Roseann Lake On How “Leftover Women” Are Changing The Face Of China

By Suzannah Weiss

New York

We owe much of the Nühanzi movement to China’s “sheng nu,” or “leftover women.” These women, like nühanzi, reclaimed a derogatory label to show the power in being a woman society scorns. The term refers to unmarried women in their 20s and 30s, many of whom have decided to stay single to focus on their careers or hold out for true love.

The leftover women are largely a product of the one-child policy China enacted in 1979. Because couples were only allowed to have one kid, and because of the cultural valuing of boys over girls, this led many female fetuses to be aborted. But some parents, especially in more liberal, urban areas, decided to have girls, and their status as only children afforded them some of the financial and educational privileges only boys were previously given. With their progressive upbringing and career success, many of these women have chosen not to marry, leading them to receive the label of “sheng nu,” or “leftover women.”

For her book Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower, Roseann Lake interviewed China’s leftover women and their families about their beliefs and the cultural pressures they face. We talked to her about what she’s learned about China’s culture and changing gender roles from these women.

What made you interested in studying leftover women?

The fact that I was surrounded by them. I was working at an Asian TV station, and all the people I worked with happened to be young women. They all had graduate degrees. They were from smaller cities, supporting themselves in big cities, paying rent. I was surprised pleasantly because I was new to China at the time. The women were really calling the shots. But after the first Chinese New Year I spent in China, the women all went home to see their families, and I realized they were known as leftovers. And I realized this is such an inaccurate description of who these women are. They’re a more educated population than the women before them. They should be the toast of the nation. Why is this otherwise modern country holding its women to these standards?

Can you explain how the leftover women came about?

Many of them are essentially unintended byproducts of the one-child policy. China had a one-child policy, and as a result, tens of millions of baby girls were aborted, and some did survive. Most families in rural areas had this traditional preference for boys, and also for agricultural reasons, they preferred boys because they could do more on the farm. In urban areas, parents were more open-minded, so when you look at the gender imbalance, it becomes obvious that it’s not equally spread across China.

In rural areas, it’s much more disproportionate than in urban areas, where there were girls who survived the one-child policy. Parents chose to have a girl when many preferred boys. What happened is, suddenly girls didn’t have brothers. In the past, the lion’s share of resources would always go to the sons. Parents go, “Well, you’re going to be our sort of son, and we’ve got property you’re going to inherit. We’ve got this money. We’re going to invest it in your education because there’s no brother to put it into. The family business, that’s going to go to you.” All these resources that were reserved for men were suddenly given to girls, and only daughters at that, which in many ways laid the groundwork for just how empowered this generation of women would become.

I say it’s an unintended byproduct because the one-child policy at its surface was not good for women. Many women weren’t born. But the ones who were grew up in exponentially better living conditions for many reasons. The country overall was getting wealthier, and they were disproportionately born in urban areas with more wealth, so that perfect storm led to the genesis of a generation of women who suddenly had more options than before.

China was no longer a country driven by work units, where if you show up at the work unit and you’re not married, there’s only housing for married people, so the head of your work unit is going to say, “You two now live in that house.” They didn’t have these sort of regulations imposed on them. They grew up in a different time, and because they had more options, marriage became discretionary. They didn’t need marriage to survive. They had their own jobs, they had their education, they had a source of income, so they could exist as single women, and more and more of them have chosen to do so.

They wanted to travel. They wanted to pursue higher education or get more comfortable on the career ladder before maybe stepping back a little bit to form a family. So, suddenly, more options that the generation before them  — their grandmothers, their mothers — certainly did not have became available to them, so their timelines for young adulthood have shifted considerably, and their expectations for what a partner looks like have shifted, which has led to greater numbers of them getting married later or not at all.  

Do these women still face discrimination?

It depends where you are. People are always wagging tongues, the older generations — grandparents, for example. I was just in China and I was spending some time at the marriage parks, and you look at the different marriage resumes that people put out, and over 30 or over 35, it’s like, “That’s old, that’s going to be hard to marry this person off” or “why are they not married by now?” There’s always this suspicion of a woman not married by a certain age.

But if I look over the last 10 years, it’s gotten better. There are more and more families that realize, “Our daughter’s not married, but she’s fulfilled professionally and she’s getting promoted and she’s taking care of us really well. She’s taking us on vacation. We’re benefiting from this. She’s helping us remodel our house. We’re actually quite proud of her. And yes, deep down, would we feel more secure if she were married? Yes, we would, because we’re not going to be around forever, and she’s our only child, and we’d like to know there’s going to be someone who will look after her.” But it’s definitely not as acute as before.

And what’s been wonderful is seeing how women are starting to push back with social groups on WeChat, which is a really popular social media platform, if a company does something silly. For example, Ikea China ran a commercial maybe a year ago about a girl who was sitting at home with her parents, and they were lamenting the fact that she didn’t have a boyfriend, then suddenly there was a knock at the door and a handsome man shows up, and all this Ikea furniture gets assembled. And people were like, “No, no, no, how dare you suggest she’s only worth your support or Ikea furniture or your approval if there’s a man in a picture.” And Ikea got slammed for it.

