Leftover Women

Chinese women and burden of marriage.

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the July 2012 issue of NewsChina.

“I feel like there is a monster chasing me. Each year I get older, each year I approach thirty; the monster gets closer and closer. If I am still not married by that time, it is like my life is over.”

Only after many late night conversations with female friends have I slowly begun to grasp the heavy and consuming burden that young women must face in metropolitan cities throughout China. What begins as idle chit chat inevitably grows into a serious discussion about marriage and partner compatibility. More striking than the content of these conversations is the regularity and cohesiveness of the message.

The concept of a shengnü or “leftover woman” is a fairly recent phenomenon in Chinese society. The term refers to single women, over thirty, who live in large cities and are often highly educated and well salaried. Some claim that these women have higher expectations of themselves and their partners or have chosen to put their career ahead of marriage. But this definition misses a key point in understanding such a loaded term, and that is the role of family.

I once went on a trip with my friend to her hometown during National Day holiday. Shortly after we arrived, right before dinner, she pulled me aside, in a state of concern and discomfort.

“Mike, my mom bought so many new things. A new television. A new sofa. Do you know why she bought them? It was because she thought I was bringing a new boyfriend home. I feel so sorry for disappointing her. I don’t know how to face her.”

I looked at my friend with sympathy. My mom once stopped me in the middle of dinner and asked me point blank, “When are you getting married?” I was twenty five at the time.

I didn’t know how to react to my friend. Part of me wanted to offer to pretend to be her boyfriend. Another part thought a hug would suffice. I ended up just making a surprised face. My friend was only twenty four, but the screws were already tightening.

These women live in a society that tells them their value diminishes with age, and therefore it is crucial to use their best years to find the most “suitable” match, whether this means true love or, more often, financial stability. The fear is palpable: hurry up and create a life for yourself, otherwise no man will ever want you and you will be doomed to spend eternity alone and unloved.

Female labor reforms occurred in both China and the United States, but in America, that newfound freedom and independence ultimately lead to a larger sexual revolution.

But why did it feel like the social pressure was greater on aging women in China than in other places? Why was this topic coming up again and again in conversations? Even before Opening Up and Reform, traditional Chinese culture expected girls to marry at a young age, usually in their late teens or early twenties. During China’s economic boom, women were encouraged to enter the workforce, to “hold up half the sky” and contribute to the nation’s growth. Suddenly, young industrious Chinese girls found themselves with more financial independence and upward mobility than ever before. In the United States, similar female labor reforms occurred during and after World War II. But unlike China, that newfound freedom and independence ultimately lead to a larger sexual revolution.

The sexual revolution of the Western world normalized premarital sexual activity and non-traditional relationships. As a result, females nowadays have more freedom to experiment, date multiple partners, and seek fulfilling careers during their twenties. Though social pressures still exist to find a husband and settle down, choosing one’s career, or friends, or polyamory over a traditional marriage is not a death sentence in the same way it is in China. China has had their feminist movement, but sexual and marital liberation is still a generation away.

In the paradox of a country that turned from agrarian to money-obsessed nearly overnight, it seems as if many urban women are stuck between two worlds. Their parents’ world places high value on traditional roles and a stable household. They, in contrast, inhabit a world of business, technology, and social mobility. Like most advanced Western countries, female empowerment in the workplace is lauded and praised. But outside the office many are still uncomfortable with the idea of women who don’t need men, or with women who don’t need marriage.

“I can’t go back to my hometown,” a thirty-year-old friend of mine once confessed to me, “It is absolutely unbearable. I will fight with my parents about why I am still not married. They have tried to set me up with different guys in the past. I can’t tell them about my younger boyfriend in Beijing, they will go crazy.”

For many of my friends, I feel the best way for them to deal with the tightening screws is to talk it out. In the moments that I’ve offered to listen, it was less from a place of sensitivity and empathy, but more from pure fascination. American girls must surely feel the screws. Even in my own life, I have felt slight tinges of pressure. But I had never witnessed such extreme cases as in China. I want to help my Chinese friends, but perhaps the best thing, the only thing, I can do is lend a silent ear.