In China, any unmarried woman over twenty-seven is considered a spinster, or a “leftover woman,” to translate the Chinese phrase more literally. “Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy?” asked the headline of an article that went up on the website of the All-China Women’s Federation shortly after International Women’s Day in 2011. “Pretty girls don’t need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family, but girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult,” the piece read. “These kinds of girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. 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.” If these retrograde arguments sound dispiritingly familiar, what is significant about the Women's Federation article, Leta Hong Fincher points out in her new book, Leftover Women, is the wider effort it represents: It is just one instance of a recent state-backed media campaign to encourage young women to marry.
Following the Communist revolution of 1949, Chinese women were encouraged to work alongside men in cities and factories, and were celebrated for holding up “half the sky.” Today, the trend is reversing. Together, an increase in home prices, revisions to the property rights of married women, declining female participation in the labor force, the reappearance of traditional gender norms, and the stigmatization of not marrying are diminishing women’s status and material well-being. Much of this change has occurred in the last decade, as China transitions to a post-socialist state. The situation Fincher describes is dire, and the scale of the problem is vast—China’s female population makes up nearly one-fifth of all women in the world. Leftover Women would read like conspiracy theory if it weren’t supported by compelling data.
One way of understanding the Chinese campaign is as the state’s attempt to manage the disastrous side effects of its own actions over the last several decades, including its initiatives in population control and economic growth. In particular, it wants to ameliorate the severe sex-ratio imbalance (men outnumbering women) that now “threaten[s] social stability.” Under the one-child policy, the preference for sons led to the widespread abortion of female fetuses; there are now roughly twenty million more men under the age of thirty than women of the same age. The Party’s fear of this restless throng, unable to find wives to placate their desires, has only been heightened by the outbreak over the past few years of hundreds of thousands of “mass incidents” (read: protests) throughout the country. Given the enormous disparity in the population, the idea of “leftover women” is not merely offensive, but blatantly false.
Men, too, are targeted by China’s marriage propaganda. One campaign tells men not only that they must marry but also that they will be unable to find wives if they don’t purchase a home. Fincher argues that the widely advertised statistic that the campaign relies on—that 70 percent of women will marry a man only if he owns property—is a manipulation of survey results, and functions mainly as boosterism for the real estate industry. The steep rise in urban home prices since the end of socialized public housing in 1998 has prompted the state to intervene, regulating property purchases to keep prices from skyrocketing, while at the same time maintaining middle-class demand for home ownership and preventing prices from dipping too low. Armed with the knowledge that China’s middle-class consumers tend to buy property at pivotal life moments such as marriage, the state has found cause to join forces with both the matchmaking and the real estate industries.
Indeed, local population-planning commissions across China have organized mass matchmaking events; in 2012 and 2013, the Shanghai matchmaking fair drew over 40,000 registrants. And yet urban homes in major markets like Beijing and Shanghai remain so expensive that most young professionals cannot afford them without parental help, something far more frequently offered to sons than daughters. The tradition of patrilineal inheritance that has dominated Chinese culture since the mid-seventeenth century places daughters under the financial responsibility of their future husbands, meaning that parents, who are also exposed to these media campaigns, are more likely to help their nephews purchase homes before helping their daughters. “If the woman heard that my brother did not own a home, she probably would not want him,” said Zhang Jing, one of the women Fincher interviewed, explaining why she had paid most of the deposit on her brother’s apartment. Zhang’s parents helped their son pay off his mortgage but didn’t help her buy a home when she got married.
The revelations about parental biases in home buying come from a survey that Fincher carried out via Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter). In 2011, Fincher was a doctoral student in Sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing, studying gender patterns in home buying, when a new interpretation of the Marriage Law was passed that restricts ownership rights of marital property to the person named on the deed. Previous interpretations of the law granted women rights to marital property without being named. But in major urban markets, even though over 70 percent of women contribute to the purchase of their homes, the woman’s name appears on the deed in only 30 percent of cases. Fincher’s call for survey participants on Sina Weibo elicited a flood of responses from women eager to air their outrage. Many of the women had successful careers and expressed a desire to be independent, but many also felt pressured to marry young; to contribute their savings to the home purchases of male relatives, out of a sense of filial duty; and to pay for their marital homes without insisting that their names appear on the deed. Many were also shut out of their places of work after taking short maternity leaves, making them financially dependent upon their husbands—even more so if their names were not on the home deeds. In some cases, they were unable to leave physically abusive relationships, and were ignored by the authorities when they sought help.
Gender oppression is not a product merely of cultural expectations or stereotyping, as much mainstream feminist writing would have us believe. It results from multiple forces—economic, social, political; micro and macro—working in concert. Leftover Women’s greatest achievement is in conveying these manifold intricacies. Fincher deftly links the machinations of state power to the headlines gracing the covers of women’s magazines, and the minutiae of family relationships to trends in the real estate industry. But she leaves largely untouched one major factor in women’s struggles: the lack of a functioning welfare program that could provide relief in times of unemployment, sickness, or pregnancy, and reduce the burden of caring for elderly in-laws.
“It is possible that if China had a comprehensive social security system,” Fincher acknowledges, “young Chinese would no longer feel the need to buy a home to achieve a sense of economic security.” This speculation, offered only in passing, points to a deeper reality: China’s rapidly widening gender gap is tied to a rollback in social and economic protections that makes everyone, including men, more vulnerable. Perhaps Leftover Women’s focus on the urban middle class makes this insight less apparent. Two other books are more explicit about the fact that women workers, as the people most affected by the disappearance of the socialist entitlements of the past, are on the frontlines of China’s neoliberal transformation: Pun Ngai’s Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace (2005), which examines rural migrant laborers in urban factories, and Yan Hairong’s New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China (2008), which looks at domestic workers. The women profiled by Pun and Yan live vastly different lives from the middle-class professionals who appear in Leftover Women. Taken together, however, these three studies comprehensively describe the role of consumer culture and neoliberal reforms in women’s exploitation. We can expect a rash of Western commentators to blame Chinese culture for Chinese women’s woes, but these books tell a different story: It is rather state policies and campaigns, and the rampant encroachment of global capitalism, that is to blame.
Audrea Lim is an editor at Verso Books, the editor of The Case for Sanctions Against Israel, and the co-editor of The Verso Book of Dissent. Her writing has appeared in Salon, n+1, Dissent, and the LA Review of Books.