Author Addresses China’s “Leftover Women”

The issue of so-called leftover women, or women who remain unmarried in their late 20s, is again in the media spotlight thanks to a bilingual book by Joy Chen titled, “Do Not Marry Before Age 30.” American Public Media’s Marketplace interviewed Chen and other experts about the phenomenon of “leftover women” and women’s changing ideas about their role in Chinese society:

Joy Chen’s path to celebrity in China started with a blog she wrote from home in LA. “The blog was all about helping you understand the inside skinny on how to get to the top of global companies,” Chen says.

It gained a large following from young Chinese — so large, that China’s top publisher took notice. “They came over and said, ‘the Chinese market especially needs a book to encourage women, because young women today, white-collars, are facing many, many challenges in their lives’,” Chen recalls.

Chief among them: being pressured by your family to hurry up and get married. If Chinese women don’t marry by age 30, they’re often labeled “leftover women”.

Leta Hong-Fincher is a PhD candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University and author of the forthcoming book “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.” She says China’s government has popularized the term through the state media. [Source]

ABC News also interviews Chen about how women who are labeled “leftover” deal with the pressures from society:

“There is a deep insecurity among women if they are not married: How are they going to live and survive,” said Chen, a Chinese-American who once served as deputy mayor of Los Angeles.

“When you reach 25 and 26, no one wants you anymore,” she said of the attitude. “You are no longer beautiful and no longer loved and lose your value as a human being.

“One woman told me she was a leftover at 22,” she said. “It’s really hard for Americans to imagine that kind of pressure. And it comes from all directions — from parents, from colleagues at work, everyone you meet in a business capacity and socially.” [Source]

Yet women are not the only ones facing social pressure to marry and have children. China’s skewed gender ratio has left millions of men without partners, turning them into so-called “bare branches.” Yet while leftover women are generally urban, white collar workers, the “bare branches” are generally rural or working class men. Tea Leaf Nation looks at a recent infographic published by Sohu which illustrates this phenomenon:

Recently, Sohu, one of China’s largest online news websites, published an infographic [Zh] entitled “Men and Women in Danger,” shedding more light on the predicament allegedly faced by middle-aged men and women who are unmarried. Compiling data from the 2010 national census and several recent news articles, the infographic offers an ominous outlook for China’s approximately 12 million bachelors and 6 million bachelorettes between the ages of 30 and 39.

Sohu noted, “Recently, media have revealed that the ‘bare branch’ [bachelor] crisis is greater than the ‘leftover women’ issue, as the former greatly increases the risk of social instability“光棍”危机大于“剩女”问题,大大增加社会不稳定风险。.” This problem has become especially acute in China due to the increasingly skewed gender ratio – in 2012, 117 males were born for every 100 females. Many Chinese men already report an inability to find a wife. By 2020, their ranks could increase to as many as 30 million.

The infographic points out what many netizens intuitively understand – that although “leftover” men and women share the same conundrum, they come from vastly different places in society. “Leftover” women tend to be highly educated professionals living in coastal cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, while their male counterparts are more often low-income wage earners from less-developed provinces. [Source]

These trends are having an economic impact as well, especially in the housing market, as real estate ownership has become a key factor in marriageability, the Economist reports:

Some economists argue that competition for brides in China’s marriage “market” helps explain the punishingly high prices in its property market. Houses are least affordable in those parts of China where men most outnumber women, argue Shang-jin Wei of Columbia University, Xiaobo Zhang of the International Food Policy Research Institute and Yin Liu of Tsinghua University.

Men (and their families) splash out on property to improve their position in the marriage queue. But that merely forces other men to spend more in response. Unmarried men are locked in a Darwinian race, the economists argue. Overpriced homes are like the extravagant plumage of a peacock, an eye-catching encumbrance that only the most resourceful males can put on display.

The burden of home-buying thus falls heavily on unmarried men. But it is no longer confined to them. Women and their families now contribute to their partner’s home purchases in 70% of cases, according to Horizon China’s research. They help out both because they must—couples have to pool their resources to afford coastal China’s pricey homes—and because they can. Young women are earning more and receiving more help from their parents, for whom they are often now the only child. [Source]

Read more about “leftover women” and China’s gender imbalance, via CDT.


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