"Centipede". The study investigated the experiences of Chinese women aged 26 to 34 who are scorned as “leftovers” because they are high-achievers who have failed to get married.

In China, hysteria is growing about a rising number of so-called “leftover women”, who are highly successful but remain unmarried. A new study suggests that the country’s traditional, patriarchal society may be to blame.

The persisting, patriarchal structure of Chinese society has led to discrimination and controlling behaviour by men that actively bars many professional women from marriage

Sandy To

Successful Chinese women who have been publically shamed as “leftovers” because of their failure to marry, often remain single because men are uncomfortable with their careers and achievements, a study has found.

Over the past few years, China’s government and media have expressed growing concern over the phenomenon of the sheng nu – literally, “leftover women” – who remain unmarried despite having a good education and high-flying jobs.

As the derogatory term implies, the “leftovers”, all in their late 20s or early 30s, are typically scorned for having only themselves to blame. In 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Education attributed their failure to find a husband to their “overly high expectations for marriage partners”, in an official explanation of what sheng nu means.

Now a rare investigation into the experiences of the women themselves has reached a rather different conclusion. The study, by sociologist Dr Sandy To, found that these women struggle to find a lasting relationship because of the constraints of the conservative, patriarchal society in which they live. Far from spurning suitors, they badly want to be married, but find that men reject them.

Specifically, the 50 women interviewed for the study had found that men either discriminated against them because of their achievements, or expected them to spend more time doing housework in order to make their lives together a success – often at the expense of their jobs.

The report, in the new issue of the journal Symbolic Interaction, also records the coping strategies that these women adopt when faced with such challenges. Although westerners sometimes portray them as symbols of a newly liberated generation of Chinese women, the truth appears to be that many are traditionalists, who struggle to find a relationship that works.

“During China’s early reform era, management-level women faced discriminatory treatment in the marriage market,” Dr To said. “Four decades later, my research found that highly-educated women in today’s post-reform era still suffer from the same discrimination, as they are passed over for less-educated, less career-orientated women instead.”

“Many of them want to pursue the traditional path of marriage and even end up seeking higher-status husbands in an effort to do so. Ironically, most are shunned by men because of their own accomplishments. These women can hardly be blamed for their ‘leftover’ status, because they are the ones who are being rejected.”

Dr To, who is now based at the University of Hong Kong, carried out the research while a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Her study was conducted in Shanghai between 2008 and 2012 and involved Chinese women from 14 different cities. It took place against a backdrop of growing hysteria about the rising number of single, unmarried women in China.

For most Chinese people, marriage is still a “must”. This has led to a nationwide craze for matchmaking reality shows on TV, and matchmaking events in public parks in almost every Chinese city, where parents advertise their daughters’ physical and economic attributes on billboards.

Dr To wanted to find out why the so-called “leftovers” had not got married, whether they wanted to do so, and how they were responding to the social stigma attached to being single in a culture which prizes marriage so highly.

Over the four-year period, she followed the experiences of 50 different women, aged between 26 and 34. The women were all educated to degree level (more than half had a Master’s degree or above) and had high-status jobs. None had ever been married at the start of the research, although some ultimately did find a husband.

The research showed that despite official claims that these women snub men who fail to live up to their own standards, the reverse was often true. Many had been rejected by men who felt more comfortable with less accomplished women. Others had struggled in relationships with boyfriends who expected them to spend less time at work and focus more on domestic and family life.

One woman interviewed for the study, a 29-year-old fund accountant with a UK Master’s degree, described how a potential suitor, introduced to her by her parents, backed off because “he said he felt that he had to spend a lot of effort to control me, so he chose someone else who was easier to control.”

Another interviewee, a financial services manager, 33, said: “I used to date a guy who was much older… He preferred me not working. His idea was that I should quit work after we got married.”

Dr To also investigated how women tried to cope with these “male superior norms”. Contrary to the assumption that sheng nu are somehow pioneers for a new, more liberated generation of Chinese women, she found that most remain keen to get married.

Categorising them by the nature of their responses to the problem, her report refers to some of the women as “maximisers”, who seek out even higher-achieving men who will not be intimidated by them, or actively conceal their own successes in an effort to make themselves seem more compatible. Others, referred to as “satisficers” (the term is a fusion of “satisfy” and “suffice”), take the opposite approach, actively seeking out lower-status men who will not force them to quit work and take on domestic roles, because they themselves are not in breadwinner jobs.

Yet more, deemed “traditionalists”, continually strive to find a typical marriage partner for their demographic and struggle psychologically with the pressure of social expectation. Only a handful were classed as “innovators” – women who respond by actively seeking out a non-married lifestyle.

However they respond, the study concludes that China’s “leftover” women rarely deserve the contempt they are forced to endure because they have not yet found a husband.

“The persisting, patriarchal structure of Chinese society has led to discrimination and controlling behaviour by men that actively bars many professional women from marriage,” Dr To said. “At the same time the western idea that these women are actively pursuing more individualised lifestyles does not apply. Most want a traditional married life, but simply feel precluded from doing so.”

The full report can be found in the new issue of Symbolic Interaction at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/symb.46/abstract

For more information about this story, please contact: Tom Kirk, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge. Tel: 01223 332300; Mob: 07764 161923; Email: thomas.kirk@admin.cam.ac.uk 

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