“Leftover women are no cause for concern – it is the ‘leftover men’ that are China’s real crisis”, Xinhua News and Beijing News write earlier this week. “Marriage as a traditional institute is of great significance and value, but it should not be the way to measure a woman’s worth in today’s era,” the article states. Although it has been the unmarried young women, often called ‘leftover women’ (shèngnǚ, 剩女), who have been singled out by Chinese media, the article says that it really is the single men, referred to as ‘leftover men‘ (shèngnán, 剩男) that are at the center of China’s “marriage crisis”.
“The so-called ‘leftover women crisis’ is not a crisis at all”
Statistics point out that for China’s post 1980s generation, there are tens of millions more men than women of marriageable age. At the peak of the disparity in girls and boys births in 2004, 121.2 boys were born for every 100 girls. Nevertheless, the ‘leftover men’ problem has not been covered as much by Chinese media, while ‘leftover women’ have been the targeted by media for years.
The great attention for China’s ‘leftover women’ is because women are perceived differently than men, Xinhua explains. The focus on single women relates to existing ideas in Chinese culture about the ‘ideal’ marriage age for women (25-28 years old). When a woman is still not married in her late twenties or early thirties, she is already considered a spinster. Single men often do not suffer the same familial and societal pressure as the shengnü, and are less stigmatized in the media. Generally, it is more acceptable for men to get married at an advanced age.
The ‘shengnü phenomenon’ has turned into a public issue: as these single women are postponing marriage and family life, it gets more difficult for China’s unmarried men to find a wife. The leftover women phenomenon has therefore also been labeled a ‘shengnü crisis’ (Koetse, forthcoming).
But, Beijing News writes, if you leave the gender bias aside, the so-called ‘leftover women crisis’ is not a crisis at all. If one looks at China’s single women and single men, there is a huge gap in their background and situation. The ‘leftover woman’ generally refers to a relatively successful “urban, professional female in her late twenties or older who is still single” (Fincher 2014, 2), who has the “three highs” (三高): high income, high education and high IQ. But ‘leftover men’ are at the other side of the social spectrum, as they generally have the so-called “three lows” (三低): low income, low education and low IQ.
If China’s ‘leftover women’ get married late or do not get married at all, they will still be capable of living a prosperous and decent life by relying on their own abilities and efforts. “Women do not need to establish their societal worth through getting married,” Xinhua writes, therefore concluding that China’s ‘leftover women’ are “nothing to worry about”.
“‘Leftover Men’ are an important factor threatening the stability of Chinese society”
China’s ‘leftover men’ phenomenon is more worrisome; it is expected that there will be a surplus of 30 million Chinese men of marrying age in 2020. This suggests that one in five men will not be able to find a bride (Lake 2012): a potential crisis.
The ‘leftover men’ and the Xinhua article have become a hot topic on Sina Weibo under the hashtag of “the leftover men crisis” (#剩男才是危机#). “It seems that the majority of the ‘leftover men’ are losers,” Weibo user Lili Zhouzhou says: “They are an important factor threatening the stability of Chinese society. That is why they require our attention.”
Many Weibo netizens argue for more attention for China’s ‘leftover men problem’: “This is a topic that really interests me,” user Sisi writes: “In this patriarchal society, it is always women who are targeted when it comes down to marriage. The standard of success for men is measured by their career, for women being successful means being married. This way of thinking is not in line with our current society. If we measure a man’s success by also weighing in marriage, and measure a woman’s success by also weighing in her career, then we can come to a more equal value system of measuring success”.
“The marriage market is cruel,” user Huangxiaoguzai28 says. “The topic of ‘leftovers’ surely is biased, but men are only left behind on the marriage market for one reason: because they are not good enough, and cannot live up to the requirements.” Another user adds: “It seems that the majority of single women are single because their standards are too high, and the majority of single men are single because there are too many single women with high standards.”
“In this world, nobody is ‘leftover’ by being unmarried”
Although many Weibo users propagate more media focus on ‘leftover men’, there are also many who dislike the term. But no matter what you call them, the unmarried men of China are a very real problem, that has mostly emerged as a consequence to China’s one-child policy and the traditional preference for boys, that have led to illegal sex-selective abortions.
China has an abnormal absence of women compared to other countries. The government has realized that the surplus of men is forming a real problem, and is reviewing its policies. Sex selective abortions have been illegal in China for over a decade, and clinics and hospitals are tightly controlled now. The Chinese government has launched several propaganda campaigns to convince citizens girls are just as good as boys (such as the 2003 “Care for Girls” campaign) (Hudson 2010, 72).
It is also expected that China’s one-child policy will soon turn into a ‘two-child policy‘. For many couples, those of ethnic minority or those living in rural areas, it was already possible to have a second child if their firstborn is a girl.
Although these policies are promising for China’s new generations, the post 80s men will still have to deal with their single status and lack of women. Many of China’s single men therefore resort to paying for wives from other Asian countries, such as Vietnam or North Korea.
Weibo user Jay calls for the altogether abandonment of the ‘leftover’ term: “What’s the use of applying these ‘leftover men’ and ‘leftover women’ terms? In this world, nobody is ‘leftover’ by being unmarried. Marriage is not a way to measure people by.”
– Fincher, Leta Hong. 2014. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. London & New York: Zed Books.
– Hudson, Valerie. 2010. “The Missing Girls of China and India: What is Being Done.” Cumberland Law Review 41:67-78.
– Koetse, Manya [forthcoming]. “From Woman Warrior to Good Wife – Confucian Influences on the Portrayal of Women in China’s Television Drama.” In Stefania Travagnin (ed), Religion and Media in China. New York: Routledge.
– Lake, Roseann. 2012. “All the Shengnu Ladies.” Salon (March 12th). Online at http://www.salon.com/2012/03/12/all_the_shengnu_ladies/ (Accessed March 16, 2013).
– Xinhua News. 2015. ““剩女”不足为虑，“剩男”才是危机.” Xinhua News, July 27, http://news.xinhuanet.com/comments/2015-07/27/c_1116044841.htm [28.07.15].
– Image by Manya Koetse, Beijing.
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