China’s ‘Leftover Women’, Unmarried At 27
Over 27? Unmarried? Female? In China, you could be labelled a “leftover woman” by the state – but some professional Chinese women these days are happy being single.
Huang Yuanyuan is working late at her job in a Beijing radio newsroom. She’s also stressing out about the fact that the next day, she’ll turn 29.
“Scary. I’m one year older,” she says. “I’m nervous.”
“Because I’m still single. I have no boyfriend. I’m under big pressure to get married.”
Huang is a confident, personable young woman with a good salary, her own apartment, an MA from one of China’s top universities, and a wealth of friends.
Still, she knows that these days, single, urban, educated women like her in China are called “sheng nu” or “leftover women” – and it stings.
She feels pressure from her friends and her family, and the message gets hammered in by China’s state-run media too.
Even the website of the government’s supposedly feminist All-China Women’s Federation featured articles about “leftover women” – until enough women complained.
State-run media started using the term “sheng nu” in 2007. That same year the government warned that China’s gender imbalance – caused by selective abortions because of the one-child policy – was a serious problem.
National Bureau of Statistics data shows there are now about 20 million more men under 30 than women under 30.
Census figures for China show that around one in five women aged 25-29 is unmarried.
The proportion of unmarried men that age is higher – over a third. But that doesn’t mean they will easily match up, since Chinese men tend to “marry down”, both in terms of age and educational attainment.
But the tendency to look down on women of a certain age who aren’t married isn’t exclusively an attitude promoted by the government.
Chen (not her real name), who works for an investment consulting company, knows this all too well.
She’s single and enjoying life in Beijing, far away from parents in a conservative southern city who, she says, are ashamed that they have an unmarried 38-year-old daughter.
“They don’t want to take me with them to gatherings, because they don’t want others to know they have a daughter so old but still not married,” she says.
The best time to get married is…
Nine out of 10 men in China think women should get married before 27
Sixty per cent say the ideal time is 25-27
One per cent believe the best age for a woman to get married is 31-35
Source: 2010 National Marriage Survey
Meanwhile, the state-run media keep up a barrage of messages aimed at just this sort of “picky” educated woman.
“Pretty girls do not 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,” reads an excerpt from an article titled, Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy, posted on the website of the All-China Federation of Women in March 2011.
It continues: “These 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.”