One out of four of all the women in the world live in China. The current generation includes young women who live radically different lives than their mothers did when they were young. As Roseann Lake, a reporter for The Economist, notes in her new book, Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower, “A well-educated, professional woman in Beijing or Shanghai now has more in common with a well-educated, professional woman in New York or Los Angeles than she does with a female Chinese factory worker from a town just an hour’s train ride away.”
Unlike their mothers, today’s young women in China have greater opportunities to stay single longer, or even for life, and pursue educational and career opportunities. Lake believes that this is an unintended consequence of China’s one-child policy, which was in effect from 1979 through 2015. Chinese parents greatly favored boys, resulting in a lopsided sex ratio, but when their one child was a girl, they showered her with the necessary resources to pursue an education and a career, and encouraged her to do so.
Chinese parents want their daughters to succeed, but they also want them to marry.
“Modern day career women – no matter how impressive their educational and professional accomplishments – are still devalued if they haven’t married by a certain age,” writes Lake.
I’ve spent many years documenting and protesting the stereotyping and stigmatizing of people in the U.S. who are single, and the pressure they feel to marry. But Chinese parents and grandparents take that to a whole different level. Many Chinese mothers sign their adult children up for dating sites. Sometimes they procure the services of matchmakers, who then set up dates that include five people – the young woman and man who are getting to know each other, each of their mothers, and the matchmaker. Sunday mornings are for marriage markets; in a park in Beijing, for example, hundreds of parents and grandparents get together and swap “marriage resumes” of the children and grandchildren they are trying to marry off.
Parents are invested in the marriage of their children for social and psychological reasons, such as avoiding the shame of having a grown child who is not married. There are pressing practical reasons as well. Without a government-provided social safety net, parents count on their children for support as they age. That means they not only want their children to marry, they also want them to marry well.
Chinese women who are not married by a certain age are stigmatized as “leftover women.” That age could be as young as 25 in rural areas. In cities, it is closer to 30.
Single men do not get to scoot away scorn-free. If they stay single too long they are called “bare branches.” As more and more of their female peers were moving to cities to pursue jobs or their studies, many of the men were left behind in rural areas; they were expected to help with the family farm or business and care for their aging parents.
The single women who became highly educated and very successful professionally were no longer all that eager to take on the traditional domestic roles that would be expected of them if they married. They wanted to enjoy their autonomy. Urban, educated Chinese men held greater appeal for them as potential spouses than the men who stayed back on the family farms, but even the most sophisticated Chinese men still tend prefer traditional women. None of this bodes well for the single people in China who do want to marry.
How all this plays out is illustrated with the stories of successful single Chinese women Lake got to know – for instance, as colleagues at the Beijing television where she worked, or as her Chinese-language tutor. The latter, Zhang Mei, told Lake about her friends from high school who never left home: “I see my former classmates – the girls – and they are like spinning tops. Their lives are spent in perpetual service to their husbands, their mothers-in-law, and their child. I don’t want that life.”
At the end of the book, Lake catches up on how life has unfolded for the women she profiled in depth. By then, all of them were either married, about to be married, or actively trying to get there. I was disappointed in that. After learning that the young women of China now have the option to stay single, I wanted to hear about at least one woman who aspired to that. How did Zhang Mei go from declaring, “I don’t want that life” to pursuing that life? We are not told.
Lake is very fond of the single women she has gotten to know and is mostly respectful of their single lives. She sees this generation of young, educated women and the ones to come as power players in determining China’s future. If the nation is to advance economically, she believes, it will need to facilitate “their full economic engagement –which includes allowing them to reach their educational and professional potential, without fear that either of these things will jeopardize their chances at marriage or doom them to a sorry life of singlehood.” What a compelling statement of the significance of these women – if only Lake had not undermined it by describing single life as a sorry life. After hundreds of pages criticizing the singleism these women face, Lake ends up tossing in a barb of her own.
In every other way, though, Leftover in China is an impressive book. It is deeply researched, offering insights into the history and economy of China. A particularly compelling chapter compares the social context of marriage and single life in China to the situations in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. The book is well-written, filled with eye-opening anecdotes and telling details, and persuasively argued.
Far too much of the research and writings about single life have focused on the U.S. and other Western nations. Leftover in China is a welcome and invigorating corrective.
Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
W.W. Norton & Company
Hardcover, 288 pages