A good man is hard to find: China’s ‘leftover women’ look for love abroad
Loretta Xu Liang unzips her pink Juicy Couture jumper and sinks into her sofa.
“Chinese men are terrified of me, both emotionally and financially,” she sighs.
It’s 10pm and Xu has just returned from work to her immaculate apartment in a central district of Shanghai. She’s one of 12 urban, middle-class women I am interviewing for a documentary on “leftover women” (or ” shengnu“), and I’m starting to notice a trend.
At 31, Xu is confident and attractive, and earns about 35,000 yuan (HK$43,500) a month, more than eight times the national average. On the face of it, she represents the essence of a modern Chinese woman; better educated and more accomplished than ever before. But like most single women her age, she’s under intense pressure to tie the knot, both from her family and from state media.
Parents take it upon themselves to act as matchmakers in the marriage markets and large-scale speed-dating events that are popping up across almost every Chinese city. The China Youth Daily newspaper recently published a survey that suggests 89 per cent of young singletons are forced to go on dates during the Lunar New Year holiday, 61 per cent of whom are aged between 25 and 30 years old.
While pressure to marry is by no means exclusive to women, they’ve arguably been left with a raw deal. With unprecedented population concerns characterised by the highest sex-ratio imbalance in the world and a fast ageing population, mainland media have intentionally popularised the term “leftover women”, defined as a woman over the age of 29 who has “failed” to find a husband.
Countless surveys, articles, cartoons and television shows depict excessively fussy women who selfishly turn up their noses at potential suitors. Headlines such as “Nine Bad Habits that Keep Leftover Women from Good Men” and “Eight Categories of Leftover Women, One Glance and Men Will Run Away” continue to pepper reports.
“The term ‘ shengnu‘ is specifically targeting those women who are choosing to further their education and careers,” says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.” There’s absolutely no indication that the government sees falling female labour-force participation as a problem. On the contrary, the rhetoric is, ‘women, return to the home, stop being so ambitious and get married’.”
Highly accomplished women are not only the target of harsh media scrutiny, they also face a severe lack of admirers, despite China having 34 million more men than women as of last year. A recent study by Hong Kong-based sociologist Sandy To Sin-chi shows that these women struggle to find a lasting relationship in what is a conservative, patriarchal society. Men continue to “undermarry” in terms of education, accomplishments and age, leaving the most successful women on the shelf.
“My mum spends all her time organising blind dates for me,” says Faye Yang, a pretty 29-year-old university professor, “but over 60 per cent of them reject me when they discover I have a PhD degree.”
It seems for some men, at least, that old Chinese proverb regarding a woman’s innocence being her strongest virtue still stands. To describes how this is mostly due to a culture that disparages men who aren’t in breadwinning roles.
“Hence men might be under more societal pressure to conform to traditional gender-role stereotypes, even if women ‘don’t mind’ that they are with ‘inferior’ partners,” To says.
Kevin Du Kang, a marketing consultant in Shanghai concurs.
“I would feel ashamed if the woman I’m with is on my level. I would lose my confidence and male status,” he admits.
“Women should be lowering their expectations and learning to tolerate men’s flaws,” says Zhou Juemin, general manager of the government-sponsored Shanghai Women’s Activity Centre. Responsible for attracting more than 25,000 singletons to the city’s annual Matchmaking Expo, Zhou accuses women of demanding too much – reminding them that the chances of finding an Andy Lau lookalike who owns his own house and car, shares all their interests and loves them unconditionally are slim.
However, some flaws are hard to overlook, my female subjects seem to suggest. Their most common grievances are close-mindedness, insecurity and “backwards” mindsets in the men they meet. One woman says she was warned by the man she was dating that she’d only be able to spend time with her girlfriends twice a year should they marry while several others confide that the male need for status affirmation and control even finds its way into the bedroom.
“There’s no question that women’s values have progressed while men are stuck in their old ways,” says Hong Fincher.
A study published in Science magazine last year found that people born after the introduction of the one-child policy, in 1979, are more risk averse, less trusting and trustworthy, more pessimistic and less competitive than those born before. According to Lata Gangadharan, professor of economics at Monash University, Australia, the study suggests the effects are more marked for men. “This is quite likely given son preference in China,” she says.
Whatever the reason for the mainland’s apparent shortage of good men, it is proving a real struggle for women who feel trapped between the societal importance of marriage and a fear of settling for someone they have little in common with. Consequently, many women are starting to look more seriously elsewhere, dating outside their ethnicity in order to increase the chances of finding a partner.
To studied 50 leftover women and found them increasingly likely to choose Western men, “who are generally believed to be more open-minded and egalitarian in terms of gender roles”.
Zhang Yalin, who has been a professional matchmaker for 18 years, says that she’s recently noticed a trend in women hoping to find their spouses abroad, with about 30 per cent of her female clients now deciding that foreigners are the best solution.
“Before I would never consider dating a foreigner because of cultural barriers,” says Xu, “but now I think it’s far more likely that Western men will share the same values and allow me more freedom.”
Numbers are swelling at Shanghai’s Yali Marriage Quotient Club, where women pay anywhere from 2,800 yuan to 40,000 yuan for classes specialising in how to bag an “elite foreign man”.
The programme is aimed at women over 30, divorcees and leftover women, who founder Liang Yali believes stand better chances of marriage with men from countries where age and accomplishments are viewed in a more forgiving light. Claiming a 60 per cent success rate, Liang says women are taught crucial skills, such as how to build confidence and gain greater self-understanding.
