China’s ‘leftover women’ are considered on the shelf if they’re still single at 28In case you hadn’t noticed, Chinese women have become quite a force to be reckoned with in recent years. According to Forbes magazine, 11 of the 20 richest self-made women in the world are Chinese, and now 19 per cent of Chinese women in management positions are CEOs, the second highest percentage worldwide (after Thailand’s 30 per cent).
In fact, so undeniable is the rise of women in China that there is even a phrase for their sudden blossoming: yin sheng, yang shuai, which means the female (yin) is on the up, while the male (yang) is on the way down. But there’s one thing that’s holding them back – and even making them ditch their careers altogether – and that’s the fear of being single.
Unfortunately for China’s women their new-found confidence has incited a backlash from men, the government and even their own families. The popular Chinese label shengnu (leftover women), regularly perpetuated in state-controlled media and on internet message boards, refers to women who are smart, successful and moneyed but still not married by the age of 28. That’s right: in China, if you’re 30, female and single, you’re considered well and truly on the shelf.
‘I always dread Chinese New Year,’ says Yang Ziyang, a 32-year-old talent agent earning in excess of one million RMB (£100,000) a year, ‘because that’s when my extended family come over to the house and they all want to know why I’m not married yet. I tell them it’s because I have standards that I’m not willing to lower.’
Touching an expensive-looking bangle on her wrist, she goes on, ‘I think my parents understand a bit more – they just want me to be happy – but my aunties always say things like, “Oh, do you remember that girl you went to school with? She got married last year and now she’s pregnant!” It’s very frustrating.’
Wu Manling, 30 and a magazine editor, agrees. ‘My mother tried to have a serious talk about me being “leftover” a while ago. I told her that I wasn’t going to rush into marrying just anyone, that my happiness doesn’t only come from my relationships but from my work. I have my own value and can make my own social connections. But I know they’re just worried,’ she says, hinting at the other big issue at play. ‘Because I’m an only child it’s harder, as they are relying a lot on me.’
Women born under China’s one-child policy, introduced in 1979, face enormous pressures to succeed academically from parents whose own aspirations were thwarted under the Mao regime.
Meanwhile, their grandparents – many of whom can still remember mass famine – are piling on the expectations, too. They are keen not only to see their granddaughters marry well (traditionally the only route to financial security) but also, mindful that the country has no social safety net, to have a large family to look after them in old age.
‘The Chinese family is getting smaller and smaller and so the pressure on young women today is huge,’ says the social historian Simon Gjeroe. ‘There’s a very large older population in China that by sheer weight of numbers is winning the pressure war. If women don’t get married and have a child then in the eyes of their more conservative parents and grandparents they haven’t achieved harmony and they’ve failed.’
It doesn’t help that educated young women are barely given a chance to find a husband until it’s supposedly too late. ‘While you’re at university your parents constantly discourage you from having relationships; they tell you to focus on your studies,’ continues Wu Manling.
‘Then, when you finally graduate at the age of 25, you’re suddenly expected to know how to find a rich boyfriend who has a car and a house. But by then you only have two or three years before you’re branded a shengnu. If you don’t manage it within that small window of time they worry and fuss. It’s ridiculous.’
‘There’s no question that a lot of women rush into marriage with the wrong person,’ says Leta Hong Fincher, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Her research suggests that it’s the constant pestering from families that is causing successful women in their late twenties to make major sacrifices.
‘At that point in their lives a lot of women who are highly educated, attractive and successful will start to really worry about getting married. I’ve met women who actually quit their jobs because they thought they’d find it easier to attract a husband, which is very frightening. Those who didn’t give up work entirely were turning down promotions.’
The author and social commentator Zhang Lijia knows exactly what she thinks about the term shengnu. ‘[It’s] extremely insulting! It’s a ridiculous term! There are many countries where men don’t like strong women,’ she points out, ‘but Chinese men particularly so. If a Chinese man is successful he will be looking for a woman who is young and beautiful, not someone who is well educated.’ She pauses before laughing heartily. ‘Chinese men think educated women aren’t as easy to control!’
