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China Books & Literature

Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower by Roseann Lake

In a new book on China’s Leftover Women, author Roseann Lakes highlights the strength and merit of China’s unmarried women.

Manya Koetse

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With Leftover in China – The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower, author Roseann Lake brings a deeply insightful and captivating account of China’s so-called ‘leftover women’ – the unmarried females who are shaping the future of the PRC. A must-read book for this Spring Festival holiday.

As the count-down for China’s most important event of the year, the Spring Festival, has started, countless unmarried daughters and sons anticipate the reunion with their parents and relatives with some horror. “Why are you still single?” is amongst the top-dreaded questions they are facing during the New Year’s dinners at the family dining table.

More so than the bachelor sons, it’s China’s unmarried daughters in their late twenties and early thirties who came to be at the center of a media storm over the past decade. The so-called ‘leftover women’ (剩女 shèngnǚ) have become a source of critique, banter, worry, fascination, and inspiration for the media, both in- and outside China.

The term shèngnǚ became a catchphrase ever since the Chinese Ministry of Education listed it as one of the newest additions to Chinese vocabulary in 2007. The shengnü label is mainly applied to unmarried (urban) women in their late twenties or early thirties who are generally well-educated and goal-oriented, but who came to be associated with ‘leftover food’ because of their single status and long-standing beliefs about the right age to marry.

One 2015 survey by Chinese dating site Zhenai, that was held amongst 1452 single men and women, shows that 50% of Chinese men think that women who are still single at the age of 25 are ‘leftovers.’

 

SILVER LININGS

“I’m pro-active about finding a partner, but not to the extent that it gets in the way of other ambitions.”

 

After the success of much-acclaimed books such as Factory Girls (Leslie T. Chang 2008) and Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Leta Hong Fincher 2014), Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower  (2018) by Roseann Lake, Cuba correspondent for The Economist, brings fresh insights into the role and position of young women in a rapidly-changing society.

At the root of the ‘leftover women’ phenomenon and the media frenzy around it lies China’s One-Child Policy (1979-2015), the country’s imbalanced sex ratio, and traditional perceptions on wives and mothers being the building blocks of Chinese families and the nation at large.

Leftover in China is Roseann’s Lake first (non-fiction) book.

Lake describes how the onset of China’s One-Child Policy and a traditional preference for sons, together with the available ultrasound technology in the late 1980s, led to an enormous rise of abortions on female fetuses. The gender imbalance it brought about is most severe in China’s rural areas; in places such as Tianmen, Hubei, the gender ratio is a shocking 176 males to 100 females. It leaves villages full of men who are unable to find a bride and start a family. Guānggùn (光棍), they’re also called, literally the “bare branches” of their hometowns.

While the ‘bare branches’ reside in China’s more rural areas, the ‘leftover women’ live in China’s more urban areas. The ‘bare branches’ and ‘leftover women’ both have difficulties in finding a partner, albeit for radically different reasons. For the rural men, there simply are not enough marriage candidates, whereas for the urban women, there are not enough suitable marriage candidates. A major difference between the countryside and the urban environment is that China’s cities have seen a much better-balanced gender ratio, with parents pampering and pressuring their only child – whether it was a boy or girl.

Although Lake does explain the “gruesome cloud” of China’s One-Child Policy and female foeticide and the demographic problems it has triggered, she especially focuses on the “silver lining,” which is that the sociopolitical circumstances have also ‘forced’ parents to value their daughters more than ever before. Over the past decades, millions of Chinese daughters have been given the opportunities and liberties their mothers and grandmothers never had. Their increased educational and professional prospects have made marriage somewhat less of a priority for them.

While China’s unmarried, urban woman are often stigmatized by Chinese state media for being too ‘spoilt’, ‘picky’, or ‘promiscuous’ to marry, Roseann Lake casts an entirely different light on China’s urban bachelorettes as being determined, independent, and self-assured. “I’m pro-active about finding a partner,” one of the ‘leftover women’ in Lake’s book says: “But not to the extent that it gets in the way of other ambitions.”

 

CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING LOVE

“Leftover women are resisting ultimatums to wed because they want to marry for love, and not just for the sake of being married.”

