Has China exaggerated the “Leftover Women” problem?
“My uncle tells me I’m the ‘monkey king of leftover women’,” confided Ms. Ma. An attractive technology manager with chunky turquoise jewelry, a pixie haircut, and an American graduate degree, Ms. Ma was chatting with me about dating in one of Shenzhen’s juice bars. “It’s a way of saying that I’m super-extra leftover,” she qualified with a chuckle. The ‘Monkey King’ is a superhuman monk-character in a legendary in Chinese fable, but the expression can also mean the “top” or “best one.” Sighing, she added: “And I think he’s right. I’m thirty-seven, so it’s probably too late for me to find a husband.” Indeed, Ms. Ma’s qualifications make her the quintessential “leftover woman,” a popular idiom describing the growing number of urban women who are educated and unwed.
In China, if a young woman does not marry by age twenty-eight, she is widely considered leftover. If she is single by age thirty, she is made to feel she has truly expired. A very recent CNN article quoted a young Shanghai woman who called this problem “one of the most talked about issues in Chinese society.” According to her, “a lot of educated women are left behind because they set a very high standard for their future husbands.” Concern over this problem has sparked provocative statements from China’s official media outlets, including one provided by Business Insider: “The tragedy is, they don’t realize that as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their M.A. or Ph.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls.” This cheery analysis came from the All-China Women’s Federation, a government body devoted to women’s issues. Most Chinese men appear to agree, according to a Xinhua News article reporting that 90% of Chinese men agree that women should marry before age 27 “to avoid becoming unwanted.”
Now, the threat of becoming an unwanted, yellowed old pearl could be enough to incite serious marriage-panic in anybody, but is such anxiety warranted? Several factors make me wonder if the “crisis” facing China’s best and brightest single ladies might be a bit overblown. For starters, there simply aren’t as many of these “yellowed pearls” as one would expect, given all the fuss this issue has caused. According to recent national statistics reported by the All-China Federation of Women, there are 5.8 million unmarried women aged 30-39 in China today. While six million single women might sound like a lot, in the vast context of China, it really isn’t. According to UN World Marriage Data, fewer than 5% of women in their thirties are unmarried, and most of them are 30-34 years old. Everybody else has a husband. In Singapore and the US, by contrast, 25% of early-thirties women are still single, in Japan, 35% of them are unwed, and in the UK, it’s nearly half. Compared to the rest of the developed world, women over thirty are much more likely to be married in China than almost anywhere else.
China’s married population is still very high by all accounts, but it has admittedly dipped in recent years (you know, from 99% to 95%). This dip is a normal and expected change for any nation rising out of poverty and will likely continue. Before the mid-1980s, China was desperately poor and all but 2% of Chinese women married at some point in their lives. At that time, for financial and cultural reasons, marriage was just a pre-requisite for adulthood. It wasn’t about romance or shared life dreams. It was just what people did. Similar levels of “marriage saturation” can be found almost exclusively in poor countries like Uganda, Uzbekistan, and North Korea. In developed nations like Singapore, Japan, Britain, and the US, a full 10-20% of women never marry. As women’s education, financial independence, and life options increase, they no longer have to marry, so some of them don’t. This trend is unfolding right now in China.
And yet, labels like “leftover” make it sound like every single woman in China is anxious to tie the knot. But that’s not exactly the case. The 2011 Chinese Marriage Situation Survey documents some interesting reservations harbored by unmarried women (and men) above age 27. Nearly 45% of interviewees stated they were apprehensive about getting married now that one in five married couples gets divorced. A further 42% were worried about losing their freedom, 37.5% were afraid of shouldering family responsibilities, and 31% were worried about housing situations. Some interviewees also expressed concerns about domestic violence.
Ultimately, China’s smart, urban, unmarried ladies can probably take their time. They live in a resourceful society that values marriage and has a proven track record of getting women into the institution. And things aren’t as dark as the media makes them sound. Even if 90% of men agree that “leftover-dom” strikes at age 27, at least 10% do not agree, which is almost exactly the percentage of women looking to marry after their late twenties. Perhaps those open-minded men will find them. Not to mention that rising divorce means the market of single people is constantly in flux. Divorce is not usually heralded as a promising feature of the marital landscape, but there is a silver lining: new potential spouses come available every month. All in all, a mainland woman who wants to marry has every reason to think she will find a husband eventually.
Let us return now to Ms. Ma. One year after our initial interview, she called to tell me she was engaged…and pregnant. “I just never expected this to happen to me,” she gushed. “I am so happy.” Her future husband is a web developer who watched her from afar for many years, finally working up the courage to ask her out. As soon as she told him they were pregnant, he asked her to marry him. Within a month of her acceptance, that sweet daddy-to-be packed up his apartment in Shanghai and moved to join her in Guangzhou. At age thirty-eight, Ms. Ma got married and started her family. She had to resign her position as the ‘monkey king of leftover women,’ since it turned out not to be “too late” after all.
Melissa Schneider is a couples counselor living in Shenzhen, China. She talks about the science of smarter relationships on her blog “Where Is This Going?” and is writing a book of true stories about love and marriage in modern China. Follow her on Twitter @WhereIsThsGoing.