China's 'Leftover Women' Are a Thing of the Past

Thanks to the one-child policy men greatly outnumber women in China, giving them all the cards in dating and relationships.

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Aug 4 2016, 4:00am

A woman weighing her options at a marriage expo in Shanghai. Photo via Getty

On a windy midweek afternoon, Jingyi Cheng and her new boyfriend, Liu Ziyu, lazily pushed a shopping cart around a supermarket in Xinjiang, China. They had been dating for two months. So far, so good.

Like many new couples, there was an air of awkwardness between the two, as giggles gave way to terse silences and my probing questions on marriage initiated a jolt of panic.

"I mean, it's pretty easy to find a man," Cheng told me, nonchalantly.

Her boyfriend interrupted her to offer his view. "It feels like there are 20 boys trying to chase one girl," Ziyu told me. "The girls are going to run out like a resource."

Statistically, he's right. China's one-child policy coupled with a traditional preference for sons has led to a widespread imbalance in the number of men and women of marrying age. By 2020, the Chinese government predicts there will be approximately 30 million unmarried men in China. By 2050, some demographers have calculated that could be up to 186 single men for every 100 single women.

Historically, women in China who were unmarried by the age of 30 faced the stigma of being labeled "left over" or Shengnu—the Chinese equivalent of a spinster. The term was popularized by the government, which also funds enormous matchmaking events for singles, further cementing the belief that anyone who can't find a spouse by their late 20s must have some kind of defect.

And yet, some women are pushing back. In a beauty advertisement that went viral earlier this year, Chinese women described the enormous pressure they face to get married—and all the reasons they're refusing. "I'm happy being alone," one woman explains in the ad. "I feel free and I enjoy the single status." Last month, a Shanghai-based production company started casting for a new reality-television show where "leftover women"—those who are over the age of 27 and still single—will be the protagonists.

With the number of unmarried men in China soon to reach the population size of Australia, fewer women are feeling the threat of the feared title hovering over them. Instead, for Chinese women, the scarcity means they increasingly hold the cards in the marriage market and can afford to wait longer before settling down.

"Before people thought women should marry early, otherwise they are left over," Alexia Ping, a college student in Shanghai, told me. "But now, people think it's OK if women put their career in first place, marriage in second or third place."

Ping, 21, was recently proposed to by her boyfriend (who is significantly older), but she told me she hasn't made up her mind yet about whether she wants to marry him. She's educated, lives in the city, and she's a woman—she feels her future relationship status is very much in her own hands.

Wang Yu, who runs the Chinese Tinder equivalent TanTan, said that doesn't surprise him. TanTan's daily active users have doubled since December 2015, he told me, and most of its female users, he believes, are in no hurry to marry. "On average, male users 'like' 60 percent of female users, and female users 'like' 6 percent of male users," Yu explained. He attributes the discrepancy to a mix of Chinese women being too picky and globalization, since he says exposure to American television shows like Sex & the City and Friends "make you more modern."

Globally, there's been a trend toward women staying single or marrying later, if at all. According to the Pew Research Center, barely half of all adults in the United States are currently married—a record low—and the average age that women are marrying at has never been higher, currently 26.5 years. Worldwide, that age is now 24.7, up from 21.8 years in the 1970s according to the United Nations.

But in China, the looming gender imbalance makes the contrast particularly stark. In just two decades, the number of married women between the ages of 25 and 29 has plummeted from 95 percent to 77 percent.

Meanwhile, in America: There Literally Aren't Enough Men

It's not just young women who are feeling liberated from the shackles of Shengnu status. Divorced women, traditionally viewed as "tainted" by their separation, are experiencing a renewed social standing. According to data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, 2012 marked the first year that China's divorce rate surpassed its marriage rate, and it's kept climbing since. The shift could signal that women have greater agency and freedom to leave bad marriages; other reports have suggested it's the rise of social media and availability of dating apps that's led to the change.

Yu Li, a 50-year-old divorcée in Shenzhen, told me she met her ex-husband while they were both college students in Hunan. But their marriage was a wreck. "He cheated on me. He went to Beijing often and claimed it's for his job, he had an apartment there, with her," she told me, on discovering her husband was keeping a pregnant mistress in the capital. "I felt sad and pathetic about it."

For a woman of her mother's generation, leaving the marriage would've been unthinkable. But Li knew several women who had either divorced or dated multiple men contemporaneously. So she divorced her husband and registered on Jiayuan.com, a popular Chinese dating website similar to Match.com, where she soon found a new, younger boyfriend.

Li said attitudes among women are definitely changing. "We are becoming open as well, just like men," she told me.

Of course, not all women feel liberated by the gender imbalance and many, particularly those in rural areas, still subscribe to the traditional ways of thinking. In Zhejiang, a farming region in Eastern China, Zeron Don—who is still single at 33 years old—feels enormous familial pressure to marry and bear a child. "The most important reason for me to not give up on marriage is I want to have my own kid," she told me. "I have planned so many ways to teach and love my kid, but I just can't get married because it's too hard for a girl at my age to find a proper husband."

And although the gender imbalance has changed the dating landscape, sociologist Yong Cai argues it is merely "a bargaining chip to get into the marriage "and that the dynamic within marriages actually hasn't changed much." Cai, who researches the effects of China's one-child policy at the University of North Carolina's Population Center, told me most Chinese women—as with many women in other parts of the world—still bear the responsibility for cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Even if Chinese women have greater agency in choosing a spouse, women still make the most compromises during the marriage, illustrating that gender equality remains premature in China.

But that, too, may change. The heightened awareness among young women of their growing leverage reflects a popular Chinese saying: yin sheng, yang shuai, meaning the female force is on the up, while the male is on the down.

Additional reporting by Qiushi Li and Pavni Mittal.

Follow Adela Suliman on Twitter.

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