 

Lake’s strong connection to Chinese culture and society jumps off the pages of Leftover in China, in which she playfully and compellingly offers a window into the female experience in modern China, explaining fascinating concepts that are unique to modern-day society. One such example is the ‘phantom third stories’ phenomenon; two-story houses with an unfinished ‘fake’ third story, built by unmarried men and their family to make the house appear more grandiose in the hopes of attracting a wife.

The interest in China started when Lake took a sabbatical from her job with the French government in New York, and went to Beijing. “I was only supposed to stay for three months,” she tells What’s on Weibo: “But shortly into my stay I bought a hot orange electric – Chinese – ‘Vespa’, and that changed everything.”

Journalist Roseann Lake.

As Lake was riding her scooter, which she lovingly nicknamed ‘Fanta’, she took in the city and all of its aspects, including its love and romantic relationships. On what first caught her attention within this field, she explains that it started one afternoon as she was riding her scooter in Beijing and spotted a very angry Chinese woman on the side of the road, screaming profanities at a man who appeared to be her romantic partner. The altercation turned violent, and it was not the first time Lake had witnessed such a scene between couples in public.

“I felt that something seemed afoul with the state of romantic relationships in China,” she says – which was a start of her interest and research into romance, love, and the role of Chinese women in this. “For thousands of years, marriage has largely been a mercenary, transactional agreement in China, made with the best interests of the key stakeholders – the parents – in mind.”

Romantic love as a reason for marriage in China, Lake says, is a relatively new concept. She tells What’s on Weibo: “Down the line, this better helped me understand the situation of leftover women – many of which, as I discovered, were resisting ultimatums to wed because they wanted to marry for love, and not just for the sake of being married.”

The topic of China’s changing marriage values and the generation gap in perceptions on love and marriage between parents and their daughters recurringly comes back in Lake’s book, for which she followed the lives of various ‘leftover women’ over a period of several years. Through the stories of women such as Christy, the CEO of a successful Beijing PR firm, or June, a “return turtle” who came back to the mainland after graduating from Yale, readers can get a grasp of the pressures and problems many single women are facing in China today.

An important lesson to draw from this book is that the phenomenon of China’s ‘leftover women’ cannot be explained through a unidimensional lens. Lake highlights China’s historical, societal, cultural, and economic dimensions in her approach of why this large group of unmarried women, despite all of their personal, academic and professional achievements, are still being labeled through their single status.

 

THE TOAST OF THE NATION

“There is irony and absurdity in the fact that these women are referred to as “leftover” but are really such an important part of China’s future.”

 

In 2016, an ad campaign by skincare brand SK-II titled ‘She Finally Goes to the Marriage Corner’ (她最后去了相亲角) gained huge popularity on Chinese social media. The short video showed how women, pressured to get married by their families and society, pluck up the courage to speak out and get their message heard.

The video received much praise, with many women protesting against the derogatory ‘leftover women’ label. CCTV recently also posted a feature article on social media in which various women plead for the elimination of the “leftover woman” or shèngnǚ label.

The campaign by SKII in 2016 ignited a movement that protested the ‘leftover’ label.

Why, then, would Lake still refer to the ‘leftover’ label on the cover of her book? About the book’s title, Lake says: “There was a different title that I preferred, but my publisher disagreed with it, so we compromised on ‘Leftover in China.’ It has grown on me. I’m told that for non-fiction books, the subtitle is just as important as the title itself, and I think “The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower” is apt. It underscores the irony and absurdity of the fact that these women are referred to as “leftover” but are really such an important part of China’s future.”

Throughout the course of writing this book, Lake spoke to many experts on the importance of China’s young (unmarried) women in shaping Chinese economics. One of them is Dr. Kaiping Peng, the founding chair of the Department of Psychology at Tsinghua University, who is quoted as saying: “The Chinese economic miracle has two secrets. The first are migrant workers, and the second are young, educated women.”

All the love, time, and money that Chinese parents and grandparents have invested in their only (grand)daughter has now paid off – not just for them, but for the economy at large. These well-educated and hard-working women play a powerful role in running China’s economic engine.

 

THE FUTURE OF CHINA’S LEFTOVER WOMEN

“Few people know that the most imbalanced year for sex ratio at birth in China was actually 2005.”

 

When talking about the future of China’s ‘leftover women,’ Lake suspects that they will continue to get married later in life or not at all – on trend with what is also happening in countries such as Japan or South Korea. “This would be much to the dismay of the Chinese government” Lake says, “- which desperately wants babies, but hasn’t done much to incentivize or make it easier for women to have them.”

