Stigma of being unmarried: Is it abating?

When working in Beijing some 10 years ago, American journalist Roseann Lake was shocked by the term shengnu, applied to women in their late 20s and older who aren't married.

When working in Beijing some 10 years ago, American journalist Roseann Lake was shocked by the term shengnu, or “leftover women,” an epithet applied to women in their late 20s and older who aren’t married. 

Many of the Chinese women she met during her stay, in their early 20s, fell under that shaming label.

This year, Lake has returned to China on a tour to promote her book entitled “Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower.” It was published in the United States last year and has just come out in China.

The book presents a cross-cultural, different angle to a topic familiar to Chinese readers, a topic that is continuously evolving.

“The biggest change is that there is more ‘leftover’ than 10 years ago,” the New York-based author told Shanghai Daily. “Ten years ago, it was seen as breaking with the social norm that everyone should get married. Now, there is a more sophisticated approach.”

She added: “Also, these women are talking more to each other. Ten years ago, it was more of an individual thing. Many women I talked to didn’t open up at first. Now, there is more awareness. And to some people, it’s not a problem anymore, but rather like a badge of pride in a way. That’s encouraging to see.”

Lake cited the example of a 16-year-old reader who came to one of her book events. The young woman, who was starting her second company, said she knew she would become shengnu one day and was proud rather than ashamed.

Hers might have been an atypical case, but the fact is that many people — men and women — are getting married later in life. 

For the Chinese publication, the book’s title was translated as “The age of singles,” rather than a direct translation from shengnu — a term that many women find degrading and believe should not be used.

The most recent national statistics show the marriage rate in China has been dropping for five consecutive years, from 9.9 per 1,000 people in 2013 to 7.2 per 1,000 last year. 

In response to the statistics, experts in various fields have cited a range of reasons: the changing demographic structure of fewer people of marriageable age, the rising cost of raising a family, and the higher social tolerance for getting married at a later age or even not at all.

“Amidst my clients, men and their families are more tolerant in terms of the age and divorce status of women,” said Pan Zengling, a retired civil servant who devotes her leisure time to matchmaking. “A lot more are OK with women around 30 now, and only five years ago, that wasn’t the case.” 

She added: “I think it’s partly because there are more people who are not married at 30 or even later. It has become more normal now, and that has changed the perception of men and their parents. I think many men are also digesting the bitter fact that many excellent women now prefer staying single rather than entering into a compromised match.”

In the past, Pan’s male clients felt a certain privilege because she always had more women than men seeking matches. She said she could often sway a reluctant woman by saying: “You might end up single forever if you don’t compromise. Just give it a try.”

Twenty-six-year-old Manning Wei has heard similar comments from relatives since she finished graduate school in the United Kingdom and settled in Shanghai last year. It bothers her at times, but the family pressure isn’t as great as it was on her elder cousin a few years back. 

“I remember everyone in the family, including her family and my own, getting freaked out when my cousin was 25 and single,” Wei recalled, laughing. “Now she’s 32 and still single. Maybe they realized all those blind dates and freaking out couldn’t save her and wouldn’t save me. You have to let it happen naturally.”

Nobody has called her a “leftover” yet, and she doesn’t expect that to happen any time soon.

“None of my friends or colleagues around the same age is married,” she said. “In Shanghai, it’s not abnormal for a girl to be 26 and single. That’s like really young. If I get married now, a lot of British friends might ask me why I am getting married so young.”

Age is one of the factors that attracted author Lake to this subject 10 years ago, when she found all her young female colleagues in their early 20s looking quiet and upset after the Spring Festival holiday.

“It was so bad that I thought something had gone wrong with the company,” she explained.

She said she was shocked to discover that they were upset because they had received a fresh round of pressure from family, friends and neighbors about their single status during the holiday.

“That’s when they explained the word shengnu to me, and it was shocking because it’s an ugly word to describe a population of women I really admired — women who were well educated, supporting themselves financially in a big city, speaking a second or third language, and having a graduate degree,” she said. 

That piqued Lake’s curiosity about the subject as part of her efforts to understand more about the lives of young Chinese. She has also compared the phenomenon with similar situations in other countries.

“‘Leftovers’ exist all over the world, under different names, and it kicks off at different ages,” she said. “If you ask a single woman in her 40s in New York, her families or friends might be equally anxious, but there isn’t a label attached and the pressure isn’t as huge. Your parents aren’t usually involved in setting up blind dates for you.”

“In Japan or Korea, there is a similar thing, but the pressure or shaming isn’t as extreme,” she went on. 

“In those countries, it is a little bit more clear-cut because women usually either have a career path or they will get married, have children and quit jobs to stay home and raise the kids. That’s not true in China, where grandparents often help with child-caring and it’s expected that women will continue to work after marriage.” 

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