Barring the odd empress, China is historically not a very glorious place to be a woman. From foot-binding to female infanticides, Chinese women have suffered their share of gender-specific hardships. Today, these women are 650 million strong. They represent the world’s largest female population, the highest percentage of self-made female billionaires, and with 63 percent of GMAT takers in China being female, they’re attaining MBAs with a ferocity that’s making the boys blush. And yet, no matter how ambitious or accomplished, they remain bound. Not by their feet, but by something that can be just as inhibiting -- marriage.
In China, there’s a deep-seated tradition of marriage hypergamy which mandates that a woman must marry up. This generally works out, as it allows the Chinese man to feel superior, and the woman to jump a social class or two, but it gets messy for highly accomplished females. Their educations and salaries make them hard to compete with, and so their Chinese male counterparts shy away in favor of younger, more “manageable” beauties.
As these women age, their marriageability plummets, and they acquire a snazzy new name: “shengnu.” Used to describe an unmarried woman ever so precariously teetering near the age of 30, this word literally means “leftover woman.” The prefix “sheng” is the same as in the word “shengcai” or “leftover food.” Loosely translated, it implies that single women of a certain age in China are the stuff of doggy bags, Tupperware and garbage disposals.
Lynette (her English name) is turning 30 in two months, and all her parents wanted this Chinese New Year was for her to announce that she was getting married. A successful television producer in Beijing, she returned home for the holidays with plenty of gifts -- but with no romantic prospects on the horizon, she was subject to endless needling from family and neighbors.
“One of my neighbors heard that I worked in television, and offered to set me up on a blind date with someone compatible,” she said. “I learned that he was a network administrator, and that he made 3,000 RMB ($476) a month. My neighbor considered this to be a good salary, because she thought I worked in a TV factory. Little did she know, as a producer, I pay my entry-level directors more than that. But I still went on the date. The man was very uncomfortable. It was supposed to be for dinner, but we just ended up having soybean milk, because I think he knew nothing could come of it.”
That well-educated, well-employed American women are finding themselves with fewer "marriageable" (men who are better educated and earn more money than they do) options around them is a well-documented phenomenon. It's the "All the Single Ladies" crisis, as described by Kate Bolick in the Atlantic. “All the Leftover Ladies” of China are facing a similar fate, but with slightly different characteristics.
As a result of China’s one-child policy and ensuing female infanticides due to the traditional preference for males, China's male to female ratio is seriously skewed in favor of the fairer sex. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by 2020, there will be 30 million more men than women of marriageable age in China. This surplus is unprecedented for a country at peace, and equates to 1 in 5 Chinese men being unable to find a bride. Fears of China expanding its military have been expressed, as have concerns over the increased prostitution, violent crime and bride trafficking that such a disproportionate number of males generally spurs. But certainly, and perhaps more trivially, a surplus of 30 million men should at least improve a girl’s chances of finding someone she might want to marry?
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