She may have a point. Internet chatter about shengnu came to a head last March when a young woman called Long Si Yu and 15 of her friends posted an online music video admonishing men for not having their own house or car.
There are currently 118 men to every 100 women in China – that’s an excess of more than 30 million. But Yu was arguing that the actual reason Chinese men can’t find girlfriends is their laziness, and the fact that they are looking for a breed of subservient woman that no longer exists.
‘If you don’t have a car and you don’t have a house, please move aside don’t block my way,’ chimes one girl in the video. ‘I also have a car, I also have a house, and [money] in the bank. So if you’re not as capable as I am, don’t depend on me. I am not your mother,’ says another.
Within 48 hours of posting their video on Youku – China’s version of YouTube – their song had been viewed 1.5 million times, and garnered tens of thousands of negative comments. ‘What kind of women are these?’ read one typical male rant. ‘I say women in the old days were better.’
‘We were just having fun,’ claims Yu, 24, when asked why she made the video. ‘Men have always asked so much of us. We want them to know that we have standards now, too.’
This is something that Gong Haiyan, the female founder of the country’s biggest dating website, knows only too well. In 2003 Gong was 27, single and dissatisfied with the online dating services available at the time.
Taking matters into her own hands, she set up the matchmaking site Jiayuan (‘Beautiful Destiny’) to help women like her, and within three months had met her husband via the site. With more than 58 million registered users, the site has given her a clear picture of what constitutes ‘the ideal woman’ in the eyes of a Chinese male.
‘The most popular woman is the traditional, angelic type,’ she says. A faint smile crosses her lips as she admits that many search for women with ‘large breasts and slim figures’, adding, ‘The most common profession searches are for girls who are teachers or nurses, as men think those women will be able to educate and care for their children well.’
By contrast, says Gong, women’s requirements are multiplying all the time, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. ‘The key things women search for on our site are a man’s height, salary and whether or not he owns a car or a house. Certainly, if women’s requirements were lower we would have a higher match-success rate. It’s very hard to satisfy women in China these days.
‘In Beijing, only 12 per cent of men using the site own their own house, so almost all the women on the website are trying to choose from this 12 per cent. That makes it very difficult.’
So are Chinese women showing a worryingly shallow attitude towards love? Zhang Lijia says that it’s not that simple. ‘China’s rapid economic reform has certainly brought lots of opportunities,’ she explains. ‘But the income gap between men and women has increased as a result of that reform. It’s no wonder that women want to marry a rich man when so many resources are still not equally available to them.’
Recent changes to home-ownership laws have put women at an even greater disadvantage. When couples divorce, the marital property now belongs solely to whomever took out the mortgage. In China, this is almost always the husband or the husband’s parents. This means that even if a woman makes substantial contributions towards the purchase of a house and its mortgage she could be left with nothing on divorcing.
Hong Fincher suggests that this may be what is stirring many women, especially in the cities, to action. ‘It has always been the tradition that a son’s parents help him buy a house when he marries. In many instances parents will hand over their life savings to their son because they see it as crucial to buy him a home – but the parents are not doing that for their daughters.
‘Women previously thought they had to have a man to take care of them, but I’ve found that many no longer think that way. Because of the change in the law they know that if they do marry a man with a house it doesn’t benefit them, so there’s a growing trend of young women trying to make it on their own.’
Jennie Kang, 25, an assistant marketing director for an American fast-food chain, says this is exactly why she won’t compromise on finding a husband who appreciates her for who she is. Smart, eloquent and striking, she says she can’t see herself being a housewife, like her mother’s generation. ‘I still want to develop my own career, fulfil my own destiny. The truth is, I’d be bored and feel insecure if I wasn’t economically independent.’
Asked if she thinks her high standards have become a barrier to her happiness, Yang Ziyang explains, ‘Some of my friends tease me about my requirements being too high, but I want equality from a marriage and it’s hard to find Chinese men who offer that. I’ve been at work all day, too, so why should I do the washing-up, the cooking and look after the baby as well?’
Additional reporting: Lily Wang
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