Just about every women’s rights activist and scholar outside of China seems to be triggered when dealing with the concept of ‘leftover women’. Feminists can’t see sexism separate from history or culture, while sinologists keep stressing nuance and objectivity. But ever since the term leftover women rose to the surface, the majority of mainstream articles voicing women’s inner thoughts and feelings are suspiciously biased, and, for a lack of better words: ‘Western’.
In 2007, the term “leftover women” Shengnü (剩女) was introduced, referring to Chinese educated women who remain unmarried at the age of 27 or above. It focuses on the unmarriageable status of these women, as they are said to be too fussy, too occupied with their careers and therefore unable to find a potential partner. Since 2007, the term has been reiterated and promoted by Chinese state-run media, making it part of a resurgence of gender inequality, stressing marriage as a woman’s ultimate goal and stigmatizing singlehood.
The “Western” model
Chinese women are said to be equally progressive to many European or American women, as well as independent and they feel enormous pressure having to struggle with the leftover label. All articles seem to point to one specific direction: Chinese leftover women are changing China’s landscape of equality. With the current U.S. political landscape and an upsurge of what is called the third wave of feminism, approaching the concept of leftover women in media from this particular angle is not surprising.
Living in China however, and having met many single women, I felt like these articles were mirroring the West (in particular the U.S.) and not reflecting women’s true voices. Sure, some women may have been influenced by feminist concepts, and some may believe to be stuck in this cultural ideal brought forward by the government, but what about love and relationships? Are we neglecting that women may have this basic longing for companionship? What does a relationship entail for these women? Do they really see themselves as leftover?
To figure this out, I delved into the world of online matchmaking, and created a male alter ego on China’s largest dating website: Jiayuan (佳緣). I wanted to know if women described themselves as leftover, but most importantly, whether they were pursuing a type of progressive ideal or were in search of a more traditional relationship.
The results were quite surprising.
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge cultural differences in the use of dating apps or websites (or anywhere for that matter). An example of this being marriage. Western dating sites often give the choice of either wanting or not wanting marriage, with some giving the option of “undecided”. On Jiayuan however, since the idea is to instill early marriage as a goal for women, one can only select a time frame within which a woman prefers to get married. As an alternative one can choose “to let nature take its course”, which I suppose you could loosely translate as ‘flexible’.
Progressive and oppressed
In her book Leftover Women, the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, arguably the most discussed literature on leftover women in media, Leta-Hong Fincher argues that educated women feel that China’s marriage law (among other legal developments) discriminates the female sex . Now here’s where I believe a lot of articles go wrong, stating that women are fighting against marriage and actively seek out ways to protest. Seeing as how many women did not disclose their marital preference on Jiayuan, one could indeed suggest that outcome.
However, in women’s personal descriptions, there was no indication of reluctance to get married. In fact, the ultimate goal was to find marriage, but the overall consensus seemed to be that women were not in a rush. They were merely looking for a soulmate, “the one”. User Duckhead mentions: “I don’t accept a lightning wedding”, and user Carole stresses: “I want to get married (…) but there is no rush. It’s ok if you don’t own a car or a house, we can work towards these goals and invest in them together.”
Another argument Fincher (and many articles) claims, is that women not part of this feminist wave often feel so oppressed, they downplay their successes to find a partner more easily. On Jiayuan, an observation that can be misinterpreted is the fact that many women were looking for a partner with either the same degree level or higher. One could argue that this is a typical example of status hypergamy: the “marrying up” phenomenon, in which case a woman’s sense of security comes from a man of higher status. These women however, had jobs of their own with most of them a considerable income. Arguing that these women were looking for mere compatibility rather than downplaying personal achievements to find a financially stable partner more easily is, to me, equally compelling.
In fact, in looking at these women’s criteria for a partner, idyllic love relationships were often desired. Women had hopes of finding love in their life and believed in fate. Progressiveness is even a more fitting term in this case, as the more established women were, the more open they seemed to be to finding a man with lower financial resources. As user Grains of sand points out: “romance is not achieved by money; it’s achieved by emotion.” Similar sentiments from user GuiGui: “I have a stable job (…), I keep thinking women should be independent, especially economically.”
So yes, marriage was put on hold with the hope of finding the right partner, and financial resources were deemed less important than compatibility; this indicates change and perhaps an underlying need for more equality, but it is definitely an exaggeration to state that women labeled as leftover are all suffragette-like warriors against the patriarch.
In fact, women often described themselves as obedient, a good housewife and a sincere and loyal partner. User Long-lasting Sound of the Zither writes: “Regarding love and marriage; if my parents request me not to do something, I will definitely not do it.” and user Awa! writes directly to her potential significant other: “I hope that you have a mature mind, you’re not too short, you show filial piety to your parents, take care of your friends, love children and that you’re preferably a foodie!”
Between tradition and modernity
Love and romance were presented by women on Jiayuan as a sense of loyalty, which is much more linked to tradition than anything else. The goal was stability, compatibility and companionship. Women seemed aware of being labeled as leftover, but it did not discourage them, nor make them fight against the patriarch.
Roseanne Lake, author of Leftover in China, states my opinions the most accurately: “They [leftover women] are treading this delicate balance of remaining filial, and being dutiful daughters, which many of them want to be, but also carving out lives that are more in tune with their own expectations. And their own potential.”
If anything, what I want readers to take away from this, is that it’s easy to use one’s own cultural lens to project ideas onto different societies, especially if you’re passionate about something like women’s rights. Not to sound too postmodernist, but there is a sense of truth in all of the aforementioned articles, as well as in women’s descriptions on Jiayuan. We need to attempt to put aside our own personal struggles with an issue, and use the context within which an event takes place to form a more balanced opinion.
One concept most of us can understand, is that the majority of these women are simply looking for a loving and stable relationship. That idea doesn’t need too much analyzing and is, perhaps, something we can all relate to.
All opinions are my own.
Jiayuan is a public space. Whether or not achievements were downplayed is therefore complicated to assess, but as stated previously, I think there’s a sense of truth in these personal statements regardless.
‘Western’ is a very ambiguous term, but within this context I mainly refer to the U.S.