kind of activity—and they want to operate legally, they have to register officially as an NGO. That’s a very onerous process, and a lot of the more radical feminists are simply unable to get registration. If they’re not registered then they’re very vulnerable to police harassment.”
As a result, she says, despite individuals taking part in feminist activity, “I see very little sign of a nationwide, large-scale women’s rights movement… It’s an indication of how tightly the state controls civil society and all forms of organisation that might potentially pose a threat to the Communist Party.” She notes that “information is still very heavily controlled by the state,” and with the state media encouraging the notion of the leftover woman, running cartoons and articles based on the idea, “it’s very hard for [young women] to access different sources of information that are more empowering to them.”
Economic, social and political gender inequality is a global problem. Intense pressure on women to marry, along with employment and wage gaps, exist in most countries around the world. The worrying trend in China is that earlier advances are being reversed—the gaps are widening—and there has been little attempt by the government to rectify the situation or to provide legal protection for women’s rights; in Fincher’s view, it may even be encouraging the situation. “Chinese women are in many ways in a rather dire situation,” she says.
Leta Hong Fincher’s book, “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China,” is out now (Zed Books, £14.99)