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China's shengnu, or 'leftover women,' face intense pressure to marryChinese parents, and even the government, are wringing their hands over young, educated, urban women who are taking their time finding a husband.

July 13, 2013|By Julie Makinen and Don Lee
  • Parents look at advertisements hanging in a park in Qingdao, China, for young single men and women.
Parents look at advertisements hanging in a park in Qingdao, China, for… (Julie Makinen, Los Angeles…)

SHANGHAI — For the last two years, Karen Xie, 32 and earning a good salary at a media firm, has met on average one marriage candidate a month. They've all been Mr. Wrong.

Some were too short or too fat, she says. Some didn't express enough tenderness. For her last date, her parents fixed her up with a man from their hometown, Wuhan, 500 miles west of Shanghai. Xie knew it was over as soon as she laid eyes on him.

"He was a little bald, he had no hair in the middle of his head," said Xie, who has her own digs on the outskirts of Shanghai, which she and her parents bought to enhance her marriageability. "Maybe my standards are too high, but I don't require an apartment."

Every other day, Xie's mom gives her a call, which invariably turns to the subject of a husband. Her most recent retort: "The divorce rate is increasing. Isn't it better I stay single?"

In theory, women like Xie should have their pick of potential mates. China's one-child policy has created a lopsided gender ratio because many families prefer sons and choose to have sex-selective abortions. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, by 2020, Chinese men between the ages of 20 and 44 will outnumber women by 24 million.

Yet more and more professional Chinese women say they just can't find a man who is as accomplished as they are. Others say that after years of schooling, they want to enjoy their freedom past age 27, widely seen here as the proper time to settle down.

Branded — a bit derogatorily — as shengnu, or "leftover women," many of these educated, urban singles are coming under intense pressure to marry. Parents fear that their daughters will end up childless and lonely, economically vulnerable spinsters in a society that lacks the social safety net communism once promised.

It's not just mom and dad who want their grown daughters to find a spouse. Government agencies, academics and even some businesses are treating shengnu as the source of potentially serious social problems.

They've warned that if the ranks of such women expand, they could exacerbate population imbalances, lure married men into affairs and drive down real estate sales. (Home-buying, after all, is usually part and parcel of marriage here.)

For singles like Xie, it's become almost impossible to go about daily life without being reminded of one's marital status.

If it's not a call with the parents, it's a flier or email promoting a "marriage expo" or other matchmaking event. (A city-backed expo in Shanghai two months ago drew 20,000 people.)

Turn on the TV and you can watch "The Price of Being a Shengnu," "Go, Go, Shengnu," "Even Shengnu Get Crazy" — all with similar plotlines: Smart, beautiful, successful women try everything to get a man.

Shopping here can be a gut-check. "12 products to help shengnu forget about loneliness!" blared a recent ad for PC House, a home goods store. (Suggested items: a garlic peeler, rainbow-colored bedding and a one-seater couch.)

Even a visit to the website of the All-China Women's Federation offers little relief. The state-run feminist agency in recent years has published articles with titles like "Eight Simple Moves to Escape the Leftover Women Trap," and "Do Leftover Women Deserve Our Sympathy?" (The answer: No.)

"Shengnu are being demonized," said Sandra Bao, who founded a social group called Leftover Attitude in Shanghai to support unmarried professional women. "Parents are pressuring us, the media label us, there's a whole industry of matchmakers and others out there telling us it's a problem to be single."

Xie expects no letup from her parents. "They are very traditional," she said. "In their thinking, every person must have a family. I want to have a family, but in my own time."


The collective pressure seems to be working.

The average age of a woman's first marriage in China is indeed on the rise; in Shanghai last year, it was 27.3 years, up from 26.4 in 2007. But by age 35, more than 90% of Chinese women have married, noted Roseann Lake, a Beijing-based researcher who is writing a book on marriage in China.

"Chinese women are only left over for a limited time, which makes the fact that they're labeled 'leftovers' even more hideous," Lake said. (China's real leftovers, she said, are poor, uneducated men in the countryside, who receive little attention.)

Leta Hong Fincher, a doctoral candidate at Tsinghua University who has studied the issue, said the high marriage rate for Chinese women results in large part from the government's "remarkably effective propaganda campaign" stigmatizing shengnu.

"Because the leftover women thing has been pushed so aggressively, a lot of women have internalized this ideology," Fincher said. "They are really afraid they are not going to find a husband if they wait too long."

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