China’s “leftover women” [Updated]

Male chauvinism, narrow and well-defined beauty ideals, and materialism converge in a single phenomenon in China called “leftover women” — urban, professional women in their late 20’s who still haven’t married, and, so conventional wisdom goes, might never. Despite a surplus of males due to China’s ongoing legacy of gendercide, these professionally successful women feel their chances for marriage at 30 are quite slim, and the pressure to settle can be intense.

China’s “Leftover” Women
26-year-old newlywed college graduate Li Fang (a pseudonym) explained to me over dinner why she had been in such a rush to marry:

If I hadn’t gotten married now, I would still have to date for at least one or two years. Then I would already have passed the best child-bearing age and I would be a leftover woman.

More than 90 percent of men surveyed said women should marry before 27 to avoid becoming unwanted. The message to women: If you want to stand a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting married in this country, don’t demand too much from your man.

We’ve had our own encounters with this and related aspects of Chinese society:

  • China’s Third Gender
    “A”-class women are so far outside the traditional definition of “woman” and have such trouble finding husbands and realizing the female roles of wife and mother that our teachers joke that they’re like a third gender.
  • On Love and being ‘smart enough’ (by Jessica!)
    The guys also said that she should be “一般聪明” which means “smart enough” or “ordinarily smart.” There’s a definite thread in Chinese culture that says that smart, clever, and independent women are threatening or something to be feared, so the guys tend not to want a girlfriend that might be smarter than themselves.

This one is also worth a look:

  • The options of yuppie women in China: “strong woman”, housewife or “fox”
    “Should I be a ‘strong woman’ (女强人) and make money and have a career, maybe grow rich, but risk not finding a husband or having a child? Or should I marry and be a stay-at-home housewife (全职太太), support my husband and educate my child? Or, should I be a ‘fox’ (狐狸精) — the kind of woman who marries a rich man, drives around in a BMW but has to put up with his concubines (妾,二奶)?”

Finding a mate is difficult when young people are scrambling for a job in a crowded and competitive market, so “marriage markets” (our term) are not uncommon. Since they’re full of bored parents and grandparents, they make great locations for students of Chinese to practice conversational Mandarin. We visited the one in Tianjin several times:

20 thoughts on “China’s “leftover women” [Updated]”

  1. There is a happy ending to this story. I and many other Western males prefer Chinese woman over 28-30 as they are more interesting, more worldly and be able to share life experiences than their younger counterparts. My view and, that of many other Western men, is that up until their late 20’s Chinese women are too giggly,immature and have very little in the way of a personality. I find Chinese women in their mid-20’s a bit like my daughter when she was 15 or even younger. Further, Chinese women keep their looks much longer than Western woman so, for me at least, a Chinese woman of thirty looks as young as most Western women at 20.

    Further Chinese men don’t like divorced Chinese women especially, with children,they expect a woman to be a virgin for them. To me, being divorced and having children only means they now have become interesting and understand how the world really works. Young Chinese girls think they are Cinderella looking for their Prince Charming.

    Chinese women over 28 should think themselves lucky. Don’t be afraid of being aggressive and picking up a Western guy. There’s a good chance he will think you as young, beautiful with a wonderful personality and a sense of humor. If Chinese guys think you are just a left over woman that’s their bad luck. They don’t know what they are missing out on!

    1. The western men are starting to find out what there missing out on alright.
      The will miss out on peace in their life if they marry any Chinese women.
      The Chinese womens obsession with money and material possession and their constant selfishness are nit worth the problems.
      I pity the good Chinese man having to put up with the Chinese womens non-sense.

  2. Wow! How kind of us to rescue these women. Aren’t they lucky to have us foreign superheroes to step in and save their old (but still young-looking) arses?

    Joel, forgive me if this factor is mentioned in another post, or if this is what you mean by materialism, but unwillingness of the women in question to “marry down” (or hesitance of men to “marry up” to a “smarter” or more “capable” partner) is also a factor. Still, this isn’t only about material wealth, but social roles, specifically thinking of nv zhu nei, nan zhu wai (女主内,难主外).

  3. I can think of a couple specific cases I’ve witnessed where the foreign superheros did more harm than good (and I’m sure you can too).