And it’s not the only company that has. There have been online dating websites that have done things to show a dying grandmother on her deathbed saying, “My only child, my dying wish is” — and they’re like, don’t guilt-trip people about this. This is very toxic thinking to have the wishes of the older generations permeate the decisions of younger generations. So there’s a lot of pushback, which is a good thing. Their voices have gotten stronger.

Also, women are identifying as leftover younger and younger. I’ve had girls show up to some talks who say, “I’m a leftover” very proudly and I’m like, “Are you? How old are you?” They’re like, “16.” And I’m like, “Holy heavens, you’re starting young!” But they’re just convinced that they will be. They’re like, “I’ve got things to do, and I know that I’ll never get married by the time I’m supposed to.” Which is also something you didn’t see 10 years ago. These kids born in the 2000s, they’re very brazen. Good for them.”

Is there a connection between leftover women and Nühanzi?  

I think a lot of leftover women are Nühanzi. To be a nühanzi is kind of to take matters into your own hands. I remember when I was working at the office, my colleague was calling me a nühanzi all the time when we had these water machines, and when the tank would run out, I would just go grab a new tank and plop it on top. My colleague was like, “ nühanzi, nühanzi!” I didn’t wait around for a man to do it. That’s the definition of a leftover woman — they don’t sit around for other people to get things done or to make decisions for them or wait around for a man or fret over what others think of their decisions. They just go for it.

Nühanzi was a big term five or six years ago. It was a term people were positively identifying with, and it was one of those trending words in China. Now, everyone knows what it means, but it’s not as popular a term. But I think there are few women who would not want to identify with the term. It actually has a more positive connotation than the Chinese version of “feminist.” Definitions of feminism in China are very different than in the west. So I think there are women who would more readily identify with being a nühanzi than a feminist.

Do you think there’s a version of leftover women here in the U.S.?

I think the world over, there are women who are not married by a certain age, and they’re facing backlash from society for it. That became apparent when I was on book tour and I had women from India or Pakistan or Egypt or Nigerian women living the UK even reaching out and saying, “No, this isn’t China, it’s my country.” And I‘m like, “No, it’s China and your country. It’s not just your country. It’s a universal thing.”Obviously, more developed countries don’t face it as acutely, the U.S. being one of them or Europe, but of course, everyone can sort of relate to this idea. We all know women who are sort of over whatever the culturally imposed sell-by date is in the respective culture. Every culture kind of has one.

It’s not like there’s a specific number and you’re getting thrown off a cliff if you pass that number, but there’s an understanding that there’s something there, and it depends which religious community you’re in and what the marriage age is, but it’s absolutely universal. Sex and the City was a huge hit in China, and what was depicted in the show is still relevant there. I get asked all the time, “Is dating in New York just like it is in Sex and the City?” That was an initial point of curiosity. We don’t have a name, but you can sense when people start to get nervous. I’ve seen on Netflix around the holidays, all the silly Hallmark movies about the woman who doesn’t want to go home alone so she rents a boyfriend and falls in love with him. Of course, people have neighbors and people talk, and obviously relationships are just a perennial voyeuristic area of interest.

There’s definitely an equivalent, but Chinese women admire that American parents aren’t as involved in their relationships, which is always the biggest difference. American parents aren’t going to go out to the park with a sign trying to get their child married off, but are they going to call you? Yeah. They’re probably not going to enlist relatives to give you calls as well, and I think probably more American parents will say, “Take your time. It’s a big decision.”

But it exists the world over in varying degrees, even more so in the 50s. In the U.S., you went to college for your “MRS degree.” There were all those journals giving you advice on not being a leftover woman. People were teaching you how to flirt — things that feel very relevant to modern China. But that’s not so long ago. I’d do book events and there’d been women in their 70s and 80s saying, “I just love reading about these Chinese women. I didn’t get married until I was 45 or 50, and in my day, that was scandalous.” They related. It was cool to see a generation that grew up in circumstances relevant to those in China today. They felt this solidarity toward them and were interested in their lives.

Women get married later or not at all when they have more professional and educational opportunities, so in countries where women are getting married later or marriage rates are dropping, those countries should give themselves a pat on the back. Unfortunately, they don’t see it that way, but it’s clearly a sign of that. China’s kind of smack in the middle of it because you have incredibly educated women but also very poor ones in rural areas. You have women in parts of Africa and India standing up against arranged marriages, and that’s on the spectrum, too. They are defending their fundamental human right to choose when and how they marry, but there are still a lot of women in the world who don’t have that right, and seeing what happens when women attain that right is a fascinating thing because it’s an absolute game changer.

How do you think the leftover women will affect China’s future?

They’re a big part of it. They kind of right now want to transition from being the manufacturing capital of the world to being more sophisticated technologically, which requires a different talent pool. When you’re trying to do that, you need more talent. These women are the perfect tool for China to make that transition. They play a really important part in China’s economic future. Another big [factor in] China’s economic growth is managing to keep the population up. Having that many bodies makes it possible for you to change and develop and progress on such a big scale. Obviously, a byproduct of women getting married later or not at all is fertility is a product. Within 80 years, China could more than halve, which would be really destabilizing.

