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.

  1. Chinese generally don’t care if they marry the right person …. they just want to be married. Afterwards they live a lonely life (there is nothing worst than being lonely in marriage).

    1. Well may be but 1.6 billion Chinese can’t be wrong.

      They gotta be doing something the west is not.

      Like there are 5 Chinese boys for every one Chinese girl, does that mean that the girl will have 5 babies in a China even with an one child policy.

      1. “1.6 billion Chinese can’t be wrong.” < ever heard of this little thing called the cultural revolution?

    2. That is true Maria

      Every year Im very impressed to find out how many of my Chinese friends marry after 2 or 3 months of dating, for them the right person is the one who has the house , car and good job.

      They are very pragmatic with their relationships maybe is the lack of affection during their teenage years because the school pressure since secondary and high school years.

      And yes the leftover women is exaggerated, as Ms Ma example i have friends in the same situation about 31 to 33 years old but they are not so well educated they only have Bachelor degree and they dont have a good job but they are pretty, at the end they found the right person.

  2. hmm…a westerner using logic and statistics to comment on a trend in a nation ruled by unspoken cultural laws and rituals. A commendable effort but failed attempt to fully describe the situation. It seems the gap between eastern and western mentalities is still a large chasm that a purebred will find difficult, if not impossible to bridge. 🙂

    1. I love when people use the “you just understand this culture” response, but then fail to explain said culture in any way, particularly the part that was misunderstood.

      Is “detail” a “western” concept, too, you pretentious waste of brain matter?

  3. News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch has filed for divorce from Wendi Deng because their marriage has “irretrievably broken down”.

    Mr Murdoch, 82, met his Chinese-born third wife in 1997 at a cocktail party in Hong Kong. They were married two years later, weeks after his second divorce.

    Ms Deng, 44, is 38 years younger than the Australian-born media mogul, who is said by Forbes to be worth $9.4bn (£6bn).

    Never too old for the right white men, Chinese women are queens of Scotland.

    And a nice pay day too, good luck.

    Give me a call, babe.

  4. Hmm, the article worries about the stereotypical 37 year old unwanted Chinese woman, but what about all the men that this woman ignored during her prime years and who are also getting nothing?

    Apparently nobody is concerned about the men at all. This is typical of western society and now also China: Men are expendable and treated just as a commodity and an afterthought.

    1. Chinese men are still not allowed to kiss a whitey women on the streets like guys do now.

    2. Dude , you hit it the nail on the head, Yes, she might have ignored many guys on her way to being an Unwanted 37 year old BUT the very said men have been “Bidding” up the price of Chinese women by giving them so much. So nothing being offered to her before was enough.

      IMO she deserves to be “unwanted” because her head have already been washed.

      Welcome to the NEW China ,,, where women control Men while being totally unhappy.

      1. Oh, fuck off. Yes, being a man is sooo hard. You’re a pussy. I say this as a man. A real man, that doesn’t complain about things being unfair on account of my penis.

        A real fucking man does what needs to be done, and doesn’t whine about complete strangers’ romantic relationships.

  5. As many as a million young people in Japan are thought to remain holed up in their homes – sometimes for decades at a time. Why?

    For Hide, the problems started when he gave up school.

    “I started to blame myself and my parents also blamed me for not going to school. The pressure started to build up,” he says.

    “Then, gradually, I became afraid to go out and fearful of meeting people. And then I couldn’t get out of my house.”

    Gradually, Hide relinquished all communication with friends and eventually, his parents. To avoid seeing them he slept through the day and sat up all night, watching TV.

    “I had all kinds of negative emotions inside me,” he says. “The desire to go outside, anger towards society and my parents, sadness about having this condition, fear about what would happen in the future, and jealousy towards the people who were leading normal lives.”

    Hide had become “withdrawn” or hikikomori.

    This is one reason why whiteys are taking all the Leftover Women in Japan and China.

  6. What about all the millions of TRULY ineligible men to be married because there simply aren’t enough women. My sympathies are with them. Women in China can get married if they want to..maybe to a peasant or blue collar worker…a societal downgrade..it’s a choice not to marry men not fitting their ideals.

    Interview and write about these men please someone.

    1. What you’re really saying is “because men have it worse in China, women can’t complain” which is fucking retarded.

  7. The woman in this photo looked pretty, and I assumed that she was a Chinese stock model since this article was talking about Chinese left-over women. I thought it was strange why a supposed Chinese woman would look pretty, since Chinese women are ugly. So I right-clicked the image, selected “copy image location”, went to Google Images, clicked on the grey “search by image” icon in the search bar, pasted the copied image location, clicked “search by image”, and it turned out that the woman in the photo was not Chinese but actually a Korean actress named Han Ye Seul. That made a lot more sense since Korean women generally pretty, and the ones who are ugly go get cosmetic surgery.

  8. I see Chinese women dont understand that a womans coin in the sexual marketplace is mainly their looks and youth(personality is important too, just not as important), and when thats gone so is their options.

  9. She is a babe. She could have been married a long time ago if she wanted to. There are many men that would have loved to have met her, along with many of the so called leftover women. At least they have a drive to succeed and not just be some baby factory!

  10. Inert a beautiful 38 year old on Asian date and we love each other Nd getting married soon she is a smart and indepent lady she does not threaten me I respect that in her we love and respect and want to share are lives togther forever

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