Friday, October 19, 2012

Leftover Women

The term "leftover women" (sheng nu) was coined by China's state "feminist" agency, the All-China Women’s Federation. It was officially listed as a new word by the Chinese Ministry of Education in 2007. The prefix “sheng” is the same as in the word "shengcai" or "leftover food." "Loosely translated, it implies that single women of a certain age in China are the stuff of doggy bags, Tupperware and garbage disposals." Women must be married by 27 or they move into the sad state of leftover woman.  Between 31 and 35, these women are called “advanced leftovers,” and by 35, a single woman is the “ultimate” leftover.
A graphic depiction of "leftover women" from the All-China Women's Federation 
According to a survey of women taken by China's top dating site, 29-year-old women feel the most "leftover," as 57.9% of them consider themselves leftover women. Of all ages of single women with masters degrees or higher, 48% considered themselves leftover women. The rate among single women with only a high school education or below was only 23%. The article detailing the study analyzed the results as follows:
These numbers fit experts' opinions that the leftover women phenomenon indicates that current society is moving away from the patriarchal model and that women's social status, especially that of highly-educated women, is steadily improving. Leftover women are a unique group, a product of contemporary society and social progress.
This article tries to put a positive spin on these independent, highly successful women. But at the same time, many other articles about leftover women featured on the All-China Women's Federation website  degrade and criticize these women for their life choices. The articles accuse them of being promiscuous (and therefore undeserving of sympathy), too picky, and just ugly. One article from March 2011 stated: 
Pretty girls don’t need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family, 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 realize that as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their M.A. or Ph.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls.
Such a "tragedy" indeed! Clearly only ugly women would want to pursue higher education. But how silly of them to think that becoming successful will improve their chances of a female life's ultimate goal, marriage. 

Clearly, this state-run website has an agenda. With China's one-child policy obviously favoring boys over girls (to put it mildly), as many as 24 million men could be perpetual bachelors by 2020. The website is trying to convince these leftover women, who have managed to create successful and independent lives, that what they really need is to get married asap. Eugenics may have a role in this agenda as well, as the Chinese government wants to encourage these elite women to pass on their successful traits to the next generation. But whatever the agenda behind it, the shaming is working.

A CBS News segment this summer detailed the pressures that Chinese women over 25 face to conform and get married. There are even state-sponsored schools featuring courses that women can attend such as "Leftover Women Rescue," which teaches these women how to snag a man. American Joy Chen, author of the Chinese language book Do Not Marry Before 30, describes the phenomenon as a "travesty." She says these women have been "playing by the rules" and achieving their whole lives as they were taught. But then suddenly when they reach their mid-20s they are told "Don't achieve. You don't want to scare the boys. Slow down and jump back into your traditional roles as a wife and mother."

One woman featured on the segment is a successful and attractive 35-year-old who chose to focus on her career in her 20s and early 30s. She says at 35 she cannot even get a date because men are intimidated by her. She feels that men want younger, more subservient wives because they are "more naive and easygoing." She is far too "independent," a trait which she learned from her parents. As a single woman, she still lives with her parents and faces constant pressure from them to get married. Her mother said that at this point, she would be happy if her daughter married a frog.

The end of the piece brings the blame back on the women themselves because they will not even consider marrying a man who doesn't have money.

Basically, leftover women are sold a false premiss. Their parents tell them to work extremely hard and achieve. They excel in school and get prestigious jobs. They fulfill their part of the bargain. But once they reach their mid-20s, the basis of their worth is completely shifted. Suddenly these high achievers are made to feel like failures because they didn't manage to lock down a husband in the process.

In a country where women are extremely outnumbered by men, they should be in the power position with so many men to choose from. But yet they are not. Youth is still the most highly prized aspect of a woman. Perhaps these women are "picky." But don't they have a right to be after working so hard to achieve? Leftover women are shamed by everyone else in their lives and made to feel like less simply because they have not yet found the right mate.

In the words of Ice Cube, China "you better check yourself before you wreck yourself." There needs to be a serious shift of perceptions in both men and women or China's population mismatching problems will continue to implode.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Interestingly enough, in Mormon culture, it is often said, “Any man over the age of 25 who is not married is a menace to society.” Some variation of this quote is often repeated in “Singles Wards” and usually attributed to Brigham Young. Although often made in jest, men over the age of 25 often get concerned looks from church leaders.

However, the pressure for women to get married in their early twenties is as great as the pressure you describe in China. Women go to BYU to get their “M.R.S.” degree, and the vast majority does. I remember hearing one story about a married woman who had just gotten into law school, and decided not to go because she had a baby and needed to stay home. The story was framed in such a way as to make her sacrifice heroic. (Her husband made no sacrifices at all.)

When women are encouraged to become educated it is often said that better educated women make better mothers.