Well educated, single women in their late 20s are called “leftover women” in China

Not the only way to live.
Not the only way to live.
Image: China Daily/Reuters
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In a taxi in the UAE, the driver–a warm-hearted Bangladeshi man–eagerly showed me several wedding pictures on his mobile phone. The bride was his 13-year-old daughter. When I told him that I was 28 and single, he didn’t even bother to hide his surprise. “You must be old for an unmarried woman in China, right? Hurry up, find a man and get married!” he said.

He was right, I have become an official member of China’s “Leftover Women Club.” But I’m not going to take the taxi driver’s advice. Maybe girls in China were destined to be housewives only in ancient times, which defined their success. But now we have the right to choose whether to marry or not. Raising a family is no longer the only option for a woman.

According to Baidu Baike, “Leftover Women,” or “Sheng Nu” in Chinese, was one of 171 new Chinese terms included in Report on the Language Situation in China (2006), which was published by the Chinese Ministry of Education in 2007. It refers to single women at or beyond the socially-recognized marriageable age of around 27. However, among people born in the 1980s, the ratio between men and women meeting the age requirement for “Leftover Women” is 136:100. Therefore, it is men, not women, who are the leftovers.

At present, there are nearly 200 million single people in China, and men outnumber women by 33.66 million. Therefore, more men than women are being forced to remain single due to circumstance. A detailed geographic analysis has revealed that there are more “Leftover Men” in rural areas than “Leftover Women” in urban areas. However, when it comes to cities alone (especially big cities), there are more unmarried women than single men. The more developed a city is, the more unmarried women it has, as the urban development level is inversely proportional to the ratio between unmarried men and women. In Shanghai, for example, the number of unmarried men is only a quarter of the number of unmarried women, most of whom are between 30 and 35 years old.

The “Leftover Women” in cities are usually highly educated and high earners. This is typical of China, where women are equal to men in terms of educational rights thanks to the women’s liberation movement. Since 2006, female university registrations have surpassed male, despite the larger population base of men than that of women. Meanwhile, the employment-to-population ratio of women in China stands at 73%. That means, in economic terms, that the gap between men and women in China is the narrowest in the world.

Not long ago, we interviewed Anna Qvennerstedt, the Swedish director behind the controversial advertising film Marriage Market Takeover. The film, once aired, got over 400,000 hits on social media, because it mirrors the experience of most “Leftover Women” with their parents. In the film, parents pester their daughters relentlessly about marriage, fearing that they might become “leftover”. However, the high-achieving daughters refuse to compromise. In the end, the parents take their daughters to a “matchmaking corner” where they see bold announcements from women who are proud to be single. They finally come to understand and support their daughters’ decisions. It is expected that increasing numbers of people will follow suit, allowing these so-called “Leftover Women” to live the way they want instead of shackling them with traditional marriage concepts.

In this regard, I believe that “Leftover Women” with academic degrees and high incomes are quite able to remain independent, confident, and free. They have comprehensive knowledge, successful careers, and superb social status. The famous Chinese writer Qian Zhongshu once compared marriage to a “besieged fortress, where those outside want to get in, and those inside want to get out”. In 2017, the divorce rate in Tier1 and Tier2 Chinese cities has risen above 30%. Therefore, staying single shouldn’t necessarily be a passive decision. We should encourage women to raise their self-awareness rather than blindly getting married, so that they can define their own happiness and pursue the lifestyles they favor. We study hard and work hard to win the right to live happily. “Leftover Women” should be able to decide their own destiny instead of being controlled by the social critique of public opinion.