Interracial relationships are nothing new in China. Since the first batch of expatriate opportunists started trickling into the country in the 1980s, “yellow fever” has been a common condition among foreign men. The number of Chinese (including men) marrying foreigners swelled from an official zero in 1978 to 53,000 in 2012, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
Although only a handful of the women I speak to seem terribly excited about the prospect of marrying a foreigner, all are at pains to differentiate between expatriates and men living in their home countries.
“China has polluted foreigners living in China,” says Xu. “They make money in grey areas, they cheat, take bribes and are spoilt with so many Chinese girls.”
Perhaps this sweeping disdain for expatriates explains why there is some (albeit limited) evidence to suggest that initial intrigue in foreigners has plateaued. A 2009 survey led by Gregory Mavrides, an American mental-health professional who taught at Guangzhou’s Jinan University between 2003 and 2010, showed that 49 per cent of the young, female respondents indicated a preference for Chinese husbands.
Richard Burger, author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, points to another reason why women may tread carefully with foreigners.
“Chinese women who date foreign men face the risk of being looked on with suspicion by friends and neighbours,” he says. “They can be branded as ‘loose’ and improper and seen as ‘damaged goods‘.”
While Chinese women may have become wise to expat misbehaviour, there does seem to be a growing appeal to venturing further afield. As the Chinese population becomes increasingly mobile, more than 300,000 citizens on average are leaving the country every year. While the reasons cited include everything from escaping choking pollution to seeking new experiences and trying to further careers, women also see emigration as an opportunity to escape family and societal pressures.
Living with her parents (as just over half of my subjects still are, and the majority of mainland women do until they get married), Yang describes in heartbreaking detail how distant she feels from her mother and the rest of her family, who constantly grill her about her single status.
“Being single in China, nobody will be interested in your career or other achievements; it seems that getting married is the only standard to judge your happiness and success,” says Yang, who has applied for a university transfer to the United States. “I feel so desperate in such conditions, that’s why I decided to escape to a foreign country.”
Ten of my 12 subjects express similar sentiments of suffocation and a desire to escape. More and more Chinese women are rejecting the government’s call to abandon further education and settle down, and are instead flocking to sit their GMATs, the examination that typically secures entry to global management schools (according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, in 2012, 37,710 tests – 65 per cent of the total – were taken by women in China, up 47 per cent from 2011 and 98 per cent from 2010). As women strive to better themselves and extend their horizons, the opportunities to marry outside their culture are growing.
“I believed I would have a better education and marriage if I came to England,” says Jessie Zhou Jin, who moved to London three years ago and now works as an operations director for an expanding chain of restaurants. “In China, there are a lot of hidden rules and I have to constantly think about what I’m doing or wearing or saying in front of a boyfriend,” she says, “But in England I can be whoever I want.”
“In China, I had to hide my intelligence and power, especially in front of a boyfriend’s friends,” says Ting Yun, a petite sales executive who moved to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, last year, “but here I don’t need to think about whether guys will lose face.”
Ting says she’s become used to the double takes as she strolls down the streets of Rotterdam with her six-foot, two-inch tall Dutch boyfriend, who she met three months after landing.
Of course, it doesn’t always end with a white man and a Chinese woman skipping hand-in-hand into the sunset.
“The culture difference was tough to start with,” says Zhou, “I was expecting Europeans to be caring and controlling like Chinese guys, but they never seemed to get jealous or show any attachment. I suffered a lot because they all seemed so cold and uncommitted.”
“Most foreigners come to me for sex not a relationship,” says Mei Deng, voicing a common complaint. Deng, who moved to Australia last year after breaking up with a Chinese boyfriend of five years, says, “I thought a relationship should be built first and sex comes after, but casual sex is very normal here.”
Although China’s sexual attitudes have become more aligned with those of the West, a Chinese woman is still more likely to have premarital sex only with the man she hopes to marry, whereas dating a Westerner involves sex as an inevitable “part of the package”, says Burger.
Having to contend with racial stereotypes can also prove problematic. As Zhou says, “Some of the men I meet expect all Asian women to behave in a certain way, to be subservient and gentle and dependent. I think they’re disappointed when they realise I’m not.”
Despite the layer of protection that living abroad provides, many single Chinese female émigrés find themselves unable to completely shake off parental pressures, with that age-old sense of familial duty following them across the globe.
“I still feel burdened when my mother cries down the phone to me,” says 30-year-old Deng, who has resigned herself to the knowledge that her family want her settled, ideally in China. “If I marry a local they will gain a son,” she explains, “but if I marry a foreigner, they feel they would lose their only daughter.”
Back in the mainland, official commentary on interracial relationships has been limited. In 2009, popular dating website hongniang.com conducted a series of polls showing the “happiness scores” of Chinese women in cross-cultural marriages had declined by 25 per cent. Predictably, mainland media were quick to jump on the disillusionment involved in wedding a foreigner, widely publicising the results and speculating over the cultural and social barriers behind them.
Such reports don’t fall on deaf ears. Women both inside and outside of China are acutely aware of the challenges involved in sharing the most intimate parts of your life with someone culturally different, and for many it’s not worth it. But as the campaign to get women to settle for the surplus of supposedly suitable men right on their doorsteps continues, some of China’s smartest and most successful women are being driven to the edge of society.
With mounting pressure and dwindling hopes of fulfilling both career and personal ambitions at home, for women such as Xu the urge to pack up and leave only grows stronger with time. Without women such as her, though, the mainland will be left with not only a weaker economy, but an even greater pool of frustrated leftover men.