Factory Girls meets The Vagina Monologues in this fascinating narrative on China’s single women—the source of its economic future.

Forty years ago, China enacted the one-child policy, only recently relaxed. Among many other unintended consequences, it resulted in both an enormous gender imbalance – with a predicted twenty million more men than women of marriage age by 2020 – and China’s first generations of only-daughters. Given the resources normally reserved for boys, these girls were pushed to excel in school and thrive in their careers, as if they were sons.  

In LEFTOVER IN CHINA: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower [W. W. Norton & Company; February 13, 2018], American journalist Roseann Lake chronicles the lives of these women, who she first met during her years working as a television reporter in Beijing. Throughout China’s booming city centers, Lake saw passionate, highly-educated young Chinese women acquiring wealth, property, and a measure of independence in record numbers. Yet while her female colleagues ascended in their careers, many struggled to find suitable romantic partners, in spite of an overwhelmingly large male population and immense traditional, parental, and societal pressures to wed.

Known as “leftovers” if they’ve failed to marry by age twenty-five, these women represent a China where gender roles have not evolved as vigorously as society itself, and where new professional opportunities have made women less willing to compromise their careers or concede to marriage for the sake of it. Some find their potential suitors’ conservative expectations on the roles of women grating against their own sensibilities. Still others find themselves on the track to powerful careers, surrounded exclusively by an older guard of already-married men and a dearth of compatible bachelors; the majority of China’s surplus men are poor, uneducated, and tied to the rural areas where they were born. 

The result is a mounting social quagmire: a generation of millions in limbo, torn between past and future, born into a country advancing rapidly on the world stage while nevertheless remaining, when it comes to matters of the heart, caught in “a distant, anachronistic realm that seem[s] straight out of a Jane Austen novel.”

In the vein of Factory Girls meets The Vagina Monologues, LEFTOVER IN CHINA combines Lake’s rigorous reporting, historical and demographic research, and scores of touching (and often humorous) real life anecdotes from colleagues and friends to illuminate this curious and portentous moment in the history of the world’s most populous nation. Through her remarkably candid subjects, Lake regales us with stories of desperate mothers hacking their daughters’ dating profiles to secure a quick proposal. She tells of professional mistresses and the extravagantly wealthy men who compete for them, and the subtle art of saijiao, or “the strategically executed temper tantrum.” One of Lake’s friends compares modern China to “a giant episode of Sex and the City, except that instead of bawdy Samantha, we have our practical and traditional Charlotte-like mothers.”

Ultimately, LEFTOVER IN CHINA reminds us that China’s population of young women will prove crucial for the country’s future. As Lake writes, “Channeling their full economic engagement is not only a social imperative; it’s an economic necessity.”

© 2019