As China’s lunar new year celebrations draw to a close, many young people are hightailing it back to the country’s cities, anxious to get away from the incessant badgering of their relatives. Take my friend Shasha, for example, who was born in eastern China’s Shandong province and now works in an administrative role at East China Normal University in Shanghai. People love Shasha: She’s the life and soul of any party, is great at her job, and many guys find her attractive.
After graduating from college in Shanghai in 2010, Shasha worked for a few years and eventually saved enough money to buy a small apartment in the city. She considers herself happy, fulfilled, and independent — that is, until she goes home for Chinese New Year. Back in Shandong, all Shasha’s family seem to care about is the fact that she is still single.
Shasha is 31 years old. In her hometown, most people her age are already married and have children. Shasha is one of China’s millions-strong shengnü, or leftover women, a pejorative term ascribed to single women who have passed the socially accepted marriage age. In her hometown, Shasha’s talents play second fiddle to her continued singledom, and her social standing has plummeted as a result.
Shasha’s mother literally loses sleep over her daughter’s marriage prospects. This year, while Shasha was at home for the holidays, her mother came into her bedroom at dawn almost every day, sat at the end of the bed, and implored her to find someone, anyone, to marry. Even if she ended up divorcing him, her mother said, it would be better than staying single. One day, Shasha’s half-drunk father also got involved, shouting: “If you don’t get married this year, don’t bother coming back!”
On one hand, Shasha hates to see her parents racked with anxiety about her marital status. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to get hitched to just anyone. She’s had several romantic relationships, but says that none of them made her as happy as she currently feels living alone.
Shasha’s predicament is far from unique. Every year, when the country’s young urban dwellers return to their hinterland hometowns for Spring Festival, the great Chinese war on singledom resumes in earnest. While the sheer scale of parental pestering may seem strange to foreigners, many young, highly educated Chinese readily succumb to the pressure and marry earlier than they had intended. Why?
The concept of xiao, or filial piety, runs deep in traditional Chinese culture. Broadly speaking, filial piety governs relationships between parents and children, compelling the former to act in their kids’ best interests and the latter to defer to their parents’ authority and take care of them in their old age. One way that filial piety manifests itself is the notion of continuing the family line through procreation.
Modern life has done away with much of China’s traditional culture, but filial piety has proven particularly hard to shake, probably because it defines so many family relationships from birth. Children who do not fulfill their parents’ wishes by getting married and starting families at the right time — usually their mid-to-late 20s — may be considered disrespectful toward their elders.
China’s rapidly changing socio-economic realities are putting a strain on a generation of parents who expect their children to show them piety. The stress of ensuring the continuation of the family line often makes parents resort to extreme behavior, such as emotional blackmail, temper tantrums, and even suicide threats.
Domestic media outlets have also normalized the term “leftover women” and thereby upheld the stigma against female singletons approaching their 30s. The book “Investigation into China’s Leftover Women,” published in 2014 by three independent scholars — Luo Aiping, Wang Feng, and Jiang Yu — points out that since 2004, when the first media article about “leftover women” was written, media organizations have repeatedly defined single women in reductive and incorrect ways, such as by claiming that they feel lonely without the company of men, are too old to have a successful pregnancy, and suffer from a range of health issues, both psychological — depression, anxiety, and so on — and physiological, such as gynecological disorders.
In recent years, Chinese feminists have made concerted efforts to fight back against the shengnü stigma. But they are largely battling against the tide: Women without husbands are still looked upon with curiosity, if not outright hostility, as if they have some kind of psychological problem that makes them embrace singledom instead of marriage.
China’s shengnü stigma is exacerbated by the related, but less frequently reported, concept of the shengnan, or “leftover man.” The country is known for having a skewed sex ratio, a phenomenon that, theoretically speaking, has left around 114 men competing for every 100 women. Although both men and women — especially those who live in cities — are choosing to marry later in life, media representation of this phenomenon tends to depict women as picky and demanding, and men as career-minded and driven.
By 2015, China was home to nearly 200 million single men and women. The same year, state news agency Xinhua reported that almost 20 million people between the ages of 20 and 39 lived alone. Nationwide, the number of single people of all ages living alone increased from 6 percent in 1990 to 14.6 percent in 2013.
The rise of individualism is likely to be a major factor in the unwillingness of young Chinese to get married. Many people who choose to stay single live in China’s large and mid-sized cities, have received higher education, hold respectable jobs, and are financially and psychologically independent. In traditional Chinese thought, the family is imagined as a microcosm of society; but now, as the emphasis on family has waned, so too has the sanctity of marriage transformed from a universal value to an individual choice, one that befuddles older generations.
Another factor behind people not wanting or daring to marry is related to the so-called low desire society, a term invented by the Japanese scholar Kenichi Ohmae to describe the phenomenon of young people abandoning the pursuit of life goals thought meaningful by previous generations. Apart from well-educated, middle-class urbanites, many young people struggle for good wages and social mobility. Their response is to seek happiness by shunning things traditionally seen as desirable: Home ownership, a steady career, and marriage.
This kind of marital pressure will not last forever. It tends to be most common among parents born in the 1950s and ’60s whose children are in their 20s and 30s. The generation gap between those groups has been profoundly shaped by the social changes that have taken place in the reform era. Parents born from the 1970s onward share more similar experiences with their children and are unlikely to treat them the same way.
But for now, China’s 20- and 30-somethings must grit their teeth and bear the pressure from their elders. Young people must balance the need to show filial piety with an economy that increasingly values strong, independent thinking. Such is the double bind with my friend Shasha: She must stay true to herself, but also acquiesce to her parents’ wishes. At times, there seems to be no middle ground.
Translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.