Sheng Nu

All-China Women's Federation

Sheng nu (‘leftover ladies’) is a derogatory Chinese term for women who remain unmarried in their late twenties and beyond. Most prominently used in China, the term has also been used colloquially to refer to women in India, North America, and other parts of Asia. The term compares unmarried women to leftover food and has gone on to become widely used in the mainstream media focusing on the negative connotations and positive reclamation of the term.

While initially backed and disseminated by pro-government media in 2007, the term eventually came under criticism from government-published newspapers two years later. The equivalent term for men, ‘guang gun’ meaning ‘bare branches,’ is used to refer to men who do not marry and thus do not add ‘branches’ to the family tree. Similarly, ‘shengnan’ (‘leftover men’) has also been used, though this term is not as commonly used as ‘leftover women’ in Chinese society and single males reaching a certain age will often be labeled as either ‘golden bachelors’ or ‘diamond single man.’

As a long-standing tradition, early-age marriage was prevalent in China in the past. It was until 2005, that merely 2% of females aged between 30 and 34 were single. By contrast, 10% of the males were single. China’s one-child policy (Family Planning Program) and sex-selective abortions have led to a disproportionate growth in the country’s gender balance. Approximately 20 million more men than women have been born since the one-child policy was introduced in 1979, or 120 males born for every 100 females. By 2020, China is expected to have 24 million more men than women. The global average is 103 to 107 males per 100 females.

The exact etymology of the term is not conclusively known, but most reliable sources cite it as having entered the mainstream in 2006. According to several sources, the government mandated the state-sponsored All-China Women’s Federation to publish series of articles stigmatizing unwed women who were in their late twenties. In 2011, the All-China Women’s Federation posted a controversial article titled ‘Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy’ shortly after International Women’s Day. An excerpt states, ‘Pretty girls do not need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family. But girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult’ and ‘These girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don’t realize that as women age, they are worth less and less. So by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old – like yellowed pearls.’ Originally at least 15 articles were available on its website relating to the subject of sheng nu, which have now been subsequently removed, that included matchmaking advice and tips.

A study of married couples in China noted that men tended to marry down the socio-economic ladder. ‘There is an opinion that A-quality guys will find B-quality women, B-quality guys will find C-quality women, and C-quality men will find D-quality women,’ says Huang Yuanyuan. ‘The people left are A-quality women and D-quality men. So if you are a leftover woman, you are A-quality.’ A University of North Carolina demographer who studies China’s gender imbalance, Yong Cai, further notes that ‘men at the bottom of society get left out of the marriage market, and that same pattern is coming to emerge for women at the top of society.’

China, and many other Asian countries, share a long history of conservative and patriarchal view of marriage and the family structure including marrying at a young age and hypergamy (‘marrying up’ in social class). The pressure from society and family has been the source criticism, shame, social embarrassment and social anxiety for many women who are unmarried. Chen, another woman interviewed by the BBC, said the sheng nu are ‘afraid their friends and neighbours will regard me as abnormal. And my parents would also feel they were totally losing face, when their friends all have grandkids already.’

Similar sentiment has been shared amongst other women in China, particularly amongst recent university graduates. A report by CNN cited a survey of 900 female university graduates across 17 Chinese universities where approximately 70 percent of those surveyed said ‘their greatest fear is becoming a 3S lady.’ The term ‘3S lady’ was popularized in China in the early 2000s and was used to describe a group of women who were seen as independent, educated, and career-driven. It stood for Single, Seventies (born in the 1970s), and Successful.

Under the patriarchal system in China, males tend to come under substantial financial pressure. For example, in China, great importance is often attached to male ownership of a property and a vehicle. This is evidenced in a survey which revealed that less than 20% of parents of daughters do not consider the ownership of a property as a precondition for marriage. This may have caused people to lay the blame on women. Moreover, the social image of so-called ‘Shengnus’ is characterized by monetary worship, egocentricity and selfishness. Besides, people consider ‘Shengnu’ as setting the bar high for their future partner but lacking in the virtues required as a tradition in the old times.

Some females regard marriage as a springboard to improve the quality of their life. At one of the most popular dating TV show broadcast in China, a female participant blatantly claimed that ‘I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle’ when an unemployed male participant questioned her whether or not she is willing to take a ride on bike. This remark went viral instantly on social media in China, and attracted widespread criticism from many unmarried females.

The increasing popularity of unwed women in China has been largely accredited to the growing educated middle class. Women are more free and able to live independently in comparison to previous generations. ‘Forbes’ reported that in 2013, ’11 of the 20 richest self-made women in the world are Chinese.’ In addition, it cites that Chinese female CEOs make up 19 percent of women in management jobs making it the second highest worldwide after Thailand.

