Don't call me a leftover: The Chinese women fighting for their right to be single

Don't call me a leftover: The Chinese women fighting for their right to be single

As a single woman of the grand old age of 26, my dear nan has recently started asking if I am a lesbian, because - obviously - that is the only reason I wouldn’t have found myself a nice man to look after me by now. Married at 18, with six children by the time she reached my age, she’s from a different generation; fortunately for me, one whose attitudes to early marriage are no longer commonly held in wider Western society. 

In many countries across the world, however, my nan might have a point; in China. Where the average age to get married at is 25 years old, a woman is traditionally considered to be “leftover” if she reaches her late twenties without having got hitched. At this point, she is labelled “sheng nu”, or “leftover woman”. More than 90 per cent of women marry before their 30th birthday, with the remaining 10 percent considered somehow incomplete or, even worse, defective. In order to escape family pressures, some women have even resorted to hiring fake boyfriends to present to their parents.  

A 'sheng nu' woman with subtitles talking about how she is a power woman Credit: SK-II

But more Chinese women than ever are on a mission to challenge the way society perceives them, and fighting back against the term sheng nu. Smart, successful, educated, with more economic and social autonomy than previous generations, these women no longer see themselves as leftover. Instead, they are keen to preserve their independence, choosing their single life over marriage to a man they do not love. As one 29-year-old marketing executive put it:

“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 theatres. 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.”

In 2016, a video produced by beauty chain SK-II went viral after it drew attention to the pressure and stigma felt by leftover women, featuring emotional interviews with such sheng nu and their families. It showed their parents lamenting their daughters’ lack of a husband, and the sheng nu women explaining their own reasons for being single, before challenging their family's perceptions publicly; its message, “Don’t let pressure dictate your future”, garnered huge online support, striking a chord with many women.

In their determination to maintain their independence, more and more women are not only resisting their societal pressures, but taking matters into their own hands when it comes to family planning. A growing number are travelling abroad in order to have their eggs frozen, as China does not currently allow unmarried women to undergo this process. Le Le, a Shanghai lingerie designer, is among them: “I have not found my Mr Right. I don’t want to wait passively – I want to take a proactive approach” she told the South China Morning Post. “I don’t have to force myself to marry someone I don’t love for the sake of having a baby.”

It seems unlikely that China is likely to change their policy on egg freezing, given that the Chinese government have been accused of actively pushing the idea of sheng nu and scaremongering successful women into marriage as part of a “family planning” policy. The policy, which aims to redress the gender imbalance caused by China’s one-child policy, values the nuclear family and is specifically focused on pushing educated, highly skilled women towards marriage and motherhood: "These are young women with strength and confidence, who are being specifically targeted by the state's deliberate campaign to pressure [them] into marrying,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.

A man gazes at a mannequin wearing a wedding dress Credit: Pexels

Ironically, however, this gender imbalance has in fact created a situation in which women, rather than needing to marry quickly, increasingly hold the power in the dating market. TanTan, China’s version of Tinder, reports that at least 60 per cent of its users are female, although only 6 per cent of male users get the coveted right swipe. In a country with such a surplus of prospective husbands, with a quarter of men now predicted never to get the opportunity to marry, women can afford to be pickier than ever before. "I want to take the time to find the right person" said one woman in the SK-II video.  

Even if the tide is turning, it is clear that the path towards progress will not be straightforward. Swedish furniture chain Ikea recently sparked outrage when it utilised, and even promoted, the idea of the leftover women in a recent television advert. It depicted a sad, sombre looking woman is seen being scolded by her mother for being single: "If you don't bring home a boyfriend next time, then don't call me Mum!" As if by magic, her new boyfriend suddenly appears - he was, fittingly, running late - and everything is sunshine and flowers once more.

The company later pulled the advert and apologised. But it's still amazing that such a multinational company - and particularly one that is known for using deep cultural research to help press ahead into foreign markets - still believed not only that this was appropriate, but that it would fit in with the cultural landscape.

This serves to show how ingrained and widespread the idea of “sheng nu” remains. But it's worth remembering that it wasn't so long ago that these attitudes weren't uncommon in the UK and the US either, an my nan shows only too well. The average age for a woman's first marriage has increased from 22 to 30 in the UK over the past 30 years, and 20 to 29 years since 1960 in the US. All we can hope is that as Chinese society continues to change, so too will women's right to make her own choices in life, without fear of stigma.