The Shengnu Dilemma: (Don’t) Marry Before You’re 30

A new video by skincare brand SK-II on the topic of the marriage pressure faced by China’s single women has become popular on Sina Weibo. With best-selling books like ‘Don Not Marry Before You’re 30’ (30岁前别结婚) and ‘You Should Marry Before You’re 30’ (30岁前要结婚) hitting the Chinese market, the dilemma of China’s ‘leftover women’ consistently is a hot topic in China’s current popular culture.

In the follow-up to the Marriage Market Takeover video that made international headlines, skincare brand SK-II recently released a new video about finding “Mr. Right”, featuring Chinese-American author Joy Chen.

The previous SK-II video showed the dilemma of single Chinese women whose parents tell them it’s high time to “fix the problem” of being unmarried. Should they follow the traditional ideas about marriage their parents have (“you get matched, you get married”), or choose their own path (“I want real love” and “I feel free and enjoy the single status”)? In the ad, the women express that they do not want to marry for the sake of marrying, even if it makes them feel guilty and selfish towards their family.

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In SK-II’s most recent video, that is also part of the brand’s Change Destiny (#改写命运#) campaign, Joy Chen talks about the pressure Chinese women are facing to get married and advises them to become their own ‘Ms. Right’ before searching for ‘Mr. Right’. Within a week of its release, it had over two million views and was shared over 2000 times on Sina Weibo.

Don’t Marry Before You’re 30

Joy Chen (陈愉) is the Chinese-American author of the book Do not Marry Before You’re 30 (30岁前别结婚), which was published in 2012.

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The book became a best-seller in China, where especially women are pressured to get married before the age of 30 – a recent survey pointed out that 50% of Chinese men think a woman is already ‘leftover’ when she is not married by the age of 25. The marriage pressure facing Chinese women worsened due to China’s unbalanced male-female ratio since the 1980s, where China has a surplus of men of marriageable age.

The All-China Women’s Federation issued a report in late 2015 that showed that over 90% of married women in China tie the knot before the age of 30 and that the average Chinese gets married at 26. It was the same All-China Women’s Federation that first defined the term shèngnǚ 剩女 a.k.a. ‘leftover woman’ in 2007 as single women older than 27, later broadening to include unmarried women over the age of 25 (Fincher 2014, 16).

In Do Not Marry Before You’re 30, Chen talks about her own experiences as a ‘leftover woman’. Despite her two graduate degrees and successful career (i.e. she became Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles at 31), her parents still stressed the importance of becoming a good wife and mother. But this is exactly where the problem lies, according to Chen; a myriad of Chinese young women are well-educated, hard-working, and full of talent, but are being held back by their families and society at large by the time they graduate and get their first jobs. “Why is an entire generation of otherwise outstanding young Chinese women faltering at the very moment when they should be taking flight?” Chen asks.

The answer lies in the ‘leftover women’ stigma that is permeated in Chinese society and, consciously or unconsciously, ingrained in women’s minds. Chen goes against the grain and argues that for women to be successful in life and love, they should first focus on gaining experience – both work-wise and romantically – before settling down. Since people are still developing throughout their 20s, it is better to postpone marriage until you are ready to find the right person and make it work.

You Should Marry Before You’re 30

There are many books on the Chinese market that propagate a very different message. One of them is by author Xu Li (徐黎), who wrote a self-help book titled You Should Marry Before You’re 30 (30岁前要结婚) in 2013.

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The book is a self-proclaimed “roadmap to happiness”. In this book, Xu says that China’s single women often flaunt their frivolous single lifestyle, but as they get older, they grow more anxious about their single status, which eventually will not make them happy. Xu’s message to women is not to wait with finding a partner until they are desperate, but to settle down while they are still carefree and relaxed about it.

Xu says that well-educated women all make the same mistake: “They think the more educated they are, the more charming they will be. But they do not know that a woman’s charm is not determined by her education record” (5). She also writes that women should “wake up”, as “nobody will only love you for your ambitions – you have to give them a reason to love you” (216).

At the same time, Xu propagates women to be independent within their marriage: “Ladies, if you want both financial support and emotional consideration from a relationship, then make sure you also make money, struggle and work. Love is not about being dependent, it is about strengthening each other’s independence and then make the effort to make it work together” (217).

The book’s main message is to settle down before 30 since it is easier for women to find a partner when they are in their twenties, and because it gives a couple the time to grow into a marriage together. As she says: “Some say that marriage is the end of love, but it is just the beginning.”

Becoming Ms. Right

In the latest SK-II video, the author of Do Not Marry Before You’re 30 talks about the right path to love. “In our society, our mothers urge us to marry early,” she says: “But our goal should not be marriage, it should be love. We first have to understand ourselves and grab this opportunity to become Miss Right, after which we can find a Mister Right that really suits us.” Chen tells she started dating at 18, did not get married until 38, and had her children at age 39 and 41.

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Chen says that this is the first time in Chinese history that women have so many options when it comes to marriage and career. One’s twenties and thirties should be about making choices and finding one’s way, Chen says, and about realizing your own dreams.

“Not marrying is also an option”

The video and overall ‘Change Destiny’ campaign has received much support from Chinese netizens, who, in great numbers, share their views on the issue.

Many female Weibo netizens have been inspired by the campaign and post pictures of themselves with a written statement to choose their own destiny and to not let society or family put pressure on them to marry for the sake of marriage.

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There are also those who stress the commercial aspect of the video: “SK-II, we have to buy, buy, buy!” Others say: “This brand does really understand its target audience.”

Some netizens write that with all this focus on marrying and finding Mr. Right, one would almost forget that not marrying is also an option: “One should just live a wonderful life, which doesn’t necessarily include marriage,” one netizen comments. Another user says: “If my career goes well, I might choose not to get married.”

– By Manya Koetse

References

-Chen, Joy. 2012. 30岁前别结婚 [Do Not Marry Before You’re 30]. Beijing: 中信出版社
-Fincher, Leta Hong. 2014. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. London: Zedbooks.
-Xu Li (徐黎). 2013. 30岁前要结婚 [You Should Marry Before You’re 30]. Beijing: 商务印书馆国际有限公司.

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