Three women from the sheng nu social club at a cafe. Image by Deborah Jian Lee. China, 2011
Wei Pan on lunch break at her pharmaceutical research company. Image by Sushma Subramanian. China, 2011

This article was also published in The Atlantic.

Wei Pan, a 33-year-old biomedical engineer can’t seem to find Mr. Right. A fresh-faced woman with an M.D. and Ph.D. under her belt, Wei should have her pick of men. She has tried everything: online dating, set ups, social clubs like Toastmasters. She even took her search to the outdoor marriage market at Shanghai’s People’s Park, where, every weekend, parents of the unwed blanket the park with their children’s resumes. Wei, who went with her mother, was disappointed that few singles actually showed up.

But it gave her a chance to scope out her competition. The resumes fluttering from taut clotheslines relayed the hard facts: age, height, education, property, salary. As she read through them, Wei realized that many of Shanghai’s single ladies are just like her: highly educated, career-driven and not getting any younger.

The Chinese media has been buzzing with stories about urban single women like Wei, so-called sheng nu, which literally translates to “leftover women.” In a country where the sex ratio at birth has increasingly skewed toward men since the 1980s, the numbers may seem to favor women; but there’s another force working against this class of ladies. The country’s long-held tradition of marriage hypergamy, a practice in which women marry up in terms of income, education and age, means that the most highly-educated women often end up without partners. Under these conditions, “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,” says Yong Cai, a University of North Carolina demographer who studies China’s gender imbalance.

In a cheeky response to the mocking title, women have launched “sheng nu” social clubs across the country. At a Starbucks not far from Shanghai’s People’s Park, the founders of one such club, which boasts more than 1,000 members, met on a hot summer night to talk about single living in Shanghai. As women climb the social ladder, the pool of viable men shrinks, explained Sandra Bao, a co-founder and fashion magazine editor who coyly said she’s “around 30.” She noted that many modern, single women in China enjoy their independence and feel comfortable holding out for the right man, even as they grow older. “We don’t want to make compromises because of age or social pressure,” she explained.

Universal marriage at a young age has long been the norm in China. So it’s not surprising that these women face criticism for choosing to stay single, especially as the countryside fills up with men who can’t get married because they outnumber marriage-age women. Viral videos, newspaper articles and commentators across China have lambasted these women for gold digging, blaming them for waiting it out for a man with a bigger house or fancier car.

But Wei says it’s not that simple. Browsing through stats like education and salary is precisely what turned her off the People’s Park scene, she says. Sometimes, men are intimidated by her accomplishments. Six years ago, on an online dating site, she met a primary school teacher who hadn’t even completed college. After many long phone calls, she could sense a spark. When they met in person, she started falling for him. But soon after, he pulled away. She still doesn’t understand what went wrong.

The “sheng nu” phenomenon is similar to trends we’ve already seen around the world, in countries ranging from the United States to Japan as higher education and increased employment give women more autonomy, Cai says. Women break away from the tradition of mandatory marriage, get married later and have fewer children, studies show.

Wei holds out hope that she will find a good husband. She doesn’t need a rich man, but she wants someone who can match her intellect, her passion and hopefully, her salary, nothing too unreasonable. “I’m not a perfect lady,” she says. “So I do not need a perfect man.”

Project

By 2020, China is expected to have 24 million more men than women, leaving the countryside filled with aging bachelors, the consequence of a gender imbalance caused by sex-selective abortions.

Recently

November 6, 2012 /
Meghan Dhaliwal
Journalists Sushma Subramanian and Deborah Jian Lee honored by the Newswomen's Club of New York for Pulitzer Center-supported reporting in China.
May 4, 2012 / Foreign Policy
Deborah Jian Lee, Sushma Subramanian
The high cost of China's economic miracle: A generation of children left behind when parents work in factories hundreds of miles from home.