China's 'leftover women', unmarried at 27

A woman smiling in the foreground with a couple walking past behind

Over 27? Unmarried? Female? In China, you could be labelled a "leftover woman" by the state - but some professional Chinese women these days are happy being single.

Huang Yuanyuan is working late at her job in a Beijing radio newsroom. She's also stressing out about the fact that the next day, she'll turn 29.

"Scary. I'm one year older," she says. "I'm nervous."


"Because I'm still single. I have no boyfriend. I'm under big pressure to get married."

Huang is a confident, personable young woman with a good salary, her own apartment, an MA from one of China's top universities, and a wealth of friends.

Still, she knows that these days, single, urban, educated women like her in China are called "sheng nu" or "leftover women" - and it stings.

Huang Yuanyuan (front right) and a fellow "leftover" colleague, Wang Tingting, at their radio station in Beijing Who are you calling "leftover"? Huang Yuanyuan (front) and her colleague Wang Tingting

She feels pressure from her friends and her family, and the message gets hammered in by China's state-run media too.

Even the website of the government's supposedly feminist All-China Women's Federation featured articles about "leftover women" - until enough women complained.

State-run media started using the term "sheng nu" in 2007. That same year the government warned that China's gender imbalance - caused by selective abortions because of the one-child policy - was a serious problem.

National Bureau of Statistics data shows there are now about 20 million more men under 30 than women under 30.

"Ever since 2007, the state media have aggressively disseminated this term in surveys, and news reports, and columns, and cartoons and pictures, basically stigmatising educated women over the age of 27 or 30 who are still single," says Leta Hong-Fincher, an American doing a sociology PhD at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Census figures for China show that around one in five women aged 25-29 is unmarried.

The proportion of unmarried men that age is higher - over a third. But that doesn't mean they will easily match up, since Chinese men tend to "marry down", both in terms of age and educational attainment.

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A couple walking in Beijing on Valentines Day carrying some pink balloons

"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."

But it's the "A-quality" of intelligent and educated women that the government most wants to procreate, according to Leta Hong-Fincher. She cites a statement on population put out by the State Council - China's cabinet - in 2007.

"It said China faced unprecedented population pressures, and that the overall quality of the population is too low, so the country has to upgrade the quality of the population."

Some local governments in China have taken to organising matchmaking events, where educated young women can meet eligible bachelors.

The goal is not only to improve the gene pool, believes Fincher, but to get as many men paired off and tied down in marriage as possible - to reduce, as far as possible, the army of restless, single men who could cause social havoc.

But the tendency to look down on women of a certain age who aren't married isn't exclusively an attitude promoted by the government.

Chen (not her real name), who works for an investment consulting company, knows this all too well.

She's single and enjoying life in Beijing, far away from parents in a conservative southern city who, she says, are ashamed that they have an unmarried 38-year-old daughter.

"They don't want to take me with them to gatherings, because they don't want others to know they have a daughter so old but still not married," she says.

The best time to get married is...

Chinese brides
  • Nine out of 10 men in China think women should get married before 27
  • Sixty per cent say the ideal time is 25-27
  • One per cent believe the best age for a woman to get married is 31-35

Source: 2010 National Marriage Survey

"They're 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."

Chen's parents have tried setting her up on blind dates. At one point her father threatened to disown her if she wasn't married before the end of the year.

Now they say if she's not going to find a man, she should come back home and live with them.

Chen knows what she wants - someone who is "honest and responsible", and good company, or no-one at all.

Meanwhile, the state-run media keep up a barrage of messages aimed at just this sort of "picky" educated woman.

"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," reads an excerpt from an article titled, Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy, posted on the website of the All-China Federation of Women in March 2011.

It continues: "These girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don't realise 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."


Flashback: America's 'leftover women' furore

Cover of Newsweek magazine from June 1986, with the headline "The Marriage Crunch"

In the US, women of a certain age might remember a 1986 Newsweek 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.

It created a wave of anxiety in educated, professional women at the time, and was widely quoted - e.g. in the film Sleepless in Seattle.

Newsweek eventually admitted it was wrong, and a follow-up study found that two-thirds of the single, college-educated American women who were 40 in 1986 had married by 2010.

The All-China Federation of Women used to have more than 15 articles on its website on the subject of "leftover women" - offering tips on how to stand out from a crowd, matchmaking advice, and even a psychological analysis of why a woman would want to marry late.

In the last few months, it has dropped the term from its website, and now refers to "old" unmarried women (which it classes as over 27, or sometimes over 30), but the expression remains widely used elsewhere.

"It's caught on like a fad, but it belittles older, unmarried women - so the media should stop using this term, and should instead respect women's human rights," says Fan Aiguo, secretary general of the China Association of Marriage and Family Studies, an independent group that is part of the All-China Federation of Women.

If it sounds odd to call women "leftover" at 27 or 30, China has a long tradition of women marrying young. But the age of marriage has been rising, as it often does in places where women become more educated.

In 1950, the average age for urban Chinese women to marry for the first time was just under 20. By the 1980s it was 25, and now it's... about 27.

