From of a significant portion of Chinese

  From the beginning of the 21st century,
Chinese society has witnessed the emergence of the term shengnü (??; shèngn?), commonly translated as leftover women. This term has been
created to identify single, educated women who are not married by their late
20s and has been and is still diffused through social media, causing the stigmatization of
a significant portion of Chinese population. These women are deemed
increasingly unmarriageable because of their advancing age and perceived
unfeminine natures. The leftover woman label evokes pity towards these women
and fuels their anxiety causing intense social pressure on the theme of
marriage.

After thirty years of
deep economic transformation, China has changed from the bottom to the top,
performing a rapid and outstanding socioeconomic development, which has itself
determined the occurrence of profound changes in the structure of Chinese
society. In this rapidly changing environment, the role and perception of women
has evolved dramatically. As in many other societies that had experienced the
transition towards modernity, China has witnessed a decrease in marriage
formation and an improvement of women’s educational achievement, especially in
the urban context. This rapid economic transformation has created a new
environment in which women can achieve financial and academic success through
which they can be empowered. However, the social pressure on early marriage is
stronger than ever and generates social stigmatization of the women who chose
to follow the academic path postponing marriage.

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In this context, the
issue of shengnü is becoming more and
more important, as it affects not only young women but also their parents and
families and society as a whole. Moreover, the shengnü phenomenon has gained visibility on the international stage,
through the medic diffusion on international news paper such as The New York
Times or BBC.

The present study aims
at understanding the dynamics of the emergence the leftover women phenomenon in
Chinese society. The first section is an historical overview of the changes
related to the economic development and the social causes that have led to the
occurrence of this phenomenon. The second section provides an analysis of the
effects created by the spreading of this term on social media and television, providing a case study of the
contents of the show broadcasted by Chinese television, called If You Are The One.

 

2. Background:
the emergence of leftover women in Chinese society

  In most of the cultures and societies of the
world, marriage has always been invested of a particular importance as the
prerequisite for family formation and continuity. Family is the basic social
and economic entity which is the building block of the modern nation-state,
therefore, a harmonious family symbolically begets a stable society. Moreover,
along with childbirth, marriage is considered the central marker of adulthood.

Given the significance of
family from an historical and cultural point of view, it is possible to
understand how shifts in marriage patterns garner extensive attention and cause
consternation. In China, family has always been an important arena of gender
socialization and identity making. For much of Chinese history, a woman’s
identity, role and status derived from her kindred position and membership in a
familial group.

In the
not-so-distant past a girl and boy’s fate was decided at birth. The daughter
was destined to “jiachuqu” ???or “marry out” to a husband when she reached adulthood,
usually in her mid to late teens. If resources were limited, her natal family
would be reluctant or unwilling to spend money on her education, as the
out-marrying daughter’s talents would be given to her husband’s family. The son
was destined to “qujin” ??or “marry in” a bride when he reached adulthood, usually
in his early to mid-twenties. The family’s resources were more likely to be
spent on his education and career advancement, as his success would be a “good
return” and come back to serve his parents, whom he would support. Thus, for
many poor families the birth of a daughter was cause for disappointment, while
a son’s birth was greeted with celebration. These gendered beliefs and
practices were often described by the phrase, zhongnan qingnü ???? literally
“heavy male light female,” or to favor sons over daughters.

  Speaking of the role of woman in the society,
it is necessary to point out that Chinese context can be considered as unique,
due to the peculiar historical evolution of the last fifteen years. Before the
late 1970s, Chinese government adopted a Marxist ideology promoting egalitarian
gender roles in order to modernize Chinese families within a Communist
political economy. The Communist ideal introduced the concept of women’s
liberation, achieved primarily through mass labor participation and through
mass education. As Mao Zedong used to say, women can hold up half of the sky.
It has to be mentioned that in the period that anticipates the socialist
reforms, the work-unit system in which both men and women worked, provided
comprehensive social services such as housing and child care.

  After the socialist reform process, however,
the government has been focusing on China’s transition to Western capitalist
modernity and market economy, causing a retrenchment of Marxist ideology along
with its egalitarian gender ideology. As a side effect, traditional,
patriarchal Confucian norms have begun to reclaim ground.  Moreover, social services previously provided
by the work-unit have been privatized to the market, thus women have been
pushed more and more to carry on the double burden of work and family.

  Therefore it can be said that despite rapid
economic development, industrialization and globalization, social norms
regulating the private sphere of family and marriage in China seem to have
moved backward. Traditional gender norms still regulate gender relations in the
private sphere, and marriage remains a gendered institution supported by
cultural norms that enables men to adhere to a traditional gender role ideology
despite women’s growing preference for a more egalitarian relationship. In this
dynamic cultural context characterized by a complex interaction between
modernity and tradition, marriage remains shaped by patriarchal traditions
despite the fact that dual-income families have long been the norm in China.

