Making “Leftover Women”: Understanding the Discourses Surrounding China’s Single Women

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Without discourse, there is no social reality, and without understanding discourse, we cannot understand our reality, our experiences, or ourselves. – Phillips Nelson and Cynthia Hardy in Discourse Analysis: Investigating Processes of Social Construction, 2002

A viral 2016 YouTube video titled “Marriage Market Takeover” was the Western world’s awakening to the word sheng nü or “leftover women” (SK-II, 2016). Sheng nü refers to young urban women in China who are professionally successful, but, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education, have overly high expectations for marriage partners and thus are ‘left behind’ in the marriage market (To, 2015). Produced by popular East Asian makeup brand SK-II, the video depicts women who self-identify as “leftover” pushing back against the stereotypes associated with the label. The use of this derogatory term has created a rhetorical environment in which being labeled as “leftover” merits a de facto slew of judgements as well as romantic disinterest from men.

After decades of a one-child policy and an economic culture that led families to favor male children, China is experiencing the coming-of-age of children born during an unparalleled sex ratio imbalance. Inevitably, a large population of men is unable to find spouses. In the eyes of the government organizations that define and encourage the use of sheng nü rhetoric, successful women not marrying adds to their population conundrum. It is more straightforward for the state to blame the “overly high expectations” of women for the “marriage squeeze” than facing the impossible project of reversing grave “demographic masculinization” (Guilmoto, 2012).

The era of sheng nü rhetoric is by no means the first time Chinese society has been confronted by questions regarding gender roles. Throughout the twentieth century, women’s movements in China were in constant negotiation between childbearing responsibilities and labor expectations (Lu, 2004). The New Culture and May Fourth movements in the 1910s and 1920s laid the groundwork for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) view of gender equality, notably that equal education and labor expectations for women and men are necessary to the success of a modern nation (Li, 2013)*. While gender parity in labor is a Party platform, in practice this policy never shifted the traditional view that women’s primary utility to the state is reproduction.

Of modern women’s movements, Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (1999) says,

Feminism in China today differs both from Western feminism as well as other Third World situations in that it is emerging from a ‘state feminism’ administered by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This means that Chinese feminism will remain linked to state feminism, and at the same time, it may also develop critical discourses surrounding this link (Yang, M.M.-H, 1999).

Chinese feminism is inexorably linked to the - sometimes contradictory -  values of the CCP, and thus should be evaluated in this historical context. Sheng nü rhetoric reflects the constant contradictions seen through the history of Chinese women’s struggles.

While “Marriage Market Takeover” was the first international recognition of the term, sheng nü is more than just a popular phrase used to sell products to single women or draw foreign audience’s attention. The term’s existence also represents a confluence of Chinese state discourses. A robust understanding of sheng nü comes only with the recognition of the impact of both gender discourse and suzhi (“quality”) discourse, a metric of quality of life in China. Discourse in this context can be understood as a realm of human action, speech, and text that uses power to redefine what we know to be true (Powers, 2013). Textual analysis adds to an understanding of the ways these two discourses, or constructions of reality, are employed to create an environment in which sheng nü rhetoric can thrive.

While gender parity in labor is a Party platform, in practice this policy never shifted the traditional view that women’s primary utility to the state is reproduction.

Discourse analysis is a methodology that does not only explain how to study society but also endeavors to explicate the creation and knowledge production in this realm. Discourse analysis does not take facts or existence at face value;  it forces questions of how our truths came to be. A discourse analysis is an examination of the discourses enacted in everyday practice such as language, texts and speech, and the impact of these systems on people (Phillips and Hardy, 2002: 6). Discourse analysis is also a method widely considered to be a way to access a subject through a feminist lens. Professor Stephanie Riger says of feminist scholar Shulamit Reinharz’s argument about such methods, “[f]eminism is most useful as a set of questions that challenge the prevailing asymmetries of power and androcentric assumptions in science and society” (Riger, 1992: 737; Reinharz and Davidman, 1992). Through a discourse analysis concerned primarily with identifying power and oppression in Chinese society, an audience can access a feminist viewpoint.

A discourse analysis has two central parts: structural analysis, an examination of the present functioning of the discourse; and power analysis, an analysis of power relations and their conservation within the discourse (Powers, 2013). Part I of this series will cover the structural analysis through an examination of three Women of China English Monthly magazine articles, and Part II will discuss the power analysis and future implications through two music videos.