Social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat also play an important role in the lives of these women: “When I was living in China and writing the first drafts of this book, there were a few groups on Weixin [WeChat] where women would chat, share articles, and plan gatherings. They’ve dramatically multiplied! More content is shared, more ideas are exchanged, and the ease of these platforms means that Chinese women abroad can easily remain a part of the conversation.”

Lake is more worried about the so-called guānggùn, China’s ‘bare branches’: “We all may imagine that the worst years for gendercide were in the 80s and 90s, when population controls were stricter in China, but I think few people know that the most imbalanced year for sex ratio at birth in China was actually 2005. That means that boys who are now 13 years old will likely have a harder time finding a wife than any generations of men before them.”

This Spring Festival, Lake is anticipating the launch of her book (release February 13, 2018), which has already been listed as one of the must-read books for 2018 by the South China Morning Post.

For China’s many bachelorettes, they’ll just have to face the nagging questions at the New Year’s dining table, but they need not worry too much about being called ‘leftover women.’ Through books such as these, the term loses its derogatory tone – it is becoming a badge of honor instead.

 
Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower by Roseann Lake is now available for pre-sale:
Get on Amazon: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Get on iTunes: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Get on Book Depository: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Oi-lin

    February 20, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    Curious that this white author’s book does not reference Leta Hong Fischer’s pioneering work.

    • Avatar

      Sigrid

      May 7, 2018 at 7:04 am

      Because Leta Hong Fingers book is irrelevant to the topics dealt with in Lake’s book.

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China Books & Literature

Why Is Kindle Leaving China?

Many netizens are not happy over Kindle exiting the Chinese market: “We never know when the online services we use suddenly stop working.”

Manya Koetse

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Amazon announced on Thursday that it has stopped supplying retailers in China with its Kindle e-readers and that it will discontinue its Kindle e-bookstore in the Chinese market on June 30, 2023.

Amazon announced its Kindle exit in a statement on its official WeChat account, saying it was because of a shift in the strategic focus of its company’s operations.

For Chinese customers who have purchased e-books through Kindle, they will be able to continue downloading them until June 30 of 2024. Customers who would rather return the Kindle devices they bought in 2022 can get a refund.

On Weibo, the hashtags “Kindle Will Be Discontinued in China Next Year” (#Kindle中国明年停止电子书运营#) and “Why Wasn’t Kindle Able to Make It in China?” (#为什么Kindle在中国活不下去#) were hot topics on Thursday and Friday.

Some commenters said they were upset about Kindle being discontinued in China: “Why why why!! I really like Kindle and their e-bookstore, I check for interesting and new books on sale on a weekly basis. Which e-reader and e-bookstore are suitable substitutes?”

“Zhangyue, Hisense, Huawei, Onyx Boox, Tencent, Readmoo,.. there are actually a lot of brands,” one person responded, but some others said they still preferred Kindle.

“What do I do with my Kindle now? Just use it to cover my noodles?”

In 2021, Amazon’s Kindle was among the most popular e-book brands in China. Besides Amazon’s Kindle, China’s most popular e-reader brands include Onyx Boox, iFlytech, Zhangyue, Xiaomi, Hanvon, Tencent, Boyue, Obook, and Sony (see list).

Some commenters wrote that they understand that companies such as Amazon have to make some tough choices after facing pandemic-related setbacks in China, while there were also many netizens who blamed Kindle’s China exit on Chinese consumers illegally downloading pirated books instead of buying them at the Kindle store.

Others said that Kindle e-bookstore prices were often about the same as paper book prices, making the latter more appealing to people who like to read, especially if they also like to make notes in their books. In other words, they say the Kindle e-bookstore is simply too expensive for the Chinese market, where consumers can find many other options, both paper and digital ones.

“It’s not so complicated,” one Weibo user wrote: “It’s all because of market competition reasons. Kindle is facing the impact of Tencent’s influence on the e-reading market.”

Some people are really disappointed that the books they have bought through Kindle will become unavailable to them, and some wondered if this was legal with regards to consumer rights.

