Two years ago, I overheard a disturbing conversation in a barbecue restaurant in Beijing, China that made me realize how far people can go in playing the role of oppressors, even at a dinner table. It went like this:
Woman A: “Why haven’t you been married to someone? You have to hurry up, or no one will take you anymore. Men like young girls; especially those rich guys. “
Man B, who seemed to be the husband of woman A, kept nodding without saying anything.
Woman B looked down to her dish and said: “I don’t think I am that old.”
I agree with woman B that she didn’t look that old. First of all, woman A and woman B looked like they were at the same age, and I could not help but suspect that just because women A got married and regarded herself as part of the “mainstream”, woman A started to protect her interest by denying the value of her friend.
If you are still single at the age of 27 or older, and you are a female, congratulations! You will be labelled as a “left-over woman”(Sheng-nu) in China, a name coined by Beijing Women’s Federation, which is so obnoxious that it breaks down all the work you have done to be a better person in your whole life. Nowadays in China, in spite of the liberal signs such as education equality, women experience no less oppression than before the 1980 Chinese economic reform that opened the door to the world.
Yes, when the same-sex marriage movement marches across the land of western countries, women in China are educated to be prepared and get married as young as possible let alone what else they want as individuals. The stereotype of a left-over woman should look like a positive one here in the United States: college-educated, high-income, and liberal-minded individual who makes her own decision about life. Just imagine a girl growing up thinking she has done everything right and managed to climb up the socioeconomic ladder while all of a sudden, her parents, friends of her parents, co-workers, the media—simply the whole world, tells her that: “no, you are going the wrong direction. Go get married.” If you don’t listen to them, the constantly broadcasted stigma of a “left-over women” as well as the reputation that comes along would ruin your life and that of your parents. Thank God if you are economically independent and living a decent life, but if not, the economic as well as social pressure leads you one step closer to hell—since it is presumed that marriage entails children and children take care of their parents—how are you going to take care of your parents all by yourself and how are you going to support yourself when you get old without a child?
Indeed, one of the reasons why among “leftover women” are so many economically advantaged women is because only those women can afford to be left over. The financial disparity embedded in the social structure between women and men leaves women few choices. For self-preservation, most women cater to values dominated by elite men and managed to live a better life they otherwise wouldn’t have with ease. They try their best to be desirable to rich men with makeup and fake breasts, while a small number of women escaped from it by their outstanding skills at work, academic achievements, and hard work.
However, regardless of all these threats being imposed upon women, “leftover men” is the real problem. If you look at the table 1, you would notice that women in China aged from 30-34 constitute 3.4% of the never married female population, while the same number for the male population is 11.5%. It on one hand shows how powerful the “leftover women” stigma is that makes many potential “leftover women” surrender. On the other hand, a truth is unfolded: there are far more single men than single women in the “marriage market”, given the fact that in China, men outnumber women in general. In addition, if we look at the same numbers (age group 30-34) of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan for both men and women, it is striking how much people care about getting married as soon as possible in China(if you look at the overall numbers of both men and women). One of my speculations is that how early people get married and how much people eventually get married are related to how traditional values intertwine with economic development in a region, specifically, GDP per capita. It would be an interesting topic to look into for social scientists, but this is not the purpose of this blog.
(Table 1; source: http://www.statistics.gov.hk/pub/B1120017032012XXXXB0100.pdf)
So why does the society constantly remind people of the stigma a “leftover women”, rather than “leftover men”? Taken into account the “China’s Gender Gulf” described in Rob Brooks’ article “China’s biggest problem? Too many men.”, it’s easy for one to look at the graph and think:” Wow, there is an important agenda behind the whole “leftover women” shame thing, because the government might think since there are already fewer women than men, it would be worse if more and more women are unwilling to get married as soon as possible. Then the government has to worry about not having enough laborers in the market and the aging population.”
It is doubtful that this line of thought ever depicts the true story; however, it is certain that “leftover women” are the scapegoat of traditional values that give little weight to women’s rights, consumerism, and the problematic social structure at work. I am tired of seeing my female friends getting set up by their parents or relatives right after they step into college just because they are “at the right age of marriage”, as if this is the best thing they could ever obtain. I have also seen enough “leftover women” in my life that have to surrender to social pressures and go with whatever their parents arrange—blind dates, hanging up their photos in the park for other seniors that have sons to see, and so on. The most ridiculous (personal opinion) and the best illustrations of how media and consumerism are involved in the “leftover women” stigma is a TV game show in China called “If you are the one” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_You_Are_the_One_(game_show)) and thousands of newly founded dating websites and agencies. It once again confirms that the image of “leftover woman” is a product manufactured by the society as a whole that has more entertaining and economic values than any real social concern.
(Graph 1; source: http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/14/opinion/china-challenges-one-child-brooks/)