At a very young age, Chinese boys and girls alike are encouraged to study hard, have big ambitions and pull in high salaries. However, something happens when these children get older. Women who choose to delay marriage and children in order to achieve success in the workplace are derided as “leftover women,” even as young as 27.
If you’re like me, your first reaction might be to think, how can there possibly be any “leftover women” when there are 20 million more men under 30 than women in the same age group? We’re constantly hearing about how the rural areas of China have far too many men compared to women, but rarely do we hear that it is the women who are struggling to find a partner.
Huang Yuanyuan, a 29-year-old unmarried Chinese woman, explains how this can be the case:
“There is an opinion that A quality guys will find B quality women, B quality guys will find C quality women, and C quality men will find D quality women. The people left are A quality women and D quality men. So if you are a leftover woman, you are A quality.”
Being “A quality” is a small comfort when you consider the difficulties that these (still young) women face. Rather than being encouraged to be proud of their accomplishments, they are often lectured that the only way to snag a man is to downplay their success and bend over backwards to keep them from feeling intimidated. They are told “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.” Apparently, a young and uneducated woman is more valuable than a slightly older but extremely well-educated woman.
And of course, there’s a healthy dose of slut-shaming involved as well:
“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. It is only when they have lost their youth and are kicked out by the man, that they decide to look for a life partner. Therefore, most “leftover women” do not deserve our sympathy.”
Most of these messages are coming directly from state-controlled media. Although a lot of the English articles on leftover women are relatively tame, when you research “剩女” instead you stumble upon a whole new world. This Xinhua article seeks to explain how women become leftovers. They lay the blame on a feminist mentality, arrogance, being overly picky, and expecting men’s interest to stay constant with age. But brace yourself for this last one: Feminists think of themselves too highly, so all leftover women have some degree of “psychological disorder.” To Xinhua, leftover women are suffering from a “tragic fate.”
But would these women agree – would they trade their jobs and degrees for a husband? A 29-year-old Chinese woman who goes by Elissa says:
“Living alone, I can do whatever I like. I can hang out with my good friends whenever I like. I love my job, and I can do a lot of stuff all by myself, like reading, like going to theaters. I think one of the reasons I enjoy my life is that I have many single friends around me, so we can spend a lot of time together.”
It seems that not all so-called “leftover women” have complaints about their lifestyles. In fact, Elissa appears to prefer it. Why, then, is the government targeting these women with grossly sexist propaganda? Dr. Leta Hong Fincher directs our attention to the State Council’s list of key goals, which includes “improving population quality” and identifies the Women’s Federation as their means to achieving this end. The Chinese government sincerely wants these “A level women” to reproduce, but not on their own terms.
By shaming older unmarried women for success and casting them as arrogant pariahs, China is legitimizing the reluctance that young men have toward marrying educated women. The economic empowerment of women has been shown to be hugely beneficial to national economies. It’s completely nonsensical for China to strive to meet its population quality standards (what actually used to be officially called eugenics) at the detriment of their economic goals. In this century, the message to send is not that successful women will make bad wives and bad mothers – rather, that they would make worthy partners, and that the achievements of a woman are to be celebrated, not taken as a threat.
Written by Sara Wofford