The term has also been embraced by some feminists with the opening of ‘sheng nu’ social clubs. In an interview with fashion editor Sandra Bao by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Bao stated that ‘many modern, single women in China enjoy their independence and feel comfortable holding out for the right man, even as they grow older.’ She further explained, ‘We don’t want to make compromises because of age or social pressure.’

In other Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, where women have been receiving a higher education, that correspondingly, the average age of marriage amongst them is much higher. A 2012 United Nations survey that found 74 percent of women in the United Kingdom and 70 percent of women in Japan were single between the ages of 25 and 29. The China Daily published an article that cited figures from the 2012 United Nations’ World Marriage Data which reported 38% of women in the United States, and more than 50% of women in Britain remained unmarried in their 30s.

The Chinese media has capitalized on the subject matter with television shows, viral videos, newspapers and magazine articles, and pundits that have sharply criticized women for ‘waiting it out for a man with a bigger house or fancier car.’ The television series comedy ‘Will You Marry Me and My Family,’ which premiered on CCTV-8, that revolves around the principal concept of sheng nu as a family frantically searches for a prospective spouse of the main character who is in her 30s. This series and ‘You Are the One’ have been accredited with minting terms like ‘the shengnu economy’ and further bringing the subject into public fascination and obsession. ‘If You Are the One’ is a popular Chinese game show, loosely based on ‘Taken Out’ (an Australian television dating game show), whose rise has been credited with the ‘national obsession’ surrounding sheng nu.

Commercial interests have taken advantage of the situation such as the increased popularity of ‘boyfriends for hire.’ The concept has also been turned into a popular television drama series called Renting a Girlfriend for Home Reunion.

It is worth noting that the Chinese English-language news media has more often challenged the ‘leftover’ myth than perpetuated it. The media representations of leftover women has shown four distinct ideologies, namely ageism, heteronormativity, patriarchy and egalitarianism. Similarly, the Western English-language news media has formulated the female individualisation discourse that emphasises independence and self-actualisation.

Experts have further theorized about the term’s longevity as the National Population and Family Planning Commission has been moving towards phasing out the one-child policy in favour of an ‘appropriate and scientific family planning policy (one-child policy)’ where the child limit may be increased. He Feng in ‘The China Daily’ points out, ‘the sheng nu phenomenon is nothing like the feminist movement in the West, in which women consciously demanded equal rights in jobs and strived for independence.’ Rather, the change has been ‘subtle’ and ‘perhaps decades later, will be viewed as symbolic of China’s social progress and a turning point for the role of women in its society.’

The Sheng Nu Movement uses the internet and media as an outlet to remove the stigma against leftover women. SK-II, a Japanese skincare brand, launched a global campaign called #changedestiny, to empower women affected by the prejudice against ‘leftover women.’ In their campaign video, ‘Marriage Market Takeover,’ stories of women who overcame the challenges of being unmarried after they turn 27. The video includes interviews from leftover women. In the interview, Wang Xiao Qi describes how her parents pushed her into marriage by arguing that ‘marriage doesn’t wait.’ She refutes them by saying, ‘even if I don’t have a significant other half, I can still live wonderfully.’ The commercial was launched with the idea of taking over the ‘Marriage Market,’ a place where Chinese parents essentially advertise children as marriage potential, listing their height, weight, salary, values and personality.

China’s government have been known to combat the growing feminist movement in China. On International Women’s Day in 2015, feminists in China were detained for publicly raising awareness about sexual harassment on public transportation. Five Women in Beijing were also arrested and sent to a detention center by the Public Security Bureau for handing out the feminist sticker. In 2017, Women’s Voices, a social media account run by China’s most prominent feminists, was suspended with no specific explanation as to why. The first female president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, aged 59 at the time she assumed office, was criticized for being an unmarried president and so-called ‘leftover woman.’ The Chinese State newspaper ‘Xinhua’ shamed Tsai Ing-Wen by commenting, ‘As a single female politician, she lacks the emotional drag of love, the pull of the ‘home,’ and no children to care for.’

Recently, feminists in China changed the original meaning of ‘leftover women’ into ‘victorious’ women,’ but retain the pronunciation of ‘Shengnu.’ This move is purposed to emphasize the independence gained by single women. In fact, unlike the social image imposed on ‘Shengnu,’ most unmarried females living in urban areas do not value wealth as the sole criterion when they search for their other half, even though they will not completely ignore that.

