Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Are there “leftover women” in China?

What do you think the people are doing in the picture above? Parents are choosing the right partners for their children, commonly known as a ‘blind date’. The concept of blind dates may be presented in different ways all over the world, but it’s an effective way in China that parents select a good marriage partner for their children, amongst those who are in marriageable age (nowadays its lower limit is becoming smaller). In recent years, blind dates have become very popular, which has a very close relationship with the popular words “leftover women” & “leftover men” for those up for the processed of blind dating as portrayed in the picture. Today’s society is still basically a male-dominated society and therefore the amount of ridicule that these so-called ‘leftover men’ have to deal with is smaller than for ‘leftover women’.  This article mainly talks about the phenomenon of “leftover women” and psychological reasons of leftover women formation.

The concept of “leftover women”
‘Leftover women’, as the name suggests, are the remaining women. It cannot be verified where this term officially originated, but some suggest that it was based on the Japanese "defeated dog” or some novels and online works. As "China Language Living Situation Report (2006)" published by the Ministry of Education in 2007, the term "leftover women" has now defined as a formal word in Chinese language. This directly leads to, especially under the media and the network’s hype, leftover women become very unpopular. ‘Leftover women’ initially referred to highly educated, high-income, older, unmarried women, namely 3S (single, seventies, and stuck). Nowadays, due to the unprecedented attention, the requirements for the age and education of the ‘leftover women’ are lower. Among all definitions, it’s most appropriate that the term leftover women "refer to those who are in the traditional concept of marriageable age are still single” (Jin YH, 2009). However, this definition is problematic. First, the traditional concept of marriageable age is ambiguous, which can be applied to older and younger aged women. Second, it is also consistent with the blurry boundaries of the “single” state rather than “unmarried” state which is dividing women into binary states of either single or married life. There is a questionnaire about the average age of ‘leftover women’, that can be found online. This survey is not meant to be used for research purposes, so the informants would express their real feelings when answering the survey. The result is as below:

2008 year
Over 30
No standard
In Total
Source: http://wenda.tianya.cn/wenda/thread?tid=28b49f3e25f371d4.

2009 year
Over 30
In total



Source: http://www.tianya.cn/publicforum/content/free/1/1661264.shtml.

From the table, we know most people assume that the average age for leftover women 30, but in 2009, most females thought the mean age of leftover women was 25. The official age average of the remaining female is 27 years old, but generally 30-year-old is regarded as the lower limit. Due to excessive attention to the “leftover women”, it leads to panic for women that are in their very early 20s. The table also proves it, due to the lower age average that females consider ‘leftover women’ than men.
Considering the concept itself, do “leftover women” really exist, and if so, what is it that these so-called leftover women are supposed to be? According to the traditional concept, I (Xiao, the writer of this article) am a “leftover woman” too, so I just want to share a little of my thoughts about this phenomenon.

The psychological reasons
In my opinion, the concept of the “leftover woman” is a pseudo-proposition. First of all, at any time, I believe there are many single women who are in marriageable age. These women can be broadly divided into two types: those who are willing to marry and those who want to stay ‘single’ (i.e. unmarried). However, since the times and society develop, this situation has evolved into that more and more women are not willing to get married when in traditional marriageable age. Maybe, they are not reluctant to get married, but simply do not want to get married in the specific ‘marriable age range’. But if they do not get married, the society irresponsibly calls them “left women". According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people will continue to pursue higher levels of demand when relatively lower-level needs are met. The highest demand is self-actualization. For modern Chinese women, some have begun to pursue these needs. According to some previous studies, it shows that female college students’ enrolment rate is slightly higher than male college students. This shows that more and more women are beginning to get higher education. When women receive more higher education than ever before, their senses of independence will gradually be awakened, and they start to rethink the meaning of self. In the Chinese traditional concept, the mission of women is to assist their husband and raise children. The idea not only penetrates daily life, but also hides in the education system. When some women break through the traditional imprisonment, being engaged in self-development and pursuing their own ideals, "leftover women" will become their new label. "Leftover women" is a word constructed by men, which portrays an unmarried female community with a high moral stigma, material interests, and extreme self (zhou sq, 2010). Shanghai Hotline has done a survey on the "leftover women" era. The results show that in Shanghai, 82.79% of women agree with the concept of singleness, in which the proportion of highly educated female groups reach 89.94%; more than 860,000 women in marriageable age have not yet married. Compared with ten years ago, it has increased with more than 240,000. At the same time, the proportion of male celibacy has declined from 36% 10 years ago to 34% (Ning H, 2008). Since the beginning of the 1960s and 1970s, no matter the emerging industrial countries of Japan and South Korea, or the old European and American capitalist countries, all have experienced marriage rate declined, the first marriage age delayed and unmarried proportion increased (Retherford, R.2001 ; Goldstein, J. R. and Kenny, C. 2001). So the reason for lower marriage rate is that more and more women choose to pursue the higher self-development. Compared with security from marriage, they may receive much more for work or self-realization.
Secondly, China is a traditionally collective country. Although there is a tendency towards individualism, a study shows that Chinese students are more independent and competitive than American students(Chen & West, 2008). Though this is a particular example, we also can feel the change. On the whole it is still a collective country. The core of collectivism is attaching great importance to the relation of individual and collective and the characteristics are concerning for others, sharing success and failure with others; while individualism is characterized by being independent, competitive and pursuing unique (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Hui & Triandis, 1986). Our elder generations are basically born in the 1950s and 1960s, in which people are more collective-based and family-oriented, while young people value much more freedom and autonomy. Viewing collective as very important means Chinese like to share with friends, families or neighbours. So Chinese do not pay as much attention to privacy as Westerners do. Western people will not ask about your children marriage status, while in China, neighbours, or even unfamiliar people will ask if you get married when coming across. And the biggest feature of Chinese people is saving face. Most young people work outside and go home several times a year. But their parents will often be asked this embarrassing question. The elder generation thoughts, saving face, and family-centered concept result in many women who in fact are not conform to so-called leftover women standard, nonetheless, under the pressure of social opinion, they would regard themselves as potential “leftover women”, let alone those who have reached the standard. This is consistent with the above questionnaire result.
So the concept of “leftover women” comes from the conflict of old ideas with the new in the transition process in China. I think it is just a temporary “hot word”. When people adapt to new ideas or change their original views, the disrespecting word about female will automatically disappear. And according to related research reports, China will have about 24 million single men by 2020. Therefore, the disgraceful label of leftover woman will not be attached to women (Li M, 2006).

Chen GX(2015) “Multi-analysis of boys’ gender weak”: from gender antagonism to coexistence. Theory and Practice of Education, 14, 18-20.
Chen FF & West G.Stephen(2008) Measuring individualism and collectivism: The importance of considering differential components, reference groups, and measurement invariance. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 259–294.
Goldstein J .R.and Kenny , C 2001Marriage Delayed or Marriage Forgone ?New Cohort Forecasts of First Marriage for U .S . Women” , American Sociological Review. 4,506-519.
Jin YH(2009) can we bid farewell to the “leftover women” era. Chinese women newspaper, 12-8(7).
Li M(2006) “more men and less women” and “humanitarian disaster”, which is the end or origin. Financial Supervision, 9, 77.
Ning H (2008) A Sociological Analysis on “Leftover Female” Phenomenon. Social observation, 12,222-223.
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Zhou SQ(2010) “leftover women” and gender domination. The China Youth Research, 5, 14-18.


Xiaojian Qian is a PhD Student at the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology at ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

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