    My teachers, when explaining the “3rd gender” and “leftover women” phenomenon, emphasized the idea that Chinese men are typically unwilling to marry someone their equal, someone they can’t feel superior to. Our experience in the sex ed classes at Tianjin U. also indicated this (feedback from males and femailes). However, it should also be mentioned that these teachers were unmarried females. I suspect, also, that they would be genuinely more attracted to a guy who was a step up, and perhaps not respect (as much) a guy considered their social equal (in other words, I suspect their desires are conflicted).

    Materialism in this discussion usually means unhealthy consumerism, as opposed to materialism as a wordlview or philosophy (though of course both meanings are relevant).

  4. That makes sense, Joel. Added to this, a class/status perspective helps us to understand how there can be both a surplus of males and a surplus of “unmarriageable” women. Just as men tend to refuse to “marry up” at risk of losing face or the dominant position, so too higher status/class sheng nv tend to avoid “marrying down” into, for example the village. Of course a highly educated village cum urban ladder climber has a better than fair chance of finding a “good wife” in Beijing. Still, her parents will be reluctant to let go of their low opinion of this “wai di ren.” I’ll quit now. This is terribly complicated and my “” keys are getting worn out.

  5. I hear about this sort of thing more from a female, rather than a male, perspective, as my Chinese extended family is mostly all women.

    The perspective I get on this is these professional late-20s women are *incredibly* hardworking. They have studied hard and worked long hours to achieve for themselves some degree of job security. They feel the social pressure (as you say) to settle (and they would quite like to find someone, anyway!). But, in their eyes (as I understand it), the available men they meet are just like little boys — lazy and incompetent to live as mature, responsible adults. These women are reluctant to have to support a man. In my family, I hear a lot of complaints about how useless all men are! :-)

    (The second half of the article you link to is an interesting conspiracy theory.)

  6. Male chauvinism? Where’d that one come from? Shengnu aren’t single because men are pigs, they’re single because there’s no mortal man out there who can meet her sky-high expectations.

    Man: But I’m only 27! I can’t afford an apartment now! I’ve just started my career! We’ve been dating four months!

    Shengnu: “I can’t wait.”

    And that was that. End of relationship. Very practical.

    I suppose when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Male chauvinism indeed. I notice nothing is written about the leftover MEN, the ones who will never get wives in Chinese society. Oh, they’re at the bottom, nobody gives a crap about them, and besides we don’t get to accuse others of chauvinism when we talk about them (this last reason is most important).

  7. Actually, Harland, something like “leftover men” is hinted at several times in the original post and in the comments section. This said, you are pointing out something important with respect to the class dimension of the problem of unmarriageable men and women. Still, perhaps you miss the point with respect to “male chauvinism,” which is that there is no derogatory term meaning “leftover men” that I’m aware of. I’d suggest that these men tend to be seen as unfortunate victims of high minded women, which is, of course, the point of your post. Male chauvinism indeed.

  8. I’m not trying to blame one gender; obviously both sides are contributors. But if you’re looking at issues you related to gender in China and you don’t consider the endemic sexism and power imbalance, then i don’t see how anyone could possibly get a clear understanding. Notice I had three factors (there could be more, i just picked these off the top of my head): male chauvinism, beauty ideals and materialism. Someone could just as easily complain that I was placing too much blame on the women by implying that the materialism is mostly on their part (as you mention in your comment).

    I think male chauvinism is relevant regardless, but you’ll see it more clearly in the second and third main links: China’s Third Gender and On Love and being ‘smart enough’

  9. So, is the thought something like this (and of course this is all a huge generalisation, and there will be many exceptions)?

    On the part of the men, there is (a) male chauvinism and (b) beauty ideals. Men don’t want a wife who is publicly more successful than themselves (including salary and social position), but they do want someone who fits a narrow view of youthful beauty.

    On the part of the women, there is (c) materialism/consumerism. The women want lots of expensive stuff, so must have a means to pay for it all.

    Well, yes, it is pretty clear that both genders are getting criticised here! :-)

    I would also add (d) the social pyramid. There is a near universal desire in China to climb it, and one’s marriage partner should be there to help raise one up, not lower one down. My sense of it (maybe I am wrong?) is that this is more important than materialism (though material possessions often help raise one up socially).

    There are at least two types of leftover woman. Harland describes one type — the Shanghai leftover woman, who is a spoilt little brat.

    The other type of leftover woman has been working hard for close to 10 years, and has lifted herself up socially. One of her non-negotiables for a marriage partner is that he must be equal to or higher than this new position (and/or very ambitious), to help raise her still further.

