The Startling Plight of China’s Leftover Ladies

China's men far outnumber women. So why is it so hard to find a good husband?

Tim Graham/Getty Images
Tim Graham/Getty Images

The Spicy Love Doctor was running late. A well-heeled crowd one recent Sunday afternoon had packed into the second-floor lounge of Beijing’s Trends Building — home to the publishing offices of several glossy magazines, including the Chinese editions of Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Harper’s Bazaar — to hear Wu Di, a contributor to China’s Cosmopolitan and author of an alluring new book, I Know Why You’re Left. The poised, professional crowd, outfitted in black blazers, leather boots, and trendy thick-framed glasses, was composed mostly of women in their mid-20s to mid-30s — prime Cosmo readers and all there waiting patiently to hear Wu, who typically charges $160 an hour for "private romance counseling," explain their surprising plight: being single women in a country with a startling excess of men.

When at last she sauntered to the front of the room, microphone in hand, Wu, a pert, married 43-year-old who resembles a brunette Suze Orman (and whose chief advertised credential, it turns out, is an MBA from the University of Houston), surveyed her audience. Then she broke out into a practiced grin and, in the relentlessly chipper staccato common to Chinese public speakers, launched into her talk: a mix of sisterly homily, lovemaking tips, and economics lecture. It’s unrealistic to expect that you will be madly in love with one person forever, she warned, or even that passion can be the right guide to marriage. Her authority? No less than the wandering eye of Bill Clinton, which, she told her solemnly attentive audience, "proves that there is no method to sustain feverish lust between long-married couples."

The majority of her talk was devoted not to such timeless aphorisms, but to describing a new conundrum in China: the plight of its sheng nu, or "leftover ladies." In popular parlance, sheng nu refers to women above a certain age — some say 27, others 30 — who are unmarried and presumably "left over," too old to be desirable. Increasingly, sheng nu are a topic of alternating humor and alarm for Chinese newspaper columnists, TV sitcoms, reality dating shows, and studies by government bodies like the All-China Women’s Federation; according to its 2010 survey, more than 90 percent of male respondents agreed that women should marry before age 27 or risk being forever undesired.

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."

All this grand theorizing was not remotely what Sabrina, a slender 26-year-old with sexy librarian glasses, wanted to hear. "I wish she had given more practical advice about how to enlarge my social circle," she whispered to me. Sabrina was there because she truly wanted to get married, and by her own anxious calculation, she feared she had about one year left. She had a graduate degree from a good university, held a respectable job in marketing, and was reasonably attractive. It had never occurred to her that finding an appropriate partner would be a struggle. Did I know any unmarried men? she asked. And if so, I should probably tell them she is just 24.

IN 2006, CHINA’S Cosmopolitan ran the headline, "Welcome to the Age of the Leftover Ladies." One might expect the magazine to exaggerate women’s angst to peddle copies, but the notion that marriage is fundamentally changing in China is borne out by the numbers: Women in urban China are marrying later, and the most educated marry latest — or, increasingly, not at all.

According to an old proverb, "The emperor’s daughter need never fret about finding a husband." But Wang Feng, a sociologist and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, is eager to explain why the old legend just isn’t true: "I’ve checked, and daughters of the imperial family actually had trouble getting married. They tended to wed much later," he told me.

It just so happens that with China’s economic boom, more and more women are now sharing the dilemma of the emperors’ daughters. In 1982, just 5 percent of urban Chinese women ages 25 to 29 were unmarried, according to Wang. By 1995, that percentage had doubled. By 2008, it had nearly tripled. Most of these women will eventually marry, yet the percentage of women in their 30s who are single, though relatively small, is also multiplying quickly: In 1995, just 2 percent of urban Chinese women ages 30 to 34 were unmarried. By 2008, 6 percent were.

Tellingly, the least likely to marry are the most educated. In 2005 fully 7 percent of 45-year-old Shanghai women with college degrees had never married, according to Wang’s research. "That’s a harbinger of what’s going to happen in other places [in China] for more educated women," he told me. "It’s a sharp departure from before, from near-universal female marriage." Indeed, there’s a common joke that there are three genders in China: men, women, and women with Ph.D.s. Men marry women, and women with Ph.D.s don’t marry.

But it’s not just China. In many East Asian countries, women, especially the best-educated top-earners now thronging the cities, are increasingly rejecting the institution of marriage altogether. The Economist reported last year that roughly a third of Japanese women in their early 30s and more than 20 percent of Taiwanese women in their late 30s remained unmarried; not more than half those women will ever tie the knot. In Singapore, 27 percent of college-educated 40- to 44-year-old women were single. There’s little reason to suspect that China, which is still 49 percent rural, won’t evolve in a similar direction.