Women of China English Monthly was selected as the societal understanding of sheng nü rhetoric is informed by many of its articles (Gu, 2014; Yun, 2012a, 2012b).  This magazine is also an example of how gender and suzhi discourses are deployed by government-produced media.

Writing within a discourse allows the author to recognize and legitimize certain identities. For instance, the articles utilize gender discourse to delineate men and women by characteristics of personality, role in the family, and essentialist expectations. Women are defined in a subordinate position, echoing the argument that women are granted status by their husbands and children (Yu, 2004). Those that fall outside the defined categories are relegated and shamed through mechanisms such as sheng nü rhetoric.

“How to Define a Virtuous Wife and Loving Mother in Modern Society?” by Gu Wentong (2014) highlights the modern Chinese woman as one who can balance a role in the family and a professional career, a product of Maoist expectations of full employment. Gu (2014) writes,

Influenced by [traditional Chinese concepts], many people believe a woman must give up her career, to take care of her family, if she wants to be a virtuous wife and a loving mother. ‘What an outdated idea! An amiable, capable woman can strike a balance between family and work,’ says Icy Water. ‘In fact, many women believe looking after their husband and children is their duty rather than a burden.’(Gu, 2014).

Interviewee Icy Water articulates norms within Chinese gender discourse when they state a familial caretaker role is inherent to a woman’s identity. Along with the interview, the article’s title indicates the significant value placed on being a “virtuous wife and loving mother” (Gu, 2014). The phrase is a chengyu (an idiomatic phrase) repeated throughout the piece to indicate a woman’s identity is constructed primarily in relation to others (Sievers, 1983: 22-23). Gu’s central argument assumes that inherent to the identity of a woman is the goal of being a wife and mother. From this article, readers can deduce gender discourse is used to define women as having acquiescent personalities and a drive toward essentialist goals such as childbearing and caretaking.

Contrastingly, the letter-from-the-editor “Men Should Exude Warmth” (Yun, 2012a) provides an example of how gender discourse delineates men. The piece’s central thesis is that men are defined by their agency. Yun writes, “[a]ll men should think about their responsibilities; real men accept risks and responsibilities without expectations of rewards”(Yun, 2012a). Describing men in relation to their responsibility implies choice and control; this description is in opposition to the way women are defined within state-regulated gender discourse, as bodies that function for the reproductive needs of the state. The phrase “real men” points to the author using his position of authority to prescribe how a man who is acceptable within mainstream gender discourse should act.

Hence, gender discourse is deployed throughout the articles to reinforce the readers’ understanding of women as vessels of reproduction and men as those with authority. As collective understanding, these definitions create an environment ripe for criticism of women prioritizing education or career over marriage and childrearing, as in the case of sheng nü.

More meritocratic than gender discourse, suzhi discourse centers on a person’s ability to increase society’s overall quality. Goals of modernization coupled with fear of falling behind motivate the government to employ and encourage the use of suzhi discourse. Suzhi encompasses a range of qualities, from attractiveness to salary to real estate holdings, and provides an element of competition (Kipnis, 2006) As in the case of defining sheng nü as women whose standards are “too high,” suzhi discourse allows the government to praise members of society they deem to have the most value while exiling those who do not meet their strict standards.

... [G]ender discourse is deployed throughout the articles to reinforce the readers’ understanding of women as vessels of reproduction and men as those with authority.

“Pursuing Happiness” is also a letter from Editor-in-Chief Yun Pengju (2012b), published in March 2012. Yun writes, “[m]arriage is a big event in one’s life. It not only tests the feelings between a man and a woman, but also their education, virtues, abilities and personalities” (Yun, 2012b). Societal standards assume that a person will look for a partner with a similar level of suzhi. In “unbalanced” couples, it is more acceptable for a woman to marry a man with higher suzhi than vice versa (The Economist, 2013). The government encourages use of suzhi to ensure “high quality” couples while shaming women who struggle to find a partner due to their demographic characteristics (Kipnis, 2006).

Suzhi is also used to justify encouraging women’s prioritization of marriage over personal or professional goals. In “How to Define a Virtuous Wife and Loving Mother in Modern Society?,” Gu (2014) writes,

Yun believes intelligence and benevolence contribute to a woman's strength. A woman, especially one who is a mother and a wife, is the core of her family, and a happy family helps lay the foundation for a harmonious society. Thus, women, collectively, are an important force that advances global peace and development (Gu, 2014).

