How Leftover Women in China are Fighting Back
By Teresa Chen
“My parents want me to quit school, and to start looking for a husband. They pester me to learn how to use makeup, and offer to pay for cosmetic surgery. They think paying for surgery is a better investment than my education.”
Gong (Chris) Bai is a 25 year-old graduate student, studying at Beijing Language and Culture University to become an international English teacher. She smiles nervously as she admits that she has never had a boyfriend before, and faces societal discrimination for choosing to place her career over her family.
After spending a summer in China, meeting young women on my host college campus and on the streets, I realized how serious gender discrimination is in China, particularly among highly educated young women.
“It isn’t just my family who pesters me about leaving school and focusing on finding a husband,” Bai says. “It’s the advertisements of makeup companies that tell Chinese women they’re unwanted when they get older. It’s your friends, posting photos of their dates on WeChat. In China, when a single woman reaches the age of 27, she’s called a leftover woman. She is a woman that no man would want.”
Old, like yellowed pearls.
In 2007, the All-China Women’s Federation (the Communist Party’s feminist agency) defined “leftover” woman—sheng nu—as unmarried women over the age of 27. Later that year, China’s Ministry of Education added the term to its official lexicon. Although ostensibly created to “protect women’s rights and interests,” the Women’s Federation has continued to publish articles defaming educated women who are still single.
Sample headlines include: “Leftover Women Can Break Out of Being Single,” “Eight Simple Moves to Escape the Leftover Women Trap,” and “Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy?” One article states, rather crudely:
“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.”
At a time when many other societies are striving towards gender equality by encouraging women to pursue further education, China seems to be moving in the opposite direction, instead turning towards a more patriarchal society where men are discouraged from marrying highly educated women.
Mo Zhang, a professor of East Asian Studies at Harvard University, said that the most educated women in Chinese society often find it very difficult to find men who are interested in them.
“As someone who fits under the leftover women category back home, there is a sexist notion that highly educated women—women with PhDs—fall under a third sex category that is neither male or female, but somewhere in between,” she said. “Women like me are seen as having an aggressive temperament and drive to succeed [that are] typically seen as male characteristics. This doesn’t fit the ideal female image of being obedient and dainty, and men are intimidated by that.”
Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, was part of a panel on feminist and LGBTQ activism in China hosted by the Yale Law School in February, and she supported Zhang’s theory. During the panel discussion, Fincher explained that this reversal of feminism has resulted from the growing needs of the unstable Chinese economy. “The government survives on the subjugation of women,” Fincher stated, “through the controlling of women’s reproduction rates and birthing.”
Today, China faces extreme population pressures, including sex-ratio imbalance from Chinese traditional beliefs that value sons more than daughters and generational imbalance from the aftermaths of the birth explosion in the Cultural Revolution. According to the most recent Chinese census, taken in 2010, fertility rates have dropped to 1.4%, much lower than the 2.1% rate which would lead to population stability. Furthermore, for every 100 females nearing marriage age in 2010, there were more than 118 males. In response, the government has started scaring well-educated women into marrying and having children. With the Chinese government increasingly alarmed about social stability, they claim that there is no room for more educated females to be picky about their partners.
The Women’s Federation has led the campaign, intervening in local cities to help solve this “leftover women crisis.” Posters and social media pop-ups advertise matchmaking and speed-dating events. All carry the slogan: “If girls aren’t picky, finding a partner should be as easy as blowing away a speck of dust.”
I strolled through one of these events at the People’s Park in Shanghai, China, and came upon a crowd of parents swapping photos of their oldest child and slips of paper describing their personality and achievements, hoping to find a match. This was a scene that I would never find in the U.S. “But this is the general feel of what matchmaking events in Chinese cities are like,” Bai said. “They’re all over the place.”
Women hold up half the sky…
“But we’re nowhere close to equal. It’s exhausting to be a woman,” one blogger wrote in a chain thread on Weibo, a microblogging platform. This thread, largely populated by Chinese women and filled with disparaging comments about the marriage campaign, was soon censored by the government.
Because of such censorship, and careful monitoring of activist movements, Zhang says that many women are discouraged from speaking out. “The government…sees activist movements as Western ideas that threaten the social fabric of Chinese society. Today, if you are seen in a protest, the government will put you on a blacklist of sorts,” she explained. What this means, Zhang says, is that China won’t have its own Women’s March on Washington anytime soon. Progress in fighting gender inequality will be much slower.
But far from being discouraged, many women have turned to art as a means of expressing feminist power.
In April 2016, local female artists partnered with cosmetics giant SKII to create a powerful video-documentary “Marriage Market Takeover,” encouraging women to take control of their own destiny. In the film, several Chinese “leftover women” explain that they’re searching for true love while their parents urge them to settle. It hurts them to see their parents’ pain.
However, towards the end, the women defy the stigma: instead of displaying photos with Match.com-esque descriptions, they put up powerful candids of themselves, along with inspiring quotes like “I’m happy being alone” and “I’m taking my time to find love.” The video went viral just a few days after its release, and received international attention. Because SKII is an international corporation, the video bypassed Chinese censorship.
Although the SKII film was the highlight of this growing art movement, Zhang explains that female artists have also addressed the “leftover women” phenomenon on a smaller scale. Their contributions include graphics and poems in online forums as well as sketch comedy videos. The problem with these, however, is that when they become viral, the government quickly censors them. Many of the links that Zhang forwarded me were already broken.
In a stroll through the galleries of 798, Beijing’s up-and-coming arts district, I admire the works of female artists in hole-in-the-wall galleries. These galleries are known only to a select few, and I hear of them through Gong, who is involved in an underground feminist organization.
I am struck by one gallery filled with portraits of young men, who are airbrushed and photoshopped to look like Ken dolls.
“This is a statement about fake boyfriends, which is now a service for the leftover women market,” Gong explained. You can easily rent one of them for a night to bring home to your parents on websites like Taobao [a Chinese version of Amazon], so that they don’t start pestering you with questions.”
I ask if they all look like dolls.
“This is definitely an exaggeration of how ‘fake’ or how ‘shallow’ these transactions are. It’s ridiculous that we have to resort to this type of desperation. But I appreciate the artist’s lighthearted attitude, “Gong says. “AND… some of them are quite handsome!” She says this with a knowing wink.
I laugh, and ask whether she thinks this art will be publicized at some point.
“Right now, it is dangerous for an artist like this to put her work openly on display. But I hope there will be a day where art like this leads the movement to female empowerment. And I think we’re headed in a good direction right now.”
Teresa Chen ‘19 is a Global Affairs major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.