One popular economic blogger wrote: “Kindle has now withdrawn [from China]. Many years ago, when different kinds of online storage spaces starting closing down, I learned one thing: never fully trust internet storage services. Your study material, the things you wrote, your video records, you need to back them up. We never know when the online services we use suddenly stop working.”

By Manya Koetse

Image via Weibo

Featured images by Weibo blogger @钟文泽.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Elementary School Textbook Triggers Controversy for Being “Tragically Ugly”

This elementary schoolbook by the People’s Education Press went viral for being ugly.

Manya Koetse

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The illustrations in a Chinese schoolbook series for children have triggered controversy on social media platform Weibo, where the hashtag “People’s Education Press Math Teaching Material” (#人教版数学教材#) attracted over 860 million views by Thursday afternoon, with the “People’s Education Press Mathbook Illustration Controversy” (#人教版数学教材插图引争议#) garnering over 190 million views.

The illustrations went viral after some netizens spotted that the quality of the design in one math textbook series stood out from other books in how ‘aesthetically displeasing’ it is.

The children depicted in the teaching material have small, droopy eyes and big foreheads. Some commenters think their clothing also looks weird and that the overall design is just strange and “tragically ugly.”

Some images depicting little boys also drew controversy for allegedly showing a bulge in the pants. Adding girls sticking out their tongues, boys grabbing girls, a reversed Chinese flag, and some depictions of children’s clothing in the American flag colors, many people think the books are not just ugly but also have “evil intentions.”

Besides the people who think the design of the textbook series is so ugly that it must have been purposely drawn like this, there are also those who are angry, suggesting China has thousands of talented art students who would welcome a project like this and do it much better.

Some parents are also concerned that such poor quality design will negatively influence the aesthetic appreciation of the children using the books.

Fueling the controversy is the fact that the textbook in question has been published and designed by a team of relatively influential and experienced designers and publishers.

The design was done by, among others, Lu Min (吕旻) and Zheng Wenjuan (郑文娟) of the Beijing Wuyong Design Studio (北京吴勇设计工作室). The book is published by the People’s Education Press.

The People’s Education Press (PEP) is a major publishing house directly under the leadership of the Ministry of Education. Founded in 1950, it is responsible for compiling and publishing all kinds of teaching material for elementary education.

The textbook already caught the attention of some parents in early May. One parent shared photos of the textbook illustration on Q&A site Zhihu.com, writing: “This textbook is so ugly! How did it ever pass the review?”

The ugly textbook design has made many netizens look back on their own childhood textbooks, suggesting that more traditional Chinese design is much better than what is being produced nowadays.

Old textbook design shared online for comparison.

On May 26, the People’s Education Press responded to the controversy on Weibo. In its statement, the publishing house said it would reevaluate its elementary school mathematics textbooks illustrations and improve the quality of the design. In doing so, the publishing house said it would welcome feedback from the public. The statement soon received over 600,000 likes.

Professional graphic design artist Wuheqilin also weighed in on the discussion (read more about Wuheqilin here). In a lengthy Weibo post, Wuheqilin argues it is too easy for people to share their old textbook covers and images to show how much better they used to be, blaming poor design on the quality of illustrators in modern times.

According to Wuheqilin, it is not so much a matter of illustrators who have become worse, but of publishing houses saving more money on illustrations. Publishers do not prioritize design and are still offering the same prices to illustrators as they did a decade ago.

“The market has expanded, illustrators’ prices have gone up, but the philosophy of publishing houses hasn’t kept up with the times. This has led to them not really raising their budgets. When I entered the industry some 12 years ago, publishers could still a good artist for 500-800 RMB [$75-$120] to do a fine cover illustration, but now it would be difficult to find an artist to do it for 8000 RMB [$1188]. Around 2015 I was asked by a publishing house to do the cover of a sci-fi novel series they produced, and the process of our talks all went smoothly, but when I quoted my price they looked displeased and told me that even if they would do their best to give me the highest budget possible, it would still only be one-tenth of my quoted price. The price I quoted was just the normal price for a game poster illustration at the time. I never spoke to that publisher again afterward. And this was 2015, let alone how the situation is nowadays.”

This is not the first time Chinese school textbooks trigger controversy online. In 2017, an elementary school sexual education textbook caused a stir for being “too explicit” (read here).

UPDATE TO THIS STORY HERE.

Read more about (controversial) Chinese children’s books here.

By Manya Koetse

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