Some call it a phenomenon, others a choice. In China there is a name for women who remain unmarried by the age of twenty-seven; they are sheng nu or “leftover women”. Often portrayed as a burden and an embarrassment to their families, they are increasingly isolated within society. To be married in China is to be successful – and success of any other kind, be it in terms of career or personal triumph, is eclipsed by being single in status.
Sheng nu, a derogatory term coined by the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) – an association founded by the Communist Party in 1949 with the purpose of promoting government policies on women – has become common parlance. It strikes one as counter-intuitive, an act of sisterly betrayal. The term ‘leftover’ conjures the image of abandoned food, occasionally reinvented as soup stock, maybe even livestock fodder, but mostly bound for the dustbin. Gristle pushed aside by knife and fork. In other circumstances, the term is rebranded as “3S”: ‘Single, born in the Seventies, and Stuck’. The ACWF has recently changed the term to ‘old women’ after many complaints, but the original implications still stand. These women might be economically independent and admirably ambitious, but, in the eyes of society, they are nearing their marital sell-by date.
A short while after China’s National Women’s Day in March 2011, the ACWF released the following statement: ‘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.’ It went on to suggest that while this breed of woman might put her education first in the hope of increasing her competitiveness, the tragedy is ‘they don’t realise 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’. Hardly pearls of wisdom, but a statement that reveals the frightening manner in which women are expected to conform to societal expectation – not too far removed from the custom of foot binding, and the restrictions on education experienced by their foremothers.
China’s young men are also facing difficulties; the glaring case of shengnan – the leftover men. The nation’s one child policy, introduced in 1978, and which prompted many cases of abortions and female infanticide, has caused a drastic gender imbalance. It has been predicted that by 2020, there will be 30 million more men of marriageable age than women. With this in mind it seems implausible that so many women are finding it difficult to find a husband. A reason for this can be that men are intimidated by the power of high-achieving women, often settling for a woman of lower status. Men are raised to assume the dominant position within the relationship, expect to be the main breadwinner, and feel entitled to making the important decisions. They fear being labelled a guanggun or “bare branch”, a derogatory term for men who do not have children (and do not extend the family tree). For their part, the more educated women are more likely to want to marry for the sake of compatibility and love instead of marrying for the sake of it. Addressed ‘to Chinese women everywhere’, Joy Chen’s book Do Not Marry Before Age Thirty works to contradict ‘all the cultural pressures that for centuries have constrained Chinese women’s lives’. Chen, the former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, asserts that Chinese women today are ‘the first generation of women who want it all’. Their grandmothers’ belief in what makes a husband – ‘if he had a job, didn’t drink too much, and didn’t beat you’ – no longer cuts it. They expect more from men. They are ‘picky’. For the parents this poses a very real problem; failing to marry would mark the end of the family lineage.
The need to maintain a family’s existence has led to desperate measures. Marriage markets occur on average twice weekly throughout China, attracting between 300 and 400 visitors. These are places in which anxious parents can advertise their daughters in the hopes of finding a match – efforts mostly unbeknown to the women themselves. The parents of “shengnan” peruse the photographs of the single women and read the brief descriptions that reference date of birth, weight, height, profession and sometimes even their salary. Age is a defining factor, but so too is height: any taller than 5’5’’ feet is considered unattractive. Good humour and intelligence do not appear to rank. In a man, women are expected to look for a Gaofushuai, a tall, rich and handsome male, preferably with his own house. Superficial, sexist and sleazy, it’s no wonder divorce rates in China are increasing at an alarming rate.
But is all this any different in the West? How do our own marital beliefs and expectations compare? We all have friends or school acquaintances who are getting married, much to our horror. That infamous and vaguely annoying “‘I said yes!’ hand-with-ring photo” on Facebook, accompanied six months later with a change of surname and irritating honeymoon snaps. Yet, while we laugh at the idea of getting married any time soon, there is still an unspoken fear of being alone. The media is partly to blame, of course. Adverts, film trajectories, songs and even cereal packet deals push the suggestion that we are only ever truly happy if we subscribe to the notion that love, in particular that which is sealed in matrimony, completes an individual. From Eleanor Rigby, with that face she ‘keeps in a jar by the door’, her funeral unattended, to Miss Havisham and her eternal bridal attire; the term ‘spinster’ is a threat, arguably no less derogatory than ‘leftover woman’, although one that comes with a host of friendly felines as part of the package.
Although people worldwide are beginning to question the purpose of traditional marriage, we must still look critically at our own society’s expectations and reconsider ideas we take for granted. Our shock towards another culture’s matrimonial traditions could easily transfer itself on to our own, if we choose to probe deeply enough. Even on a superficial level, while we may not have ‘marriage markets’ in the UK, we nevertheless consciously market ourselves online.