News Single women in China, branded as 'leftovers'

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Single women branded as ‘leftovers’

Single women in their late 20s aren’t a rare breed. These days, it’s not uncommon for women approaching 30 to be fighting for promotions, finishing their studies, starting new ventures or travelling the world – all without the need for a partner. Yet, in China, those same women who boast a mixture of ambition, experience and confidence, are also fighting to be ‘taken off the shelf’.

Revelations the Chinese government ordered a women’s rights organisation, the All-China Women’s Federation, to label unmarried women over the age of 27 as ‘leftovers’, has sent the Western world reeling.

With casual reference to ‘leftover ladies’ and ‘3S women’ (single, born in the seventies and stuck), the All-China Women’s Federation has fuelled the stigma surrounding unmarried Chinese women. Alarmingly, this is the same organisation that claims to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of women and children” and “advocate among women the spirits of self-esteem, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-improvement.”

It is suspected the communist government ordered the ‘leftover’ definition in 2007 after concerns about the gender imbalance in China, an imbalance caused by selective abortions under the one-child policy. Because the population of Chinese men over 30 drastically outweighs the number of Chinese women of the same age, the government turned to the media to ‘shame’ single women into partnerships. American sociology PhD student at Tsinghua University in Beijing Leta Hong-Fincher told the BBC how the media has played its part.

“Ever since 2007, the state media have aggressively disseminated this term in surveys, and news reports, and columns, and cartoons and pictures, basically stigmatising educated women over the age of 27 or 30 who are still single,” she said.

Though the All-China Women’s Federation website does discuss the modern trend of marrying late, a woman’s right to independence and the importance of education, the legitimacy of these convictions are undermined by constant reference to women being ‘too choosy’ in love, having ‘unrealistic expectations’ and choosing to sacrifice marriage by pursuing a career.

Quoting survey statistics stating “65% of male respondents believed 25-year-old women were desirable for marriage, while only 12.5% said the could accept women over the age of 35,” the All-China Women’s Federation make the future of the ‘30’s-and-single’ group sound hopelessly dim.

Testimonies from men like 28-year-old Gao Mingjian who says “few young men measure up to the material expectations of women looking for spouses, those [women] that remain single have no one to blame but themselves for setting such impossibly high standards,” it seems single women are their own worst enemy and ‘settling’ is the only way to avoid ‘leftover-ness’.

The All-China Women’s Federation talks a lot about the difficulties in balancing a career and finding a partner. One article claimed “there’s a common joke that there are three genders in China: men, women, and women with Ph.D’s. Men marry women, and women with Ph.D’s don’t marry.”

A popular theory is that single women in China are all ‘A-quality women’ with experience and education, left behind because Chinese men prefer to ‘marry down’ in terms of age and achievement. One excerpt, from a Women’s Federation column published in March 2011, has received wide coverage in Western media for its brazen derogatory nature.

Pretty girls don’t need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family, but girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult. These kinds of girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don’t realize that 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.

Heartbreakingly, many Chinese women really are petrified of being left over, a fear exploited and then sensationalised by the media’s constant hammering of those ‘past the optimal marriageable age’. The Women’s Federation website is riddled with quotes from women in – what they perceive to be – desperate situations. Vitoria, 29 said “I am still single and have no boyfriend, even my parents call me a leftover woman now.” Xu joined a dating site because “many older people in my life told me that a woman will be happier if she gets married before 30.”

Some workplaces are offering ‘saving leftover women’ benefits, where unmarried women employees are granted two blind dates with men colleagues. In a growing trend, Wang Xiaoxiao got married straight after college because, as described by the Women’s Federation site, “her opinion is that women only remain in their prime for a short time and she did not want to become a left-over woman”.

The benefits of the ‘leftover’ label to women’s ‘self-esteem, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-improvement’ are certainly questionable. In the last few months, the All-China Women’s Federation has dropped many leftover-shaming articles from its site including one post entitled ‘Leftover women do not deserve our sympathy’. The site now refers to ‘old’ unmarried women (still using 27 as the benchmark) as opposed to ‘leftovers’. Back pedalling aside, Chinese women are still preparing for blind dates, settling for men below their expectations and using complimentary workplace dating coupons… all in fear of being ‘leftover’.

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