Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

"Leftover Women": Postponing Marriage and Renegotiating Womanhood in Urban China

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

"Leftover Women": Postponing Marriage and Renegotiating Womanhood in Urban China

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Discourse of "Leftover Women"

In contemporary China, a palpable sense of concern pervades public discourse on (heterosexual) marriage, as a successful marriage is commonly perceived to be ever more difficult to realize. Divorces have increased, particularly since the liberalization of the Marriage Law in 1980 to accommodate no-fault divorce, followed by the streamlining of the divorce process instituted in 2003 (Wang 2001; Wang and Zhou 2010).1 At the same time, the average age at first marriage has steadily risen over the past two decades (Cheng, Han, and Dagsvick 2011).2 Especially in the large cities, a growing proportion of youth remains single into their late 20s and beyond. In Shanghai for example, the average age of first marriage rose from 28.8 to 30.1 for men and 26.5 to 28.1 for women between 2010 and 2013.3

Further, in these urban areas, a larger proportion of women than men remain unmarried after age 30, and the likelihood of marriage for women decreases significantly with increased education levels (Cheng, Han, and Dagsvick 2011). This cannot be attributed to straight demographics, because China has a "surfeit of bachelors" due to a shortage of potential brides that results from a skewed sex ratio at birth (Ibid; Das Gupta and Li 1999; Li et al. 2005). Indeed, as many as 10% of Chinese men bom after 1980 are or will become "bare sticks:" lifelong bachelors without offspring (Jiang, Feldman, Li 2014).4

Clearly, social and cultural considerations, as well as individual preferences, limit the availability of desirable partners for highly educated, professional urban women who aspire to marry, as most do. Importantly, marriage in China has conventionally involved "matching doors and windows" (mendang hudui), pairing individuals from families of similar social status, as well as women "marrying up," i.e., female hypergamy, choosing a spouse from a family of higher social status or greater wealth. By contemporary standards, women typically prefer to marry someone slightly older than themselves, who is materially well-off and financially capable, but also romantic; men prefer to marry someone slightly younger and having equal or less education than themselves, who is attractive and has a good personality (Davin 2007, Yan 2002, Liu 2007).5 Given these gender-asymmetrical criteria for spouse selection, women characterized by so-called "three highs" (high levels of education, high income, and advancing age) are distinctly disadvantaged.

In the mid-2000s, the media in China began to focus attention on this trend of marriage postponement and problematize it. A disproportionate amount of the negative media attention focuses on women. Typically, single women are blamed for their own predicament, accused of being too fickle, too materialistic, self-centered, and generally unrealistic in their expectations of marriage (Gao 2011; Zhou 2010). Misogynist jokes and ditties circulate through media and reinforce conservative gender norms. An example is: "The world has three types of humans: Men, Women, and Female PhDs," suggesting that such highly educated women are extremely aberrant (Fincher 2014). In 2007, the official organization for Chinese women, the All-China Women's Federation, warned women that they must marry by age 27 or they would become "leftover women" (shengnü) that is, forever unmarriageable (Chen 2012).

Historically in China, heterosexual marriage has been the prerequisite for family formation and continuity, a paramount filial duty according to Confucian values,6 and marriage has been nearly universal.7 Along with childbirth, it is the central marker of adulthood. As a social and economic entity, the family unit is the building block for the modem nation-state, as the producer of citizenry and of labor. Symbolically, a harmonious family begets a stable society and polity. Given the significance of family historically and culturally in China, it is little wonder that shifts in marriage patterns gamer extensive attention and cause consternation. …

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