Research team debunks sterotypes about ‘leftover women’

Team analyses real reasons for postponing – or rejecting – marriage

The predicament of “leftover women” – those no longer considered young but still single – has been a hot topic on the mainland in the past decade. They are often stigmatised, yet there is little information about them. So in 2008, three researchers – Luo Aiping, Wang Feng and Jiang Yu – spent three years interviewing more than 40 “leftover women” across eight cities. Their work, which analyses how the media represents the women, has been compiled into a book, Investigation into China’s Leftover Women. Luo talks about what the stereotype gets wrong.

Why did you start writing about the women?

The mainland suffers a huge sex imbalance because of a centuries-old preference for male offspring. Demographic data shows that by 2020, there will be as many as 40 million more men of marriageable age than women. More women are joining the “leftover” club because more men are unable to “afford” wives amid the soaring cost of living. In 2008, I was already over 30 years old and thus categorised as a “leftover woman”. Curious about the stereotype by the mainland media, I decided to write a book to expose the truth. That year, I met Wang Feng, a Chinese woman who lives in the United States, over the internet and she also liked the idea of writing a book. Then I talked to my college roommate Jiang Yu, and from then on, we became a team.

Describe the stereotype in the mainland media.

Based on our research, the mainland media portrays “leftover women” as being highly educated, enjoying high social economic status, holding stable jobs, mostly in management positions in private or government agencies, and receiving above-average salaries. News reports have said about 95 per cent of such women hold four-year degrees and tend to be powerful people. Forty-eight per cent are aged between 28 and 31. But these descriptions are a biased image presented by the media.

How is the stereotype wrong?

“Leftover women” do not necessarily have high education levels, high positions in the workplaces or high income. Only 2.5 per cent of unmarried women above age 25 hold good jobs, just 17 per cent have at least a four-year degree, and only 5 per cent earn a monthly salary of at least 5,000 yuan [HK$6,280].

Why is the image of “leftover woman” portrayed by the media so different from reality?

Intense public discussion about “leftover women” has created a chain of interest. Over the past decade, dating websites on the mainland have enjoyed booming business. To expand their businesses and create a larger market, they targeted the cities’ white-collar workers who have high buying power and manipulated the media to pressure people into getting married. Many merchants began to see money-making opportunities, and so they joined in as well. This is why the media puts the spotlight on powerful, single women – they have the money.

Why are the numbers of such women growing?

Asia’s economies started to take off after the second world war. It was also around that time that women in many Asian countries, including Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia, started to postpone or even reject marriage. Chinese women also began adopting the trend of delaying marriage. In 1990, unwed women accounted for only 4 per cent of the population aged between 25 and 29, and 0.64 per cent of those aged between 30 and 34. By 2010, this had grown to 21 per cent and 5 per cent respectively. The growing number of “leftover women” on the mainland actually shows that the status of Chinese women is improving. Women now enjoy similar education rights as men and can be financially independent. They can afford to insist on choosing for love, and if they don’t find their true love, they can still have a good life on their own. In fact, most such women do eventually get married; they just do it later than others.

Do these women face a lot of pressure from their families?

There certainly is pressure. But the more money a single woman earns compared with her parents, the less pressure she will feel from them. Once a woman born in a rural area finds a job in the city and moves away from her parents, there is little they can do to pressure her into marriage. And if women born in urban areas earn significantly more than their parents and can help them financially, they feel even less pressure to get married. But those who still live with their parents and earn less than them face more pressure.

What difficulties do they face?

The greatest concern of “leftover women” is who will care for them when they get older. Current regulations deny single people the right to have children, so this makes them all the more anxious.

Do you have other plans for more research on this topic?

Yes. We plan to revisit the 43 women we interviewed every five years to record their entire lives. Also, we will fight for the right for single people to have children.