  Although
it is commonly believed that the transition to modernity generates a decrease
of marriage rate, many scholars have remarked that China stands as an exception
in this sense. Due to the previously discussed resurgence of the patriarchal
Confucian tradition and the subsequent boosting of pro-family values, as long
as institutional obstacle such as a weak social welfare system and the
exclusive legitimacy of childbirth within marriage, marriage in Chinese society
remains almost universal. Also, under the one-child policy implemented in 1979, many Chinese
parents have chosen male children. Beginning in the mid-1990’s, China began
experiencing the social phenomena of too many young men of marriageable age
compared with the number of available young women. Therefore, China’s sex
ratios have become abnormal implying a surplus of men whit no prospects of ever
getting married.

  Given the changes in the conception of gender
roles in marriage among Chinese society, it is no wonder that femininity is
nowadays still associated with those characteristics that are typical of a
traditional virtuous wife and food mother.

In patriarchal societies like China, single women are regarded as a
“deficit” or “deviant” identity that requires justification. Being labelled a
“leftover woman” implies therefore a lack of femininity. Unlike women, men are
considered marriageable at least through age 40, and postponing marriage allows
them to increase his worth by accruing more income and assets, which enhances
their possibility to find a companion. In contrast, by seeming to prioritize
education and career ahead of marriage and family, women who postpone marriage
challenge the ideals of femininity and gender role.

In 2007, the official
organization for Chinese women, the All-China Women’s Federation, warned women
that they must marry by age 27 or the they would become “leftover women” that
is, forever unmarriageable. The ongoing censure of single women who delay
marriage and the disparaging label of “leftover women” no doubt compounds their
social stigmatization. Furthermore, the term leftover women invoke notions of
filial piety, accepting some parental interference in marriage and intending to
bear them a grandchild.

Several recurring themes in the analysis of the leftover
women phenomenon can be outlined and analyzed. First of all, one of the main
aspects that comes to mind speaking about shengnü and marriage in general, is the burden of parental pressure.
Especially in small cities or rural areas, parents are constantly focused on
their daughter’s marital status and familiar prospects, generating a huge
amount of anxiety that seems to permeate the entire Chinese society. For this
reason, Chinese women often experience the frustration of parent’s intervention
in their romantic life. The non-fulfillment of the standard set by society
fosters parent’s disappointment and the feeling of “lost face” in front of the
rest of the community. Furthermore,
in this new modern context of post-reforms China, the collapse of the socialist
welfare system has invested family of an added significance. Familism
and parental expectations are still influential an meaningful and they strive
with a woman’s own expectation of individualistic success or personal romance.

Secondly,
as in many other societies age hypergamy is common in China. Men tend to prefer
to marry younger women and although women has made tremendous advancements in
their socioeconomic mobility, they still have to fight the importance of their
age. Hypergamy is linked with the concept of gender double standard of aging

Another important matter is the compatibility of family
backgrounds. This ideal has historically been an important criterion for
arranged marriages in China. It refers to the fact that couple’s families of
origin should be of similar socioeconomic status. Even though as soon as
marriage become a personal choice in China this idea started to be perceived as
outdated, it is also true that the importance of the compatibility of the two
families somehow maintains its importance. Nowadays, the compatibility of the
families entails the idea of sharing similar values and life expectations,
language etc. The connection between family and individuals is extremely
strong, therefore parents may actually intervene when the rule of the
compatibility is violated.

Finally, Chinese society experiences a severe conflict
of gender ideology. The connection between a woman’s achievements and the ideas
of lack of femininity, excess of strength and obstacle in marital
relationships, is a demonstration that it happens often that woman are not
respected as equals by men.

 

3. The role of
the media in the construction of the myth

As previously explained,
the leftover women phenomenon is certainly a demographic fact and it has been
caused by several happenings in Chinese society. Although it is often
considered as a merely demographic fact, it has to be taken into account the
role played by social media in the construction of this idea. 

It is possible to
outline a precise design in the construction of this term using socially
generated gender stereotypes which are spread through the use of mass media
communication.

This idea is based on the assumption that social media and popular
culture shape people’s ideas and behaviour and are therefore to be considered
crucial in the analysis of social phenomena. Broadcasting determinate programs
which express this background thought of the necessity to be married compelling
to what society wants from women, social media fosters and perpetuates anxiety,
social pressure, stigmatization of educated women. More importantly, the
creation of the discourse on leftover women contributes in the spreading of
gender stereotypes and hinders the diffusion of gender equality in Chinese
society, reinforcing myths around femininity. For instance, as example of this
definite category of programs that influence Chinese public in this sense, we
can analyse the content of the well-known program If You Are the One (Feicheng wurao, ????).