The Power of Leftover Women
Roseann Lake, author of Leftover in China, looks at the experiences of women who have postponed marriage in China
Roseann Lake is currently the Cuba correspondent for The Economist and author of Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower. The book explores how Chinese women have become unprecedentedly well-educated and goal-oriented but are struggling to find partners in a society where gender roles have not evolved at the same rate as society. She was previously based in Beijing, where she spent five years as a television reporter and journalist.
China’s now-lapsed one-child policy led to the creation of what was in effect the country’s first generation of “only-daughters,” with families giving those daughters the resources that in the past were normally reserved for boys. Girls have been pushed to study, excel in college and succeed in their careers in ways previously reserved for sons. Those girls, who have now become women of marrying age, are increasingly choosing to wed later in life, if at all.
The term “leftover women” is used to label unmarried women in their late 20s and beyond in China, and despite their successes, they are typically subject to constant pressure to find a husband.
In this interview, Lake explores gender roles in China and how these so-called “leftover women” are shaping the country’s economic future.
What inspired you to write the book Leftover in China and what kind of impact did you hope it would have?
I met my first populations of so-called “leftover women” when I started working at a television station in Beijing. Right away, it struck me that their name was quite the misnomer and that it didn’t at all reflect what they were. These women were the producers, the editors and directors of an international news network. They were bilingual, they held masters’ degrees, and many of them were from other cities in China and were supporting themselves in the big city. I felt that these women should be celebrated—they are the toast of the nation! Why are we calling them names?
It was initially this intrigue of how they could they be so inaccurately portrayed that led me to write the book. Every single woman I worked with was a ‘leftover.’ As we started talking about it, I’d ask them questions and they would introduce me to their friends, who were also leftovers. They were all young women between 20 to 35 years old.
When I moved to Beijing in 2009, there weren’t campaigns like the one released by SK-II where people could voice their opinions on leftover women. There weren’t documentaries being made about it and none of this conversation existed. People were dealing with this issue on their own, which in many cases affected their self-esteem. After Spring Festival each year, they would be in visibly different moods because they were upset by the constant pressure they’d be getting from all of their relatives at home. I wanted to provide a few answers as to why there were so many of them all of a sudden and why finding a man of the type they were looking for wasn’t actually that easy—despite the misleading numbers of there being more men than women—as well as to find a way to celebrate them, because it didn’t seem like anybody else was doing so.
In your book you write that China’s leftover women are shaping the country’s economic future. How are they doing that?
In the book I explain how over the past 40 years, women in China—almost by accident—have received unprecedented access to education and professional opportunities. The whole book is based on the idea that there was a one-child policy, which meant that a lot of baby girls were aborted or discarded shortly after birth, but some were born. And of those surviving girls, many of them did not have brothers. The sheer fact is that not having a brother in China meant that all of a family’s resources were funneled into daughters, which may not have been done otherwise. A superclass of women has now emerged with many of them being born in urban areas where parents were more open-minded and willing to keep a girl.
They play a key role in China’s economy going forward, because China is now trying to transfer from a manufacturing-based economy—from that made-in-China label—to a much more sophisticated knowledge- and service-based one. The type of talent pool that they need is precisely the one that they have in the young women that have received this education.
Another part of it is that China’s economic growth has been the result of generous, sometimes feckless bank loans that went to big corporations that threw up buildings that are now not making the return on investment that was originally expected. A lot of these loans are defaulting, which could spell bad news for China’s economy, but a way to counteract or minimize that damage would be to stimulate domestic consumption. Who is going to stimulate that the most? As far as I know, Chinese women like to buy a lot of things.
Another big concern for China going forward is its population size. Who calls the shots on whether babies are born? Women. And obviously the size of China’s population is directly linked to its economy because people equal productivity. With a shrinking population, you have fewer young people supporting it. China may not like the fact that the traditional family unit is eroding, but I think one, they understand that that’s true all around the world. And two, they understand that if they try to force it to stay traditional, they’re going to lose all the economic benefits of a lot of the part of population that’s driving that economy forward, which are these women.
What more do you think China should be doing to support single women in the workplace?
Fortunately a few things are already being done, but there is of course a lot more still to do.
Women have said that they’ve faced discrimination in the hiring process because they are unmarried, as employers often see a woman who isn’t married and has no children as someone they will likely have to provide marriage and maternity leave with somewhere down the line. They think that it’s just much easier to hire a woman who has done these things already. It reinforces the thinking of ‘have them early’ so that it doesn’t interrupt your career later on or when you’re looking to switch careers.
The situation is not always black and white, however, and you sometimes see glimmers of hope. I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that Beijing and Shanghai have now made it legal for single women to have children. Before, if a woman had a baby out of wedlock, she had to pay a very high fine and her child wouldn’t be able to get a residence permit because that was always determined by the location of the father’s permit. This change allows for the creation of a different kind of family unit, but by Chinese standards that’s also a departure. I think society has realized that perhaps having children is more important than getting married. We also know that grandparents are happy to take care of those babies so that mothers can go right back to work and continue building our economy. It was a really encouraging shift.
