Chinese women have traditionally married earlier than their counterparts in the West, but now, as more of them attain higher education, the average marriage age has been climbing steadily. In 1950, the average age for urban Chinese women to marry was just under 20; now it’s 27.
“Leftover women,” a term describing single women over the age of 27 that has been widely used in China over the last few years, has been popping up in Western media. Past the initial shock that the tender age of 27 is the defined boundary of "left over" -- New York and London are full of smart, single women in their late 20s, early 30s, and beyond, whom nobody would think of insulting in those terms -- the predominant attitude Western media display toward this concept is one of simultaneous amusement and disapproval.
The state-run All-China Federation of Women first incited fury over the term with an article titled "Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy." It has since deleted the piece, which berated picky, highly educated single women, but other media outlets in China have not stepped away from the issue, which reflects the traditional sentiment that women should get married, by any means possible. A recent article in China Daily listed five condescending, laughable strategies that are supposed to help “old, left-over girls who were born in the '80s” but instead read like a satirical spoof from The Onion:
Strategy 1: Date a friend of the man you want in the hopes of getting to know the object of your desire and give him an opportunity to fall for you.
Strategy 2: Invite him into your friend circle so that you can be in the dominant position and your friends can talk you up. It shouldn’t be difficult to bag him when he is isolated in this way.
Strategy 3: Pay for some outings and buy well-selected small presents for him to show him you are not a gold-digger.
Strategy 4: In front of educated men, act dumb. You’ll be a breath of fresh air for their world-weary souls.
Strategy 5: Impress them with your looks. Wear different colors and different cuts of clothes every day, and try to learn some makeup tips.
“If you old, left-over girls can memorize and utilize these strategies, I believe you’ll not be single soon!” the article concluded, encouragingly. Mainstream Western media outlets would never run anything like this, and in fact they excoriated their Chinese counterparts for doing so.
“It is not necessarily because they are ‘left over,’ rather that they are ‘too successful’ and therefore have high standards when it comes to picking their lifelong partners,” The Independent of Britain wrote. “They are free and able to live independently, which was not so possible for previous generations.”
“‘Living alone, I can do whatever I like. I can hang out with my good friends whenever I like,’” a 29-year-old single Chinese woman was quoted as saying in an article from the BBC.
What Chinese parents don’t realize is this: Marriage, particularly in today’s China, is no safety blanket, a guarantee of their daughter’s happiness and financial security. The divorce rate in China is climbing steadily: Divorce rates in Shanghai and Beijing are now over 30 percent, and many who seek divorces are those born in the '80s, precisely the women who would be considered left over had they not been married.
“For the sake of security, many parents pressure their daughters to hurry up and marry just to marry. Out of filial piety, many daughters rush into relationships which result in loveless marriages, extramarital affairs and nasty divorces,” Joy Chen, a columnist for Wall Street Journal China, wrote in an open letter to parents of leftover women. “In this way, parents’ pressure to marry just to marry leads women into lives of financial, emotional and spiritual insecurity. Which is precisely the outcome that parents are trying to avoid in pressuring their daughters to marry.”
The point is, being single at 27, 37, or any age is a choice, a choice that Chinese women nowadays, educated and financially independent, can finally afford to make. For the most part, leftover women, as they are labeled, despite the barrage of pleas from their families, pressure from society, and the occasional unnecessary pitying looks from their married peers, are really just enjoying life. Who really cares what everyone else wants to call them? Even iconic single girls like Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw bemoan the prejudices they must face by not settling, but that doesn’t mean they are not having great fun.
Sophie is a graduate of Northwestern University. She covers the emerging markets in Southeast Asia, with a particular interest in foreign investment in the region....