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Why China’s “leftover women” aren’t so tragic after all

13 April 2016, 15:26 Marisa Crous

Op die rak in Afrikaans, Christmas cakes in Japan (referencing discounts that happen after December 25th) and old maid or spinster are just a few derogatory terms used the world over for single women after a certain age. “Leftover women” or sheng nu is the term used to refer to Chinese women, over 25, who are still single.

Over the last few decades women around the world have shown a declined interest in entering matrimony. Either opting to marry later in life or not at all, the stigma attached to not getting married early or at all is finally starting to change. Unfortunately, this is not true for all as women in China now see themselves being advertised as potential spouses by their parents.

SK-II, a Chinese skin care brand recently did an inspiring video campaign on the plight of “leftover women” and the parents that place ads on the so-called “marriage market,” which advertises their daughters to potential male suitors. Ads are taken out, often without the consent or knowledge of the daughter. These ads normally include her picture, height, weight, salary and values.

The line in the video that says it all: “People think that in Chinese society, an unmarried woman is incomplete”.

The stigma attached to being alone is an overwhelming reality for these “tragic” women.

The video shows single women who choose their singlehood, and who don’t buy into the whole idea of sheng nu. Women stand up to their parents, even though they acknowledge that not being married is the ultimate act of disrespect in their culture.

Why are so many women single?

The Huffington Post says that the All-China Women’s Federation has blamed education for women’s lack of interest in marriage. The federation has gone so far as to say that pretty girls don’t have to rely on education as their looks alone are enough. An “older” woman with a PhD is worth less on the marriage market than a beautiful young girl with very little education. Too often has a woman’s value been based purely on aesthetics.

Many say it is the massive gender imbalance. Chinese men outnumbered women by 33 million in 2014. This is the result of years of gender bias: China’s years of selective abortions, abandonment of baby girls and restrictive family planning. Boys were always favoured and kept. The ratio is higher than any other country in the world and it is now creating problems.

Economists have even now suggested a solution, saying men should share a wife. According to NY Times, Xie Zuoshi, an economics professor at the Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics has suggested polyandry as the solution for China’s male surplus. Legalising gay marriage would also help.

However, an article titled Not ‘Leftover Women’ but ‘Leftover Men’ Are China’s Real Problem on WEIBO suggests that China’s biggest issue is not its “leftover women” but its “leftover men”. Men are either choosing to marry later in life as the pressure for them is not so high.

Single men are referred to as guang gun or “bare sticks”, a much less derogatory term than “leftover women”. Men, basically have their pick, yet seem to subscribe to rigid guidelines when it comes to what they consider “marriage material”, i.e. young, beautiful, etc.

But the main thing is the huge gap when it comes to background and situation. The majority of these so-called “leftover women” are successful, urban professionals. They have high incomes, high education and high IQs. WEIBO says that many of the “leftover men” are; in fact, much worse off as they are in the exact opposite situation: low income, low education and low IQs – and subsequently struggle to find a wife.

A history of gender bias has placed societal pressure to wed squarely on the shoulders of women. Women are told that they’ll die alone, that they’re tragic, that they are too picky or that they should settle. But it’s not that these women weren’t selected. They choose not to marry. The issue is that they are still seen as “tragic” instead of women with agency.

Don’t want to get married early or ever? Tell us why? Email us your story.

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- Women24


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