‘Shengnu’: China’s ‘Leftover Women’

28 Apr

Effects of the One Child Policy within China have echoed through generations and have led to unexpected consequences. A recent term which has gained rapid circulation within China but has been heavily criticised from abroad is ‘Shengnu’ which translates as ‘leftover women’. The term refers to women in their late twenties who are still single, something which in Western culture may not seem too unusual. However due to gender selective abortion, with parents preferring a son to a daughter, demographics within China have been radically altered so there are about 20 million more men under 30 years of age than women. As a result women are feeling great pressure, not only from society but also the government, to get married. Leta Hong-Fincher, an American doing a sociology PhD at Tsinghua University in Beijing says:

 “Ever since 2007, the state media have aggressively disseminated this term in surveys, and news reports, and columns, and cartoons and pictures, basically stigmatising educated women over the age of 27 or 30 who are still single,”.( Magistad, M. BBC, 2013)

Some women however have decided to drain the terminology of its power and revert the meaning so that instead of a sign of weakness it become one of strength signifying well educated and independent women.





2 Responses to “‘Shengnu’: China’s ‘Leftover Women’”

  1. samhemming April 28, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

    I’m not sure I understand, is this article saying that the numbers of women marrying later is due to the One-child policy? The One-child policy combined with a preference for male children has created an excess of males. Mary Magistad explains in her BBC article that this has led to more women unmarried at a later age as it exacerbates the tradition of Chinese men ‘marrying down.’ A-quality women are left behind as A-quality men marry B-quality women, B-quality men marrying C-quality women.
    Another issue may be that with the increasing ratio of men to women, women are more in demand and therefore more ‘valuable’ in a sense. Ergo women have more options to marry and options to investigate. Perhaps this has led to later marriages while women spend more time exploring their options. To some extent this seems to be the government media who use the term ‘picky’ to describe ‘shengnu.’
    It may be unnecessary to look to China’s traditional marriage practises or the effects of the One-child policy, though. The increased number of unmarried women and men in their late twenties could just be the natural result of China’s developing economy. The number of bachelors is almost certainly inflated by the One-child policy. However ‘shengnu’ could just be another indicator or result of China’s social and economic success, which in other countries has also led to later marriage. China’s percentage of unmarried women between 25 and 29 is only 22%, whereas in the UK and Japan it is 72% and 60% respectively.


  2. iyh1g10 April 29, 2013 at 8:47 am #

    In support with what the person commented before me, Wu, author of ‘I Know Why You’re Left, attributes sheng nu happening in China as a result of the high GDP growth. In the past, the role of the woman was to marry into the man’s family as opposed to looking after their own. Today, along with greater wealth and education, women in China have better jobs and as a result, higher requirements for men. Women want a man who can support them financially as well. Thirty years ago, a marriage certificate was a right of passage to adulthood as there were no basic human rights awarded to women before that. Even the government work unit [danwei] would not allocate houses to women before marriage. Now, it would appear that the most educated are the most likely to get married later because they can afford it. In 1982, just 5% of urban Chinese women between ages 25 and 29 were unmarried but by 1995, that percentage had doubled. By 2008, it had nearly tripled, illustrating a shift women’s sense of self-worth in China. Women are given more choices in life and what Gloria Steinam said in the 1970s, ‘We’re becoming the men we wanted to marry’, could not be more applicable.

    Highly educated and top-earning women rejecting marriage appears to be prominent in other East Asian countries as well. The Economist reported that roughly a third of Japanese women in their early 30s and over 20% of Taiwanese women in their late 30s have yet to tie the knot. Looking at 40-44year old women, 20% remain unmarried in Bangkok and in Singapore, 27%. The mean age of marriage in the richest places—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—has risen sharply in the past few decades, to reach 29-30 for women and 31-33 for men. Hence, based on the economic growth in China, it can be construed that the trend is likely to influence China in the future and the social implications are likely to be quite serious, especially given the gender-selective abortions.

    Foreign Policy: The Startling Plight of China’s Leftover Ladies. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/the_startling_plight_of_china_s_leftover_ladies?page=0,2&wp_login_redirect=0
    The Economist: The Decline of Asian Marriage. http://www.economist.com/node/21526350

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