    Yet, the problem is that these acceptable men are more likely to be wanting a younger beauty (to up their social status) rather than an older, sensible, hardworker.

    This is where the conspiracy theory mentioned in Joel’s first link is interesting.

    To solve this problem, those in power (including media and business) could try to flatten the social pyramid — increase equality and encourage other social ideals rather than the current capitalist/consumerist model. But that would decrease their own power.

    So, instead they try to further strengthen existing power structures. Through the media, social pressure is exerted to increase the anxiety level of these women. Enough pressure, and these women will settle for someone socially lower. Those at the top keep their lifestyles, and the potential problem of unhappy and rioting (unmarried) socially-low men is reduced.

  10. i can’t believe i forgot about this other article until now. There’s another term similar to but different from “leftover woman”:

    The options of yuppie women in China: “strong woman”, housewife or “fox”

    “Should I be a ‘strong woman’ (女强人) and make money and have a career, maybe grow rich, but risk not finding a husband or having a child? Or should I marry and be a stay-at-home housewife (全职太太), support my husband and educate my child? Or, should I be a ‘fox’ (狐狸精) — the kind of woman who marries a rich man, drives around in a BMW but has to put up with his concubines (妾,二奶)?”

  11. Wow, you mean baby girls are not killed, and there are so many women in China there are left-overs?

    Sound the media alarm, MSM has been proven wrong…

  12. @Bobby Wong

    Have you been around many man from Mainland China?

    They are very likely to pay very, very little attention to their hygiene, have rotting teeth and bleeding gums, drink like fish, smoke like chimneys, patronize prostitutes, and keep women outside if they have the financial resources to do so. Wife beating is also very, very common here. Much more so than in the West.

    There are lots of nice men in Mainland China but the stinkers outnumber them by far. At least where I am from in Oregon, decency is the rule and the type of neanderthals described above are the exception.

  13. Whether Chinese men in general are less or more chauvinist than American men is irrelevant to a basic understanding gender dynamics in China. So I wonder why you’re bothering to discuss it.

    American men and popular culture in general are extremely chauvinistic. That doesn’t mean Chinese and Americans are equally sexist. But who’s more sexist is a pretty pointless (and impossible) conversation, imo.

    I know some fantastic Chinese guys who are awesome husbands, some who don’t realize they are sexist, and some who are unapologetically sexist. But if I was just going by my personal China experience, I’d probably have to conclude that American guys are worse than the Chinese, given the sexist behaviour and attitudes of my fellow English teachers. But that’s not a smart way to go about comparing and generalizing people, imo (notice I’m not saying we shouldn’t compare cultures and people; that can be really helpful when done right).

    When we get into ‘whose culture/people is worse than whose’-type conversations, we should ask ourselves why we’re having them in the first place.

  14. Well, if you want to understand why accomplished women in China go unmarried you have to be willing to discuss their preferences and the characteristics of Chinese men. More importantly you have to discuss them honestly.

    “They are very likely to pay very, very little attention to their hygiene, have rotting teeth and bleeding gums, drink like fish, smoke like chimneys, patronize prostitutes, and keep women outside if they have the financial resources to do so. Wife beating is also very, very common here. Much more so than in the West.”

    Do you dispute what I wrote? Do you want me to ignore what is right in front of me everyday?

    I have news for you: Cultures are not equal. In order to really learn and have honest dialog we have to accept that fact. This places seems so politically correct that I doubt very important scholars such as Lu Xun and Bo Yang, were they alive, would meet a very friendly reaction here.

  15. Actually, Jerome, I’ll not only dispute what you wrote, I will condemn it because it is terrible, bigoted stuff. Aligning yourself with great Chinese scholars doesn’t make it any less so. Since Joel is the owner of the blog, he feels he has to be diplomatic about your blog. I don’t feel bound in the same way. Feel free to rage incoherently below.

  16. Hi. I know this thread is old.
    My experience and being married to a Chinese women in her late 40s.( I am 52 yrs.Australian)
    She is an English teacher and seems not to like her own countrymen, although she has two brothers. She has been married before and had no children.
    In fact on my several stays in Sth China I believe there are plenty of good men but the women seem to want everything imaginable. ( material speaking).
    I am talking of the older ones not the single child policy women. It seems very unusual to me.
    I believe many should come down off thier “high horse” and face reality and realize they are only people and not some sort of royalty.
    They simply ask and expect to much from the men!

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