Photo by Craig Cloutier
Asia-Pacific / China

Leftover Women

Since last year, my childhood friend Huang has been avoiding her mother’s phone calls. At 25, Huang has only been out of college for three years, yet she has worked hard enough to achieve the position of HR manager at a large real estate development firm. However, Huang’s success at work does not seem to satisfy her mother. “For over a year, nearly every phone call would end with the same question: why don’t you have a boyfriend?” Huang says in a tired tone.

Such stories are common in contemporary China. Around 2006 the word Shengnu, literally translated as “leftover women,” rose to prominence in Chinese people’s everyday lives, appearing in news, tabloids, TV shows, movies and books. In 2007, the word Shengnu made it into the list of 171 new words published by the Education Ministry. The Chinese version of Wikipedia, Baidu, describes Shengnu as single women over the age of 27. The entry continues with an analysis of the reasons for being a leftover women: “A professional woman’s high level of education and high income has also caused her to have high standards for men. Because she has high expectations for her future husbands, she could not find an ideal man to marry and gradually became one of the leftover women.”

The Shengnu phenomenon has spread across all spectrums of society, creating anxiety and conflict in families. My friend Huang is just one example.,Young girls like Huang born after 1980 were the first generation born under the one-child policy. Unlike previous generations, they no longer needed to sacrifice their rights to education for their brothers and were expected to do well in school. However, as soon as they got out of school and entered society, old cultural attitudes rose up to haunt these women. During the years of Cultural Revolution, women in China were instantly liberated from top to bottom after Mao issued his famous slogan: women hold up half of the sky. Yet women in China have never fully, if at all, escaped pressure of their assumed social role and the standards that came with it. 30 years after Mao’s slogan, women are still expected to be subordinate to their husband, whether in terms of income, education or physical height. Such social realities are hard to ignore; the title “female PhD” has already become a pejorative term. It is fair to say that well-educated and professionally successful women have become the more “unmarriageable” than women with less education and lower income.

Yet one has to wonder, how did Shengnu become such a prevalent term when the one-child policy and sex-selective abortions in China have caused a noticeable disproportion in the country’s gender balance? In order to understand Shengnu’s rise to public attention, one must trace the word back to its inception. Surprisingly, as much as Shengnu seems like a grassroots term, the word was officially crafted and introduced by the Chinese Women’s Federation, a state agency that ironically focuses on women’s rights. In 2006, the Women’s Federation in China started a media campaign about those they termed “leftover” women. According to the New York Times, articles with titles such as “Overcoming the Big Four Emotional Blocks: 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?” have consistently appeared on the Women Federation’s official website. These articles had an urgent and accusatory tone, bluntly claiming that the new generation of women with high level of education were promiscuous and had no moral standard. One article states:

“Many highly educated ‘leftover women’ are very progressive in their thinking and enjoy going to nightclubs to search for a one-night stand, or they become the mistress of a high official or rich man…Therefore, most ‘leftover women’ do not deserve our sympathy.’

Such ill supported arguments and vindictive words flood the Shengnu campaign, creating a false sense that women in China are empowered by education in a negative way and that they are deserting their morals and traditional values. Why would the government so harshly target the educated women in China and portray them as a morally corrupted group? The answer lies in another campaign, launched not by the Women’s Federation but China’s State Council, the highest-ranking political institution in China.

On December 17, 2006, the Chinese State Council, issued a statement of principle to solve the population crisis created by the one-child policy. These urgent problems include the “shortage of labor,” the “low quality of general population,” and especially the imbalanced gender ratio, which would cause great “instability.” In this mandate, the Women’s Federation is designated as one of the organizations to solve the challenges presented by the population. Since 2005, the Chinese leadership has promoted the notion of a “socialist harmonious society” – a socio-economic vision that is said to be the result of Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s signature ideology. As the first generation born under the one-child policy becomes the biggest force of society today as it enters the adult world, young men who are of suitable age but cannot find a partner to marry are becoming one of the greatest impediments to the harmonious society the government wishes to build. Considering the situation, it is not surprising that the Women’s Federation in China would pressure educated young women into marriage, hoping they would tie down the young men with families and at the same time actively procreate, alleviating future labor shortage. Two birds killed with one stone.