Life as a woman is filled with all sorts of messaging about what you’re expected to be. As soon as we’re old enough to play, our hands are filled with toys that foretell a future as a homemaker, wife, and mother or, at least, the latter two in addition to a career. It’s not just women either, men receive pressure to marry a woman and have a child, or else they’ll be seen as unmanly.
That said, there’s a unique kind of shaming that occurs around women who choose not to marry, not to have children, or worse, not marry men.
It’s called compulsory heterosexuality and it teaches women, both queer and straight, that their existence is inherently tied to men. That they’re nothing without the label of “wife” or “mother,” and that their labor is expected domestically through unpaid household work.
Many women choose that path, but let’s be real: Few women can say they have not heard another woman say they weren’t entirely satisfied. Dig a little deeper and you find that the dissatisfaction around traditional female gender roles has less to do with the people involved and more to do with how it changes a woman’s life. Without access to money of her own, the traditional homemaker has no choice but to trust that the man in her life will provide and won’t be controlling.
Yet, for some reason, many cultures remain unable to understand why a lot of women want to pass up on motherhood and being a wife. Labeled as “leftover women,” they are told that their freedom isn’t their choice but is a result of them being undesirable — despite statistics showing otherwise.
Women as Leftovers
剩女. Two characters that boil down a woman’s existence to nothing more than a cold leftover abandoned on the dining table. Read as “shèngnǚ,” the term translates to “leftover woman.” Even on its own, there’s nothing flattering about it given that it communicates the idea that a woman is wasted for not being consumed by marriage. But that’s exactly what the term was made to do.
“Leftover woman” refers to women in their late 20s who remain unmarried. Popularized by the All-China Women’s Federation, the term is part of a smear campaign against the increasingly educated, wealthy, and worldly Chinese woman of the 21st century. Whereas education and a stable career are typically a point of pride, the smear campaign stigmatizes women exactly for these reasons, turning the feminine power fantasy of the high-ranking career woman with her own money to burn into a stereotype that depicts them as too ugly, too old, too picky, and too materialistic to make a suitable bride.
If you’ve seen a sleazy guy try his luck using pick-up artist techniques, you’ll recognize the term for what it is: institutionalized negging. Negging is a form of emotional manipulation where the “negger” gives the “neggee” backhanded compliments and other forms of subtle insults to make them feel bad about themselves. This pushes the neggee into a defensive position where they are led into trying to please the negger. And yes, I know one of those sounds like something else.
It’s not an entirely Chinese phenomenon. You’ll find that part of the female experience is living with the constant implication that your wider community is somehow entitled to your body, or to put it more accurately, your reproductive organs.
In the U.S., women in many states still struggle with not having full control over their bodies as local laws and regulations restrict them from reproductive autonomy. Women who opt to be childfree in the West are often slapped with the same stereotype given to women in China: that their desire to remain unmarried and childless is a selfish act.
So are there leftover women elsewhere in the world? If this article by China Daily is to go by, it seems a lot of women (and men) worldwide are opting out of marriage and children both as a personal choice and due to the financial drawbacks of doing so.
Obviously, the trend is present in many corners of the world, but it’s mainly in East Asian countries that there are terms used specifically to refer to women who remain unmarried. English has “spinster,” but it doesn’t carry the same derogatory connotations that “leftover woman” and these other terms have.
In Japan, unmarried women over 25 years old were called “Christmas cake.” It alluded to the fact that Japanese bakeries would start putting their Christmas cakes on sale after December 25th because, well, no one wants a Christmas cake after Christmas. Like the leftover woman, the Christmas cake is meant to be consumed but has chosen not to be.
Ironically, these women’s inability or lack of desire to find a partner isn’t due to an excess of women in Chinese society. In fact, it’s the other way around. It’s not so much that China has leftover women, but that they have leftover men.
Leftover Women, Bare Branch Men
Despite the blame for China’s failing marriage market being placed on the so-called leftover woman, the truly leftover demographic of adult Chinese are men.
Called “光棍” (read: guang gun) which means “bare branches,” the majority of single adult men in China who remain unmarried are considered to be low-status. For all the negging the leftover woman receives, many would be considered a catch elsewhere, especially in the Western countries they often end up going to for higher education or for career advancement. Their bare branch counterpart, however, is hard-pressed to be desirable to most women.
The term “bare branch” describes the position these men have in their family tree. As unmarriageable men, these prized sons threaten to end their family lineage due to a combination of factors that boil down to a lack of higher education, bleak career prospects, and non-existent assets.
