Shengnü – China’s left-over women

In the western media, much has been made of the fact that China’s population has roughly 11.96 million men who will never be able to find a wife, and it is estimated that by 2020 there will be 30 MILLION more men than women in China which will make the problem even worse.

This situation is attributed to the preference for having sons rather than daughters, and is an unintended consequence of the so-called ‘One Child Policy’.chinese boys 2

In China the pressure for young men and women to get married is enormous. Heterosexual marriages have been the bed-rock of Confucian society for thousands of years, and society here still expects it. One of the primary reasons being to produce a grandchild, preferably a grandson, who can carry on the family name and conduct the traditional rituals to the ancestors. 

In modern times, we westerners are used to the idea of our sons and daughters deciding their own futures, marital or otherwise.  Sure, after a couple of glasses of sherry at a family gathering your Granny might start saying things like ‘When are you going to bring a nice girl/boy home and settle down, don’t leave it too late’ – but this kind of remark can be laughed off or ignored. 

Not so here.

The individual is under constant pressure to marry from parents, grandparents, family, friends and even neighbours; indeed it is expected that they will all stick their oars in, and the pressure is relentless.  Mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts make it their business to try and find a husband or wife for young people.  They may attend ‘marriage markets’- where they write out  and display what can only be described as an  advertisement listing academic and work history, up to and including what salary they may earn, and whether they own marriage marketa property  in order to stress that individual’s desirability as a marriage partner.  They ask social and work connections if they know of suitable candidates, they arrange compulsory blind dates, and on every national holiday when the young person comes home, they fire off an unremitting barrage of questions as to why they are not yet married. 

In cities such as Beijing, there don’t seem to be large numbers of unmarried men, but there are a great many unmarried women who are of marriageable age. 

Once over 26 years old, they join the growing numbers of women who are called ‘Sheng nü’ (which means ‘left-over woman’), as if they were the left-overs from a meal where the best dishes have all been eaten. leftovers 1

Recently one young woman I know (aged only 25) was asked by her mother if she had some health problem that was preventing her from finding a marriage partner; another mother said to her daughter “You are shaming us by not getting married, you MUST marry someone, anyone, even if you get divorced soon after” !

I have another good friend here who is now in her 40s and has not married. She is good looking, has an MBA from a top US business school, speaks four languages, has her own company, has lived abroad, and is financially independent. Every Spring Festival when she went home to stay with her parents she was under pressure about why she had not married yet.  Then, about five years ago, the pressure suddenly stopped. What had happened?  Recently she discovered that her mother had told everyone that she WAS married, but that her husband was too important and too busy to accompany her to visit her parents.  Her mother begged her not to expose the lie and cause the family to loose face.

So where are all the  11.96 million men who are looking for wives?   Surely they could find a wife from the ranks of Shengnü ?

left-over women 2Oh if only it were so simple.

The men who want wives are almost all living and working in the rural areas of China; they are usually poor, lacking in education, and having to support parents and grandparents.

Leftover-women mapThe women who have not married – the Shengnü – are invariably living in the cities: they are well-educated, and have jobs that they enjoy and which give them some degree of economic independence.  Leftover-women chart 2

As you will realise, these two groups are unlikely to meet let alone to marry.

Some of my friends here say that the problem is made worse by the cultural expectations of Chinese men that their wives should be of slightly lower status than themselves – not their equals or, heaven-forbid, superior to them.

‘A-grade’ men will marry ‘B, C or D-grade’ women;                                            ‘B-grade’ men will marry ‘C or D-grade’ women ,                                                 ‘C-grade’ men will marry ‘D-grade’ women.                                                         Because of the greater numbers of men than women that leaves few ‘D-grade’ women for ‘D-grade’ men to marry.                                                                               Whereas at the top of the hierarchy most ‘A-grade’ men will not marry an ‘A-grade’ woman, so those women also miss out in the marriage merry-go-round.

It is a huge demographic mess which is becoming quite a serious problem.








About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
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3 Responses to Shengnü – China’s left-over women

  1. 国樑 KL says:

    There is a similar trend of Shengnü in Singapore. But there is also a trend in Singapore’s Shengnü that they do not want to marry down, i.e. B-grade Shengnü would only want to marry A-grader and so forth.

  2. Jean says:

    Just…sad, but the socio-economic gaps and cultural differences would be very real between a well-educated urban Chinese woman and rural, poor guy would be a challenge.

    Now, you know why some people, like women might want to immigrate to North America: freedom to carve your own life without pressure.

  3. Scott Lang says:

    Hello Herschelian

    I found this a really interesting blog post, especially the map of “leftover women”. There is talk down here in Australia about a “man drought”, and even though our sex ratios are much healthier, it appears to based upon different occupational locations.

    I’ve written my own blog post about these issues…feel free to read it at:

    There are no easy solutions to this in China, or anywhere else…

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