The geopolitical stakes are high for a region home to more than one-fifth of humanity and the factory floor of the global economy. Most East Asian countries, including China, have invested little in creating a social safety net; per tradition, children are expected to care for aging parents. But China’s economic miracle has brought rising income levels and city skylines — as well as rising marriage ages and divorce rates, even as the one-child policy has driven down fertility. (In fact, childbearing across East Asia has plunged since the 1960s, from 5.3 children per woman to 1.6 children today.) So as the region modernizes and struggles to create First World health-care and retirement systems, fewer and fewer young workers will be there to pick up the tab to support the elderly. TVs, iPhones, and tennis shoes — all now made in China — could become much more expensive. And East Asia’s humming factories could lose their competitive edge.

The Chinese government has undoubtedly seen this writing on the wall, as Leta Hong Fincher, a contributor to Ms. magazine and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University, told me. Why else, she asks, would the government-backed All-China Women’s Federation take pains to conduct an exhaustive, 30,000-household survey asking about attitudes toward sheng nu? "This derogatory term has been aggressively disseminated by the Chinese government," she points out. According to a state media report on the survey, "See What Category of ‘Leftover’ You Belong To," the All-China Women’s Federation assigned young single women such hapless labels as "leftover fighters" (ages 25 to 27), "the ones who must triumph" (ages 28 to 30), and "master class of leftover women" (35 and over). The takeaway: Get worried, and get married. Or, as Fincher wrote for Ms.: "If you want to stand a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting married in this country, don’t demand too much from your man."

Given China’s unbalanced sex ratio, if more women opt for the single life, that simply leaves more unmarried men at the bottom of the social ladder. According to Wang’s analysis of China’s 2000 census, just 1 percent of college-educated men remained single at age 40, but among men in the lowest income and education bracket, fully 25 percent were single at 40. If some 24 million largely rural bachelors remain in remote villages to care for aging parents, who in turn will care for them? Moreover, a greater proportion of single men, in any society, is often linked with increasing rates of crime and violence. As one common Chinese slogan has it, a harmonious family is the cornerstone of a harmonious society. Clearly, Beijing is worried that the inverse is also true.

CERTAINLY, A VISCERAL ANXIETY about marriage and romance pulses through nearly every aspect of contemporary Chinese culture. Take the tremendous pressure on young men and their families to buy apartments and cars to make them more attractive in the marriage market. According to research by the Baihe matchmaking website, 68.3 percent of women in China’s most developed cities say a man must own a home before they’ll get married. Or take the popularity of the nerve-racking dating show Fei Cheng Wu Rao (Don’t Bother if You Aren’t the One), in which a bachelor faces an inquisition by 24 young women standing behind lighted podiums, presidential-debate style. Or the glib yet lovelorn features in women’s magazines, from Chinese Elle‘s recent slide show, "Love Guide: 8 Types of Men Whom Sheng Nu Love Most in 2012" (starring happy canoodling couples), to Chinese Bazaar‘s advice article "From Senior Sheng Nu to Queen of the Wedding Veil."

Yet the editor in chief of China’s Cosmopolitan, Xu Wei, told me that, after helping popularize the term sheng nu, she is now trying to downplay it: "We want instead to convey more positive images for modern women." Besides, she explained, "leftover ladies" is really a bit of a misnomer — it’s women’s own standards that are changing so quickly.

The singletons I interviewed in Beijing were anything but dowdy. At 5 feet, 9 inches, the slim woman who slipped into a seat at the table at trendy Opposite House cafe was, in fact, an utter knockout. Annie Xu has a strikingly angular face, large wide-set eyes, shoulder-length hair, and flawless skin. She is 30 years old and alternates between feeling panic and contentment. At one point, she told me, "Thirty is a very dangerous age," and at another, "I am 30 years old; I am not afraid of being alone. It’s just like, when you pass the age, everything is just OK."

College-educated and financially independent, Xu is a whip-smart journalist for one of Beijing’s most respected newsmagazines. She is, in short, a catch. She is also, somewhat to her own surprise, increasingly convinced that devoting her time and attention to work constitutes time better spent than dawdling on disappointing dates or "friends with benefits" (she’s seen too many of both, she confided). She still hopes to get married one day, if she finds the right partner, but when I asked what would happen if she were still single at 50, she said, "I think it’s OK. I am most afraid of marrying with the wrong man."

Before our meeting, I had asked her to read the recent Atlantic cover story about unmarried American women, "All the Single Ladies," to see whether it resonated. Yes, she told me, pointing especially to this passage: "When Gloria Steinem said, in the 1970s, ‘We’re becoming the men we wanted to marry,’ I doubt even she realized the prescience of her words."

A generation ago, when Chinese society was simpler, there were fewer choices. But today, with colossal economic upheaval — and a yawning chasm between China’s winners and losers — your spouse may be the largest single factor determining whether, in the words of one infamous female contestant on Fei Cheng Wu Rao, you ride home on the back of a bicycle or in a BMW. And that just crystallizes the problem: China’s educated women increasingly know what they want out of life. But it’s getting harder and harder to find Mr. Right.

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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