As an unmarried female Ph.D. student, concerns and questions about my love life are unavoidable. Annoying as they are — I’m just 25 years old — I see my education as a privilege, rather than a burden.
Not everyone agrees. There is still a stigma attached to being a single, highly educated woman in China, 14 years after the Ministry of Education first formally adopted the popular buzzword “leftover women” to refer to our supposed plight. Just last month, for example, an expert suggested governments in rural areas sign local unmarried men up for skills trainings and then “export” them to cities where they could pair up with leftover women.
My own mother, when I first told her that I wanted to pursue a doctorate, responded angrily: “You would be better off just marrying someone than applying for a useless Ph.D. in sociology.” Enticed by the prospect of my one day becoming a university professor, she ultimately did not stand in my way, but over the years, my relatives, my parents’ friends, and even their colleagues have all constantly nagged us, urging me to find a husband, or at least get a boyfriend.
According to data from the 2010 census, college-educated women aged 25 to 29 were roughly three times more likely to be unmarried than similarly aged women with less than a high school education. The term “leftover women” reflects society’s anxieties over this demographic phenomenon, exacerbated by the patriarchal norm that men should “marry down” — that is, marry women younger and less educated than themselves. According to this logic, female Ph.D. graduates could be seen as too qualified to get married. The shame and anxiety of this label has been reinforced by stereotypical depictions of leftover women in film and television, where women with higher education levels are portrayed as undesirable and a woman’s value is defined by her ability to play the dual roles of wife and mother.
But are China’s highly educated women really at risk of being left over? Policymakers and social commentators certainly see their single status as a problem, but many so-called leftover women are single by choice. Their education doesn’t restrict their options. If anything, it gives these women a bigger say in their marital choices. Conversely, the very real marital challenges faced by less-educated women are often left out of mainstream discourse. Just because they’re married, however, doesn’t mean their problems are over.
To start, education has traditionally helped women secure economic independence and more agency over their lives, while reducing parental control over their relationships and marital decisions. In her study of leftover women in Shanghai, the academic Ji Yingchun found that highly educated women are in fact skilled at strategically negotiating the boundaries between patriarchal traditions and their “modern” life choices. For example, when faced with parental pressure to get married, independent women are better able to keep a physical distance from their parents, live their lives on their own, and hold on to their ideals of romantic love.
If anything, research has shown that higher education indicates more favorable marriage prospects in China, as education increasingly stratifies the country’s marriage market. Highly educated individuals, both men and women, now have stringent preferences for their partners’ education levels. There are even dating platforms that only accept graduates from top universities. Women actively navigate these apps’ highly educated dating pools and strategically choose their partners according to their own criteria, screening partners for shared cultural values, worldviews, and financial situations. And in contrast to the belief that men prefer to marry down, many highly educated men are also looking for highly educated partners — although their logic is sometimes quite retrograde, presuming a link between high education levels and being good “mom material.”
In my case, my education has certainly been a privilege. As a Ph.D. student overseas, my parents know little about my field and are in no position to exert control over my career choices. They may have ideas about my love life, but they remain suggestions.
Yet a conversation with my mother reminded me of a group of women who have almost disappeared from the public discussion about marriage. My mother is a regular at a beauty salon, where she became acquainted with several young beauticians. These young women are in their early 20s. Many of them came to the city from rural areas to work after graduating or dropping out of high school or even middle school. After two or three years of working, some of them head to their rural hometowns to get married, become a housewife, and have children.
While the media, the public, and even academics seem preoccupied with highly educated women and their supposed marital quandaries, the challenges faced by these less-educated women often go ignored. Instead, it is “leftover men” who attract all the attention whenever discussions about marital norms shift to rural areas.
This focus on “leftovers” treats marriage as a market, one whose problems stem from a mismatch of supply and demand. The problems that crop up after marriage, meanwhile, are neglected. Marriage is not a panacea, yet few are asking questions about what life is like for the marriage market’s supposed “winners.”
Take child marriage, for example. Although the legal age of marriage in China is 22 for men and 20 for women, child marriage still exists, especially in rural areas with low average levels of education. Child marriage rates are actually on the rise: The percentage of women between 15 to 19 years old who had ever been married doubled to 2.4% between 2000 and 2015. Premarital pregnancy is a frequent contributor to such matches, as many young Chinese lack awareness of and knowledge about contraception. In less-developed regions like the southwestern Yunnan province, 21 children were born per 1,000 women and girls between the ages of 15 and 19.
Less-educated women are also often in a disadvantaged and vulnerable position within their marriages. A 2016 study of over 400 women in rural areas of the southwestern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region showed that a woman’s education level played a significant role in determining her married life. Lower education levels were typically associated with lower satisfaction within a marriage, lower status in their husband’s family, higher rates of divorce, and greater risk for domestic violence. This is supported by data from the national China Women Social Status Survey, which found that rural victims of domestic violence were more likely to be less educated.
The anxiety surrounding the leftover women label reflects Chinese society’s continued desire to promote marriage, but highly educated women at least enjoy the autonomy to choose what kind of partners they want — or even if they want to get married at all. Well-educated women such as myself do face pressure and discrimination on the marriage market, largely because of the continued prevalence of traditional gender ideologies. But these problems also benefit from high public awareness, in part because of leftover women’s financial and social clout — itself a consequence of their educational achievements. What about less-educated women? How do they fare once they’re married? And what happens to them if their marriage sours? These problems are just as deserving of our attention as those facing China’s so-called leftover women.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A bride wears a traditional ceremonial dress during her wedding in rural Baoji, Shaanxi province, Feb. 14, 2019. Wang Pan/People Visual)