Don't pity China's 'leftover women', they've got more going for them than you realise

What has not been mentioned in the West is that the term 'shengnu' is open to interpretation. Depending on how you look at it, ‘sheng’ can also mean successful

Nyima Pratten
Tuesday 19 March 2013 15:49 GMT
A Chinese woman leaves a shopping mall in Beijing on September 22, 2009. Women have become a major driving force behind China's economic growth.
A Chinese woman leaves a shopping mall in Beijing on September 22, 2009. Women have become a major driving force behind China's economic growth. (Getty Images)

The coverage of the Chinese shengnu phenomenon, otherwise known as China’s ‘leftover women’, has heated up recently, possibly because this is the time of the year when, in China at least, singledom is at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

The term 'Shengnu' refers to educated Chinese women in their late twenties who are still single. At this time of year, shengnu have just endured the annual and somewhat dreaded Chinese New Year visit to their extended families. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents will have poked, prodded and nagged them about things ranging from the inadequate size of their breasts to the largeness of their bottoms before inevitably moving on to the question of marriage. Family pressure can have a real effect on the strong will of educated Chinese women.

I am single and have lived in China for the majority of my early twenties. When I meet new Chinese people the line of questioning always seems to follow the same pattern. Where are you from? What year were you born? And do you have a boyfriend? I turn 25 this year and the responses I get after saying that I do not have a boyfriend range from knowing nods to confusion and even pity.

Many western reports have focused on this social stigma that surrounds being a shengnu in China. It has been reported that the government is trying to shame these educated women into getting married and having children in order to breed a ‘genetically superior’ generation and tackle unrest amongst the many unmarried Chinese men. What has not been mentioned in the West is that the term shengnu is open to interpretation. It is a relatively new phrase and has been banded around the internet as a slang term which can be used in many different contexts. Quite simply, ‘nu’ means women and ‘sheng’ means left over but, depending on how you look at it, ‘sheng’ can also mean successful (if you change the character but keep the pronunciation). Some believe that the phrase was coined as a play on words to signify that shengnu is actually a positive way to portray being a single, successful woman.

Shengnu are pioneers in modern day China. They are big city dwellers who are able to revel in their success and enjoy all the trappings of modern life with very little restriction. These successful women are aware of the pressure society puts on them to get married but they are all highly educated and financially independent therefore there is not an immediate need to find a husband to support them.

The National Bureau of Statistics data shows that there is a gender imbalance of twenty million more men than women under thirty. This situation is the consequence of selective abortions, a response to the one child policy, and the culturally perceived superiority of male children. These attitudes and practices are more prominent in the countryside, but it should still be a buyer’s market out there for top quality Chinese ladies. So why are there so many ‘leftover women’?

It is not necessarily because they are ‘leftover’ rather that they are 'too successful’ and therefore have high standards when it comes to picking their lifelong partners. They are free and able to live independently which was not so possible for previous generations. They can also embrace their sexuality, as there is not the same stigma attached to sex before marriage as there is in other, more religious developing countries. An example of how uninhibited these women are is the popularity of Momo, a Chinese social networking app for flirting with nearby strangers, which has become synonymous with pickups and encounters of a sexual nature.

Chinese parents claim that they want their daughters to be with a more successful partner so the can die, secure in the knowledge that she will be well looked after. Therefore female Chinese singletons have to endure a parent turning matchmaker in order to kick-start the marriage process. Some Chinese girls are shocked to discover that they are being pimped out in local marriage markets by their parents, who distribute pictures and vital statistics of their little princesses; the fruit of their loins, who is ripening too fast.

A Shanghainese friend of mine let her parents match her with a partner when she graduated from university as her mother feared she may become too old and ugly, like ‘yellow pearls’. She met her future husband five months ago on a blind date and within the month their families had put a down payment on a wedding venue for the October holidays. When I asked where her wedding ring was she confessed that her ‘fiancé’ hadn’t actually proposed yet as he was too shy. As she took me for a spin in her new car she told me that although it was previously required that a man must have a car and a house before marriage it is becoming increasingly common in Shanghai for the bride to bring a car with her to the union. A small step towards marriage equality, perhaps.

But do shengnu really need men to look after them? Divorce rates in China are rising and a recent change in the residential property law means that in the event of a divorce whoever paid for the family home - most likely the man - gets to keep it entirely. This law was meant to curb divorce rates, but may instead weaken a women's position. The Chinese media have nicknamed it "the law that makes men laugh and women cry". It is now hard for any Chinese woman to rely on a man in the way that their maternal ancestors did.

Right now it seems familial guilt is the only real factor contributing to curbing China's shengnu population, as daughters give in to the demands of their families. Now that this twenty something generation will be allowed to have two children, such pressures on offspring may gradually ease. As China rapidly modernizes, the term 'shengnu' may even evolve into a wholly positive label. Here's hoping.

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