The Chinese media has been buzzing with stories about urban single women like Wei, so-called sheng nu, which literally translates to “leftover women.” While countrywide, the gender imbalance, which tallies up to an average of 120 males for every 100 females, might seem to favor women, there’s another force working against this class of ladies. The country’s long-held tradition of marriage hypergamy, a practice in which women marry up in terms of income, education and age, means that the most highly-educated women often end up without partners. Under these conditions, “men at the bottom of society get left out of the marriage market, and that same pattern is coming to emerge for women at the top of society,” says Yong Cai, a University of North Carolina demographer who studies China’s gender imbalance.
In a cheeky response to the mocking title, women have launched “sheng nu” social clubs across the country. At a Starbucks not far from Shanghai’s People’s Park, the founders of one such club, which boasts more than 1,000 members, met on a hot summer night to talk about single living in Shanghai. As women climb the social ladder, the pool of viable men shrinks, explained Sandra Bao, a co-founder and fashion magazine editor who coyly said she’s “around 30.” She noted that many modern, single women in China enjoy their independence and feel comfortable holding out for the right man, even as they grow older. “We don’t want to make compromises because of age or social pressure,” she explained.
In January 2010 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) showed what can happen to a country when girl babies don’t count. Within ten years, the academy said, one in five young men would be unable to find a bride because of the dearth of young women—a figure unprecedented in a country at peace.
The number is based on the sexual discrepancy among people aged 19 and below. According to CASS, China in 2020 will have 30m-40m more men of this age than young women. For comparison, there are 23m boys below the age of 20 in Germany, France and Britain combined and around 40m American boys and young men. So within ten years, China faces the prospect of having the equivalent of the whole young male population of America, or almost twice that of Europe’s three largest countries, with little prospect of marriage, untethered to a home of their own and without the stake in society that marriage and children provide.