Sexism is prominent in China’s job field where women are either expected to meet China’s many societal standards or aren’t given any opportunities at all on the basis of their gender. In male-dominated areas such as technology and construction, one of the requirements needed to get the job may actually require the applicant to be a male. According to the ‘South China Morning Post,’ gender discrimination is deeply ingrained in Chinese society, which, for centuries, was dominated by Confucianism which places women as inferior to men.

Gender discrimination also occurs in employment where women have to fit certain physical features to be hired. Sexism exists in the Chinese employment system. Brian Stauffer from Human Rights Watch describes ‘Sexual objectification of women—treating women as a mere object of sexual desire—is prevalent in Chinese job advertising. Some job postings require women to have certain physical attributes—with respect to height, weight, voice, or facial appearance—that are completely irrelevant to the execution of job duties.’ In 2014, a woman named Cao Ju was refused a job in the private tutoring firm Juren in Beijing based on the fact that she was a woman. The company settled for 30,000 yuan in what’s known as ‘China’s first gender discrimination lawsuit.’ Cao justified her actions by stating that ‘I think as long as the person is capable of doing the work the post requires, gender is irrelevant.’

Comparisons have been made to a 1986 ‘Newsweek’ cover and featured article that said ‘women who weren’t married by 40 had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of finding a husband.’ ‘Newsweek’ eventually apologized for the story and in 2010 launched a study that discovered 2 in 3 women who were 40 and single in 1986 had married since. The story caused a ‘wave of anxiety’ and some ‘skepticism’ amongst professional and highly educated women in the U.S. The term ‘bachelorette’ is used to describe any unmarried woman who is still single. The popular American reality television series ‘The Bachelorette’ capitalizes on matchmaking often successful businesswomen in their mid to late twenties with other eligible bachelors.

Singapore is noted to have gone through a similar period. In 1983, then Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew sparked the ‘Great Marriage Debate’ when he encouraged Singapore men to choose highly educated women as wives. He was concerned that a large number of graduate women were unmarried. Some sections of the population, including graduate women, were upset by his views. Nevertheless, a matchmaking agency Social Development Unit (SDU) was set up to promote socializing among men and women graduates. In the Graduate Mothers Scheme, Lee also introduced incentives such as tax rebates, schooling, and housing priorities for graduate mothers who had three or four children, in a reversal of the over-successful ‘Stop-at-Two’ family planning campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. By the late 1990s, the birth rate had fallen so low that Lee’s successor Goh Chok Tong extended these incentives to all married women, and gave even more incentives, such as the ‘baby bonus’ scheme. Lee reaffirmed his controversial position in his personal memoir, From ‘Third World to First,’ ‘many well-educated Singaporean women did not marry and have children.’

A feature in the ‘People’s Daily’ focused on the reception of the concept of sheng nu from netizens outside of China, particularly in Asia, specifically Korea, Japan, and India. One Japanese netizen noted that during the 1980s, the term ‘Christmas cakes’ was commonly used to refer to women who were unmarried and beyond the national age average of married women. The actual reference to Christmas cakes is the saying, ‘who wants Christmas cakes after December 25.’ A newer term has since supplanted this one, referring to unmarried women as ‘unsold goods’ (urenokori). Alternatively, for men in Japan, the term ‘Herbivore men’ is used to describe men who have no interest in getting married or finding a girlfriend.

Other typologically similar terms that are still used in the modern lexicon of other countries and cultures show the concept has existed in some cases as far back as the 16th century. The term ‘spinster’ was used to describe unmarried or single women of a marriageable age. It wasn’t until 2004 when the Civil Partnership Act replaced the word spinster with ‘single’ in the relationship history section of marriage certificates in the UK. Subsequently, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the term surplus women was used to describe the excess of unmarried women in Britain. The card game ‘old maid’ sees people competing to avoid being labelled an ‘old maid’….ie a Leftover woman. It has its roots in the Medieval World.

‘Catherinette’ was a traditional French label for women 25 years old or older who were still unmarried by the Feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria on 25 November. The French idiom, ‘to do St. Catherine’s hair,’ meaning ‘to remain an old maid’ is also associated with this tradition. In Russia, marriage is a substantial part of the national culture, with 30 years being the age at which a woman is considered an ‘old maid.’


One Comment to “Sheng Nu”

  1. Yes
    This blog post was a really interesting read. It’s disheartening to see how women in China and other countries are still subject to societal pressures and prejudices based on their marital status. My question is, do you think that the increasing number of educated middle-class women remaining unmarried will eventually lead to a shift in societal norms and a reevaluation of the traditional patriarchal views on marriage and family structures in these countries? It would be great to hear your thoughts.
    Johanna Casiddy

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