A 29-year-old marketing executive, who uses the English name Elissa, says being single at her age isn't half bad.

"Living alone, I can do whatever I like. I can hang out with my good friends whenever I like," she says. "I love my job, and I can do a lot of stuff all by myself - like reading, like going to theatres.

"I have many single friends around me, so we can spend a lot of time together."

Sure, she says, during a hurried lunch break, her parents would like her to find someone, and she has gone on a few blind dates, for their sake. But, she says, they've been a "disaster".

"I didn't do these things because I wanted to, but because my parents wanted it, and I wanted them to stop worrying. But I don't believe in the blind dates. How can you get to know a person in this way?"

Elissa says she'd love to meet the right man, but it will happen when it happens. Meanwhile, life is good - and she has to get back to work.

Mary Kay Magistad is the East Asia correspondent for The World - a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH

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  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    When you have allowed the murder of female children for years, it seems a bit hypocritical to betrying to force women to marry in case they are left out. There are millions of men who wont be able to marry because of the one child policy. It would be better for the government to tackle attitudes to women from birth first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    It is a pity that worldwide, including here in the UK, and not just in China, the high achievers and economically successful and responsible have few or no children; and the uneducated and those unable to give their children financial support have them by the dozens....

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Maybe the Chinese women should come over here,

    I would be very accommodating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    We fete China as the new power in the world. This kind of nonsense proves the reality that China is a poor backward country mired in old fashioned views & stereotypes. In addition, this kind of rubbish is given legs by a state backed attitude. Males are lauded & celebrated while females are villified and aborted. A cultural power in the world ? I think not!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    In Britain the divorce rate is almost 50%. I also read that the adultery rates here are running at 52% of men and 68% of women. If these figures are even remotely close we shuld all zip it and stop judging how other cultures do things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    With TIME not in our favor but fast wearing out or facing a decay;it has become next to impossible to match two minds into a agreeable level to cover a married life quarrel free.Further with free mix-up and unwillingness to carry a burden than recognizing LOVE between each other,any ill comment against any is an unwanted action on the part of the Authority to say so.Let us flow with TIME.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Its China what did you expect, social attitudes take decades sometimes centuries to change. They might have ripped off our industry & copied our technology in a couple of decades but they haven’t even mastered basic democracy or free speech let alone human rights & equality. At least they don’t have to set themselves on fire like the Tibetans to get some change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Taipei Red Lion
    Indian and ME women hate this too. The difference is the above countries would simply force such women into marriage.

    And surely the irony is not lost on Larry that the article is about growing Chinese female independence... why would they want a "western guy" who preys on "demure" Chinese women? Methinks he (and many like him) has an agenda with such Chinese women.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I see a lot of bias against the men (as usual?) in this article. Instead of saying that Chinese men marry down, surely it is well known universally that women marry up???

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Maybe we should be talking about "Left over Men"! I am a man and even I can't stand male chauvinist crap like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    65. A point isn't 'off topic' just because you disagree with it. In fact your response illuminates some of the reasons Chinese women don't want to get married and/or fit in with the traditional (and chauvinist) societal structures of marriage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    @61 Liz,

    Thanks for asking.

    I would love to be thought of as a plaything, especially to a lovely 27 plus Chinese girl, lol.

    But, really, you've furthered my point. You are a Western woman rejecting the truth of your gender's role, loveliness, that which would make both you and your Western male counterpart happier. This is not lost on Chinese females but is , as apparent, on Western females.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I don't think it's right for the government of any country to label people as such or set conditions where certain aspects of the community degrade others, are you listening Mr Cameron? People should be left alone to make their own choices and follow whichever path they chose. If you start atagonising people, eventually you'll get your comeuppance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    As a so called leftover woman, this is the very first time that I write a comment on BBC. I'm almot 30, single,straight, I'm sure there are a lot of pressures as people say, sometimes I feel nerveous about my situation, but most of time, I'm confident that I'm an educated woman that I can take care of myself without anybody's help, why am I have to marry someone? To fullfil my parents' vanity?

  • Comment number 67.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 66.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    @58 Cheapo

    Your feminist points are off topic. We're talking about the dating game.


    When people need something fixed they hire a handyman.

    It would be nice to have more women in power in every country, but women in government in China will do as the men say, at least for the next 50 years or so.

    Back to the topic...

    Chinese babes are so hot! So Western men should scoop!

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    That`s it, China it is then!

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    If you are an Indian woman above 25 choosing to stay single and working, there is no bigger social embarassment for her family and 'relatives'. Women beyond this age 'bracket' are hounded by family as well as friends to get going and start a married life. That may explain the 6% figure in the graph.

    @48 Cobbett_Rides_Again - did you mean unReasonably?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    What has also not been taken in to consideration is the fact that the woman is expected to go and live with her husband's family, cook and clean for them, and be a good traditional wife. Chinese women of today hate this. Chinese men have yet to work out that their wives want something different to tradition.

    This explanation makes the unwillingness of Chinese women to marry more understandable.


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