Now, China just needs to be careful and think thoughtfully about how to use these women to achieve what they want in the country without compromising what these women want for themselves, which isn’t actually that difficult of a task. A lot of these women would like to be married, but they want to do it on their terms with a true partner, and they can build a partnership that is far more equal than their parents had, so China can do that by not calling them names and by making fertility treatments available. There are signs that they’re doing it already, which means they probably won’t end up like Japan or Korea or Singapore.

In Japan, women basically were not involved in the formal economy like they were in China. Japanese women get very well-educated, but it’s common for them to have a child and check out of the workforce for 14 years. It seems taboo to not take care of your own child, so they lose the professional opportunities. China is definitely different, where they have kids and get back into the workforce. They may not be working as intensely, but they have high participation rates. China doesn’t want to become Japan or even South Korea, where it’s still hard to manage the family. In China, you have grandparents who pick up the tab for a lot of that stuff.

So, I think China should look at Japan as a cautionary tale and think thoughtfully about what they can do to facilitate partnerships for these women. It’s easier said than done, but the ingredients are there, and they need to be very careful about keeping the population engaged and creating conditions that allow them to have a family and to have children, which they will not have if they don’t have the conditions.

What surprised you most in your research on leftover women?

One of the biggest realizations I had when I first started looking into this topic was, I thought a lot of the parents were selfish by giving them this pressure and reaffirming their leftover status and sending them on these million blind dates. I’m, like, “Gosh, they’re so selfish,” and I thought it was really unfair. But after spending time with them and with the parents, I came to the realization that there’s just a huge cultural dissonance between leftover women and their parents. They grew up under communism, under the cultural revolution — there wasn’t really an option to divorce. It was just prescribed for you.

And now, you have the younger generation that is more individualizing and interested in equal partnerships, romantic love. And it made me realize that Chinese parents aren’t as selfish as I thought they were originally. They just had a different way of expressing their love. Their expression of love was pushing them into marriage. It was a recognition that they only had one child and their child would be alone in the world, and not in an easy part of the world to be alone. There’s not really a pension or social security system or even many homes to look after the elderly in China, so they’re like, “My child needs some company. And it doesn’t have to be an attractive person or someone they’re head over heels for. They need someone to go through life with, just some companionship.”

And I started to realize that in many ways, Chinese leftover women were the crusaders for romantic love. Because absent from what their parents wanted from them was romantic love. They were just like, “Someone to pass the days with is fine. You talk about chemistry and feelings and falling in love — none of that’s necessary, that’s going to go away anyway. It’s an unstable base on which to base your future. We just want someone to look after you.”

One side had their choices made for them, creating the sense that romantic love wasn’t an important part of marriage for them, whereas, as one of the girls says, it’s like a generation of chickens versus a generation of doves. What our parents see as fundamental to a relationship isn’t necessarily what we think, but it helped me understand that what I originally understand as them being selfish — stop pressuring your kids! — I ended up perceiving differently, as this is their expression of love. They don’t know how else to provide for their kids in the future. They’ve sacrificed a lot, and they just want to make sure they’re taken care of. That’s something daughters and parents struggle with a lot: the tug between “we want you looked after” and “I want to be happy in a relationship.” Parents push for what they think is best for the child, but of course, that’s not always what the child wants.

What advice would you have for a woman who’s single past the age where she’s “supposed” to be and people are giving her a hard time about it?

I would say, if she’s OK with it personally, then she should just carry on. But if she also wants to get married or be in a serious relationship but hasn’t quite found a way to make that work — a lot of the women I meet on book tour, Chinese women or elsewhere, say, “I’m a lawyer, I work a bajillion hours a week, I don’t have time for this stuff.” And the advice I give them is not advice I’m proud of, but I think it is advice that will serve them more than sugarcoating, and it’s, “If you have time to work a zillion hours a week and shower, you also have time to date. You have to treat it like finding a job.”

There’s an expression in Chinese called “yuan fen” that a lot of women use as an excuse to believe that the right person will fall out of the sky. I’ve studied marriage markets in many different countries, and I know the numbers are not easy for well-educated women. They’re obviously easier in the states, where men are more accepting, but my advice is, if it doesn’t matter to you, then carry on — you can ignore everything. But if it’s something that you want, you need to make it a priority and take initiative get on apps.

And when you do it, I think you need to juggle men. You need lots of balls in the air, because many are going to fall, so instead of texting them and wondering why they’re not answering you, just grab the next ball. I think it can be fun, whether they’re the one or not — you learn from them. They’re in your life for a reason. So keep going. Make it a regular part of your life. Be proactive. And if you are so wonderful and so happy with your life, people will be so attracted to you. I think the most attractive qualities a woman can have are being successful with your own life, but to find those men, initiative is required. Look at dating as a learning experience. My friends who do that find it much less painful than the ones who don’t.

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