How did the stigma behind single Chinese women develop?
Marriage in China has historically held a very important social, cultural and even political role. For hundreds of years a woman’s sole means to livelihood was through marriage. It took me a while to realize, but for many of these women, their own mothers didn’t get to choose if or when or sometimes even who they married.
What we’re seeing now is women for whom marriage is discretionary. These are the first generations of women in China who actually have that option. It’s almost destabilizing in a way. It’s like society doesn’t know what to do with them as they think that they’re supposed to be married. That’s just what is expected of women of a certain age. I think the stigma developed around the traditional sense of thinking that families are the building blocks of a nation. It’s Communist Party rhetoric and if you upset that balance, who knows what will happen?
A lot of that stigma is also linked to fertility. It’s this idea that if you don’t have a child by 25 or 27, it’s too late and that marriage and children are a fundamental rite of passage. You have no place in society until you’re married and have given your parents a grandchild. Not giving your parents a grandchild is the most unfilial thing you could possibly do. It’s what your parents did, what is expected of you and any sort of departure is reprimanded.
What would you say is the difference between feminism in China and in the West?
They are very different. First of all, “feminism” and “feminist” aren’t words that too many women like to associate themselves with in China. There are of course active, wonderful feminist groups in China that do a really tough job, and women are joining their ranks, but in China what they do is still seen as extreme. The idea of feminism is much more subdued in China.
Chinese women are just as feminist as women in the West in their actions. They wouldn’t have inspired me so much if they weren’t. One of the things that always struck me and that I admired, was the grace in which they stood up to the pressure that they were getting from their parents. It’s almost like your entire world is treating you like a burning building. You’re not married and you’re for the most part keeping calm and being respectful of your parents. And sometimes you go on a blind date that you would rather not go on, but you do it out of respect for your elders.
Chinese women are actually internally quite strong; they just have a different way of defining their feminism. When you don’t know that much about China, it’s easy to just think ‘those poor women,’ but I don’t pity them, they’re strong in just very different ways.
How are “leftover women” changing China’s traditional culture?
China has become globalized enough and the economy is moving quickly enough for things to change. Women now have the economic and educational resources to be able to push back in ways that they couldn’t in the past. As more and more women are in that situation, they will educate further generations. The last census we have for marriage data was compiled in 2010. When that 2020 census comes out, I’m pretty sure we’re going to see really different figures. The number of single women over 25 and even over 35 will have grown exponentially, and I suspect that that will continue to be true in China. Maybe not to the same degree as it has been in Japan or South Korea, where genders have a very clear divide, as in those societies you either become a mom or you have a career. In China it’s possible to have both, which will in many ways likely be its saving grace.
Women in China will certainly change it and they already have in a way. It will become more and more commonplace to get married later or not at all. Parents will increasingly support their daughters, as at the end of the day they are realizing that their daughter is actually doing exceptionally well. I hear stories all the time of parents saying to their daughters that they need her to have two children, the first to take her husband’s last name, and the second to take theirs. They’ve invested in their daughter and see their family line as being just as important.
People have been saying that China’s real problem is leftover men. What do you think about this idea?
I absolutely agree with that statement. You’ve got all of these single women living in urban areas, but where are the men? The vast majority of them are in rural areas. They’re poor. They haven’t been as educated and there are few women where they were born, because no one wanted a girl. How are these guys going to get married? How are they going to have economic independence?
They are a problem because at the end of the day, leftover women will be fine. Not all of them may find the emotional connection they desire and have a partner, but financially they’ll be just fine. They’ll have jobs, they’ll have opportunities and they’ll find other ways to enrich their lives. But these men are kind of at the bottom of the barrel and there are many more of them than leftover women. You worry about instability and how they’re going to continue their family lines. In rural areas the pressure to do so is much stronger. They’re essentially an economic concern—much more of a concern than leftover women for sure.
How do you see gender roles in China developing in the future?
On my book tour, a lot of women and men actually end up asking me: How on earth do you find a girlfriend or boyfriend? The answer to that question is tied up with gender dynamics. I have faith in the boys and I definitely have faith in the girls. I often tell the men that they can’t be so traditionally-minded if they expect to have a girlfriend, as girls today want really different things. They want real partners; they don’t really care about whether you have a house or not. They aren’t so bothered with your hukou (a system of household registration used in China) because in many cases the women are going to have a higher-level of education or they may even have more family wealth than men do.
Men are under a lot of pressure to provide everything, but they need realize that it’s not necessarily the case anymore. A lot of women agree with that and they would rather have somebody they’re happy with than someone who gives them a house and a certain hukou. Not all of them of course, but as that perception changes, gender dynamics will change too. It won’t be as imperative to marry a man who has more of everything than you do. That is still the expectation, but it’s going to have to change because the numbers just aren’t working out. If you look at the rate at which men and women are getting educated, women are outperforming men. If the men can figure that out and the women can help them figure that out, then there could a middle ground to meet on.
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