The message here is that intelligence and benevolence are desirable qualities in women not only because they attract partners, but because they positively impact wider society. In this case, suzhi discourse is used to pose a woman’s identity as mother and wife as part of a broader moral goal.

When articles like those evaluated above discuss gender and suzhi, they are perpetuating government goals. They are appraising national values and morality. They are evaluating labor divisions in families and throughout the state. Writers adopt gender and suzhi discourse to construct the norms that allow for sheng nü rhetoric to flourish. Evaluating these discourses in the context of sheng nü rhetoric allows for a more full understanding of the implications of the term and ways it can be successfully opposed.

Sarah Lubiner has a Bachelor's degree in International Relations and Gender Studies from Tufts University. She works at Public Citizen, a progressive non-profit located in Washington, D.C., and is a hotline advocate with the DC Rape Crisis Center. Follow her on Instagram: @sarahacadia


*Beginning in 1916, the New Culture Movement was sparked by a desire to rid the new Republic of outdated customs and replace them with modern (and sometimes Western) traditions. Where the women’s movements leading up to the 1911 revolution were centered around “women’s duty and their rights,” the New Culture Movement was concerned with the individualization of women’s personalities. The Movement was led by elite intellectuals and gender equality was integrated into its goals. The May Fourth Movement began on May 4th, 1919 and was a series of strikes, protests, and civil unrest provoked by anger at government policies seen as giving in to imperialism. Women were originally left out of the Movement’s actions but a large number of women, from university students to factory workers, insisted on partaking. The women rallied support for the Movement among all social classes and, significantly, mobilized women workers for a political cause for the very first time (Lu, 2004).

List of references:

Gu, W. (2014). How to Define a Virtuous Wife and Loving Mother in Modern Society?. Women of China English Monthly, (July), pp. 48-49.  

Guilmoto, C. (2011). Skewed Sex Ratios at Birth and Future Marriage Squeeze in China and India, 2005–2100. Demography, 49(1), pp.77-100. See “Marriage Squeeze Indicators.”

Kipnis, A. (2006). Suzhi: A Keyword Approach. The China Quarterly, 186, pp. 295–313.

Li, Y. (2013). Women’s Movement and Change of Women’s Status in China. Journal of International Women’s Studies 1, pp. 30–40.

Lu, Meiyi. (2004). The Awakening of Chinese Women and the Women’s Movement in the Early Twentieth Century.  In: S. Mow, T. Jie, Z. Bijun, eds., Holding up Half the Sky: Chinese Women Past, Present, and Future, 1st ed. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of NY, pp. 55-70.

Phillips, N., Hardy, C. (2002). Discourse Analysis: Investigating Processes of Social Construction. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., pp. 6.

Powers, P. (2013). Rawlinson’s Three Axes of Structural Analysis: A Useful Framework for a Foucauldian Discourse Analysis. Aporia, 5, pp. 6–12.

Reinharz, S., Davidman, L. (1992) . Feminist Methods in Social Research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Riger, S. (1992). Epistemological Debates, Feminist Voices Science, Social Values, and the Study of Women. American Psychologist, 47(6), pp. 737.

Sievers, S.L. (1983). Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, pp. 22-23.

SK-II. (2016). SK-II: Marriage Market Takeover. (Please turn on subtitle). Accessed on August 5, 2018.

The Economist, (2013). The hypergamous Chinese. [Online]. Accessed on August 6, 2018.

To, S. (2015). China’s Leftover Women: Late Marriage Among Professional Women and Its Consequences. London:Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, pp.1.

Yang, M.M.-H. (1999). Spaces Of Their Own: Women’s Public Sphere in Transnational China. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, p. 11.

Yu, X. (2004). The Status of Chinese Women in Marriage and the Family. In: S. Mow, T. Jie, Z. Bijun, eds., Holding up Half the Sky: Chinese Women Past, Present, and Future. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of NY, pp. 55-70.

Yun, P. (2012a). Men Should Exude Warmth. Women of China English Monthly.

Yun, P. (2012b). Pursuing Happiness. Women of China English Monthly, (March).

Marissa Conway