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2022-06-15 11:54:08

Each morning, Shanshan begins her day in the same way. While still lying in bed, the 25-year-old will reach for her phone, and send a message to her singles’ support group.

“Morning. I’ve been working flat out for four days. I want to lie in my bed all day,” she posted on the WeChat chat group one weekday morning in February. “So do I … I’m meeting my supervisor today,” another member replied.

Shanshan has never met the other 270 people in the chat — which is called “Online Huddling Group for Singles” — but they have come to feel like close friends. Though their ages, hometowns, and interests vary, they’re all united by one thing: their vow to remain unmarried for life.

For young Chinese singles, online communities like Huddling Group have emerged as a vital tool in recent years. They’re not only providing members with emotional support, but also helping them defend their interests in a society that still heavily favors married couples.

China’s single population is skyrocketing. The country’s marriage rate plunged 40% between 2013 and 2020, as millennials rejected traditional social mores that pressure young people to settle down early. According to government estimates, the number of people living alone in China reached 92 million in 2021 — more than Germany’s total population.

Yet Chinese singles still face a multitude of barriers. The social stigma attached to remaining unmarried remains strong, with Chinese authorities — wary of a looming demographic crisisbranding females who stay single as “leftover women.”

Chinese law, meanwhile, penalizes those without a spouse. Single people can’t adopt a child, access assisted reproductive technologies, or — in many cases — claim maternity benefits. In some cities, they even face extra restrictions when buying a home.

But Chinese singles are attempting to shield themselves from these problems by forming tight-knit online groups. Members share their frustrations, swap tips on dealing with the stigma and dangers associated with living alone, and help each other navigate the legal system.

In the process, they’re fostering a budding Chinese singles’ rights movement — one that’s becoming more organized, and more ambitious, than ever before.

Gary Waters/Ikon Images/VCG

Gary Waters/Ikon Images/VCG

Changing values

Singles’ groups are mushrooming on every major Chinese forum site. On Zhihu, a Quora-like Q&A platform, the “unmarried clan” tag has more than 20,000 followers. On Baidu Tieba, there are multiple singles’ forums, some of which have tens of thousands of members. On Douban, nearly 25,000 people are part of the “no marriage, no kid mutual aid group.”

Shanshan discovered the Huddling Group through Douban a year ago. A native of the southern city of Guangzhou, her commitment to remaining unmarried is a product of childhood trauma.

Aged 10, she was sexually assaulted by a male relative. When she reported the attack, her family offered her no support. Her grandmother even blamed her for the assault, calling her too “seductive.” She swore never to be part of such a family unit again.

At first, Shanshan was just curious to learn about how the other singletons in the group spent their lives, and didn’t post much. But one day, she shared her story with the other members, and was deeply touched by the outpouring of sympathy she received.

I feel like for a long time my mother was just a slave in her marriage.

The other members have shunned marriage for a range of different reasons. Some, like Shanshan, are still haunted by memories of painful childhoods. “I remember those times when my father choked my mom until she passed out,” one user wrote. “He’s also a heavy gambler, losing every penny we’ve got.”

Others say they refuse to become a wife in a Chinese family, where women are often still expected to play a subservient role. Gender inequality has been an important driver of China’s declining marriage rate, with young women far more likely to want to stay single than young men.

“I feel like for a long time my mother was just a slave in her marriage, taking all the responsibilities for the family with no pay or even a word of thanks from my father,” one Huddling Group member wrote. “It’s unacceptable for me to live with my husband’s parents,” another posted. “Such a practice is quite common in the town where I live.”

A third group has opted against marriage simply because they want to focus on their careers or personal fulfillment. “I have a very successful career as a psychotherapist, and I’m planning to pursue a PhD in the near future,” read one post. “The idea of forming a family just doesn’t attract me.”

Choosing to remain single used to be taboo in China, but the stigma is fading as more young people put off marriage. Chen Yaya, a gender issues researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says social attitudes have shifted significantly since 2011, when Chinese media regularly used the sexist label “leftover women” to describe single women over the age of 27.

“It was very common to see discriminatory comments about single women back then,” says Chen. “Now, society is gradually accepting female singlehood as a normal lifestyle.”

In the “Huddling Group,” social discrimination is no longer a top concern for most members. Personal safety is a far bigger issue. New female members are advised to install security cameras on their doors and order takeout under a male name to deter stalkers.

Financial problems are another frequent topic of discussion. Shanshan often asks other members for advice on insurance, health care plans, and investment decisions. Like many in the group, she’s preoccupied with the thought that she’ll spend her old age without the support of a long-term partner.

“The best thing about this community is that when you express your concerns and worries about life, no one will pop up and tell you, ‘Go get married and everything will be fine,’” says Shanshan.

Shijue/VCG

Shijue/VCG

Pushing back

Many young Chinese, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly interested in the concept of singles’ rights. In January, a group of feminist activists organized the country’s first singles’ rights event: an online forum titled “Single-Unmarried People’s Rights in China.”

Attended by 108 people, the forum featured talks by legal professionals on issues including adult guardianship and the legal risks singles face when having children via a surrogate. The event also named the top 10 singles’ rights news stories in China. (“Safety issues for women living alone,” “Shanghai tightens home-buying rules for people out of wedlock,” and “single mother struggles to access government maternity benefits” led the list.)