While leftover women have an easier time preparing for solo retirement or living alone due to their high level of educational and career attainment, the bare branch man desperately tries to get a footing in the marriage market.
By the looks of it, they won’t be finding their footing anytime soon. China’s gender imbalance has resulted in 30 million more men than women according to data provided by the National Bureau of Statistics. The worrying part is that the imbalance is greatest among younger age groups of 10-14 years old and 15-19 years old.
The pressure to marry and the shortage of women has created a dangerous market for trafficked foreign brides — or rather, hostages.
Phyu was only 16 years old when she left her tiny village in Myanmar in 2018 to accept a job as a waitress. A van picked her up, promising to take her to a decent-paying job. But after 10 days on the road, Phyu grew suspicious and decided to run away but her kidnappers captured her and brought her to the Chinese countryside where she was sold as a bride.
Despite the cost of buying women from human traffickers, bare branches and their families cough up the price as it’s cheaper than paying a dowry to a woman’s family. The gender imbalance in China has given women greater bargaining power in the marriage market, driving the costs of dowries to skyrocket.
The bride price, locally known as caili, involves thousands of dollars being transferred from the groom to the bride’s family. In urban areas like Shanghai, the starting price for a caili is $16,300 and can even include demands for property and a car to be waiting in the wings for the bride-to-be. If that sounds like a lot of money to you already, many Chinese netizens complained that the estimate was too low and unreflective of the real amounts being paid.
With how strong the absence of women is felt in the wallets of millions of unmarried men, there’s one question that can’t go unanswered.
Where are China’s daughters?
How the One Child Policy Created Leftover Women
According to International Adoption, an organization that connects prospective parents with orphanages around the world, China’s daughters are now Americans.
In the early days of the One Child Policy, orphanages were mainly filled with female infants as families opted to abandon daughters for another shot at having a son. The Pew Research Center found that female adoptees made up the bulk of adopted children coming from China to the U.S from 1999-2016. 61% of all adoptees were female with the remaining 39% being male.
But this only accounts for the girls who survived.
China’s One Child Policy was designed to solve its unhealthily rapid population growth. but while it had good intentions, the policy failed to account for existing attitudes around parenthood and a traditional view that treats female offspring as lesser. Remember the dowries? The point of a bride price is to ensure that a woman’s parents could benefit from their daughter even after she leaves their household to serve in her husband’s home, taking care of his children and parents. Female children were seen as a loss of both valuable resources and a way to lose the family name.
When the One Child Policy came onto the scene, it practically incentivized Chinese parents to have sons over daughters to a degree never seen before. The policy resulted in covert abortion clinics, infanticide, exposure, and neglect of female babies.
Maybe things aren’t that bleak for these girls. A study conducted by John Kennedy, an associate professor at University of Kansas, and his co-author Shi Yaojiang found that the missing girls may not be dead or adopted. A good chunk of them are simply unregistered, especially in rural areas where the central government has less oversight. The two found that local authorities would actually turn a blind eye to extra children to prevent instability in their communities, leading to thousands of girls who legally do not exist.
That said, to believe that no girls suffered in the long reign of the One Child Policy or that no women suffer under its effects today would be too optimistic of a perspective to take.
But that hasn’t stopped China’s leftover women from making the most they can out of a bad situation.
Fighting Back in Style
Notwithstanding attempts to push them out of public life, China’s leftover daughters are one of the biggest contributors to the country’s GDP for the exact same reason the marriage market deems them undesirable: being highly educated career women.
The One Child Policy may have forced girls out of thousands of families, but for the ones that were kept, there were no brothers to compete with that would traditionally receive the bulk of their parents’ attention and resources. The extra care that has gone into these leftover women has resulted in a group that makes a lot of money and spends a lot of money.
China’s leftover women are fighting the discrimination they face by showing off just how good it is to be a leftover.
One woman shared that her money goes largely to herself, “During family gatherings, my aunt just loves to tease my parents about why I’m still single. In her mind, I must lead a miserable life. ” She went on to say, “My sunglasses are from Burberry, my handbag is from Louis Vuitton, my laptop is from Apple. I show that I’m not miserable and I lead a great life.”
A 30-year-old woman explained the reason why she and her fellow leftover women put so much money and energy into glamor.
“The more people want to laugh at you, the more glamorous you need to look in front of them. When you look glamorous, people become more tolerant of you and your family.”
It looks like China’s leftover women have a lot of leftover money to go around.