The Startling Plight of China’s Leftover Ladies

In Foreign Policy, Christina Larson looks at the phenomenon of “leftover women,” or women who remain single in their late 20s. She asks why, with China’s well-documented gender imbalance, women are choosing to remain single despite an abundance of available bachelors:

What’s most startling about this national obsession with China’s Bridget Joneses is that sheer numbers would seem to say it couldn’t possibly be so. China has far too few women, not too many. This is a country where 118 boys were born for every 100 girls in 2010, and by 2020 the number of men unable to find partners is expected to reach 24 million. So how could any women possibly be left over?

As science journalist Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection, and numerous scholars have documented, a confluence of factors has led to this deeply male-skewed national sex ratio. For centuries, Chinese families preferred male children because girls were obliged to leave home eventually and move into their husband’s household rather than stay and take care of their parents; the advent of the one-child policy in 1980 only increased the stakes. Over the next decade and a half, the newly widespread availability of ultrasound scans led to a dramatic uptick in sex-selective abortions — banned since 1995 but still easy enough to arrange. The upshot is that by the 2020s, an estimated 15 to 20 percent of Chinese men of marriageable age will lack potential brides, according to Jiang Quanbao of Xi’an Jiaotong University. You might think this would create a sense of entitled ease among China’s single ladies, but the reality is rather more complicated, as the attentive supplicants to the Spicy Love Doctor attest.

“Why do sheng nu happen now in China?” Wu asked. After a dramatic pause, she answered her own question: “It is a result of high GDP growth.” At this point, several women in the audience fidgeted, wary of an economics sermon, but Wu continued. “In the past, there was no such word as sheng nu. But today women have more wealth and education — they have better jobs, and higher requirements for men.” She reflected: “Now you want to find a man you have deep feelings for who also has a house and a car. You won’t all find that.”

She wasn’t telling the women they should want less, exactly. What she was really pointing out was just how much better today’s Chinese women have it. Thirty years ago, a marriage certificate was a passport into adulthood. “Until you married, there were no basic human rights. No right to have sex before marriage. No house allocated by your danwei [government work unit] before marriage.” Today those barriers have crumbled, with rising sexual freedom and a booming private real estate market. Why marry unless you find someone just right? “The future is different,” Wu predicted, waving her arms for emphasis. China’s big cities will be filled with sheng nu. “Those who can bear the shortcomings and sufferings of men will get married,” she concluded. “Those not, single.”

For more on “leftover women,” read an article by Leta Hong Fincher on the Ms. Magazine blog. Read more about China’s gender imbalance and the one-child policy via CDT.