The best thing about this community is that when you express your concerns ... no one will pop up and tell you, ‘Go get married and everything will be fine.’

Other activists are forming online groups focused on specific singles’ rights issues. Pata, a game designer from Guangzhou, runs a group for unmarried women trying to have children.

The 31-year-old gave up on the idea of getting married last year. After discovering her boyfriend had been cheating on her, she dumped him — and soon realized she was happier living alone. On weekends, she stays at home and spends hours drawing, a hobby that has also turned into a part-time job.

But Pata still wants kids. She feels becoming a parent will enrich her life. Her own parents, who worry about her being left on her own after they have died, are supportive of the idea, she says.

“I could teach her how to paint,” Pata tells Sixth Tone. “I currently live with my parents and grandmother. I can imagine how much fun and laughter a baby could bring to our family.”

In China, however, conceiving out of wedlock is not a straightforward process. Assisted reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization and egg-freezing aren’t legally accessible to unmarried women. Thousands of Chinese women travel abroad to undergo insemination procedures each year, but it’s prohibitively expensive.

Pata’s group on the forum site Douban — named “Conceiving Solo: Thinking and Practice” — aims to help women on this journey. For its 436 members — and Pata herself — the group has become an essential resource.

“Before I set up this group, I’d never met anyone who shared my outlook,” says Pata. “It’s so cheering that I met so many people like me here.”

On the forum page, Pata continuously forwards information on how to access assisted reproductive procedures in different countries. Most group members plan to undergo IVF, which costs between $20,000 and $40,000 depending on the country in which the procedure is performed.

Members who can’t afford to travel overseas sometimes discuss visiting an underground clinic in China, or trying to inseminate themselves at home using a donor’s sperm. Pata, however, repeatedly warns against these methods. Some women have contracted HIV and other diseases after using unregistered clinics and sperm banks, she says. 

500px/VCG

500px/VCG

Like the Huddling Group, Pata’s forum also functions as a surrogate family. Members often post confessional messages under pseudonyms, where they share their fears about the IVF failing or the social stigma they’ll face as single parents. Others respond by flooding the posts with supportive comments.

Though Pata’s parents are fully supportive of her attempts to become a mother, most group members are not so fortunate. Every month, Pata receives messages from women asking how to deal with their furious families. Her response is that they should focus on gaining financial independence, and that sometimes the only effective way to avoid conflict is to move out of the family home.

“I still feel that women are living quite a tough life in this society,” says Pata. “I realized this even more after I started to focus on single women’s fertility rights.”

Winning public support

Over time, Pata has become convinced that real change will only come when single mothers gain a greater voice in Chinese society. To that end, she has begun volunteering as a content creator for a WeChat account called Diversified Family.

I’ve realised I’m not alone. Many brave sisters have already gone further than me.

She has spent the past few months covering two landmark legal battles involving single mothers’ reproductive rights: namely, Zhang Meng’s campaign to access maternity benefits and Xu Zaozao’s egg-freezing lawsuit. It has been an eye-opening experience, she says.

“I’m so inspired and encouraged,” says Pata. “It’s taught me that I’m not alone. Many brave sisters have already gone further than me.”

Zhang and Xu are among a growing number of Chinese women using the legal system to shine a spotlight on singles’ rights issues. Zhang sued local authorities in Shanghai in 2017, after being told she was unable to access maternity benefits without a marriage certificate.

The lawsuits were unsuccessful, but they attracted huge public attention and coverage from a number of major Chinese media. Zhang continued lobbying the authorities to introduce policy changes allowing unmarried women to claim benefits, and in 2020 the Chinese government passed a new Civil Code making this possible. Zhang finally received her maternity benefits in 2021.

Xu, meanwhile, brought a lawsuit against the hospital that barred her from freezing her eggs in 2018. In China, single women are banned from using egg-freezing services, with authorities arguing the policy is necessary to safeguard women’s health.

Xu Zaozao (center), the plaintiff of a case on the right to freeze eggs as a single woman, does an interview in front of the court after the first hearing in Chaoyang District in Beijing, Dec. 23, 2019. Cai Xingzhuo/JIEMIAN

Xu Zaozao (center), the plaintiff of a case on the right to freeze eggs as a single woman, does an interview in front of the court after the first hearing in Chaoyang District in Beijing, Dec. 23, 2019. Cai Xingzhuo/JIEMIAN

Like Zhang’s case, the trial has aroused heated public discussion. Southern Metropolis Daily, a major Chinese newspaper, even commissioned a survey on egg-freezing as part of its coverage, which found 84.6% of respondents supported single women who planned to freeze their eggs. Xu is still waiting for the court to issue a verdict on her case.

Zhang and Xu’s actions have since inspired a host of imitators. In 2020, a single mother sued her Beijing employer for refusing to offer her maternity pay. Last year, single mothers in Shanghai and Shenzhen brought suits against local authorities over unpaid maternity benefits.

Though most of these cases have ended in failure, they have helped singles’ rights issues break into the Chinese mainstream. Pata, who is currently saving money for her IVF procedure, says she’s optimistic about the movement’s future.

“There’s still a long way to go,” she says. “I hope I can one day have IVF in China instead of going abroad. It will save me a lot of money.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: Alice Mollon/Ikon Images/VCG)