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Home  /  Inside China  /  Sheng Nü – 'Leftover Women' - The thin line between women independence and social disgrace
Sheng Nü – 'Leftover Women' - The thin line between women independence and social disgrace print version

The amusing, yet derogatory slang expression "sheng nü" puts Chinese women in a confusing limbo where they are left to ponder how to maintain a modern lifestyle without endangering social norms and tradition.

Zhou Jing is a 29 years old Shanghainese real-estate agent. Mastering in economics at Fudan University was not an easy task, but surprisingly, the professional life that followed has been very rewarding and almost obstacle-free. She began working at her current post when she was 25. The first year was dedicated to adjustment and winning the confidence of her supervisors. The two years that followed were financially secure. Yet Zhou still completed 70 hours of weekly work, barely allowing her to pursue any interesting activities outside her company building. In the last 18 months, Zhou Jing senses a weird feeling creeping in. From being the ultimate pride of her family (Zhou is not a singleton and has an older brother) and among her former classmates, she is now turning into a cause of concern. Zhou herself is also beginning to doubt her lifestyle, her character and her ambitious temper, after all, she is going to celebrate her 30th birthday single!

Every year, gloomy surveys show that China is experiencing a crisis of demographics, as sex imbalance leads to 15-20% more births of male infants compared to females. This trend began to take shape shortly after the initiation of the One-Child Policy and is reaching new peaks in recent years. For Chinese society as a whole, single men are a focus of concern much more than single women, as the former will face a cruel 'natural selection' that will leave many of them woman-less. With these background demographics, how does a popular slang term that depicts single-leftover women become so popular?

"Sheng " - 剩女 - means 'left-over women' and also carries an amusing flavor as 'sheng' also signifies 'sacred'. Yet the 'sanctity' of Chinese single women is not a cause of social appreciation, but rather cynicism towards their 'weird' set of priorities. At the same time, the criticism towards China's "sheng " is an introspective gaze towards value changes and socioeconomic drifts that China is experiencing.

While more single men than single women walk the earth of the middle kingdom, in big cities this difference is less prominent, as the traditional preference for boys is less paramount and couples don't have permission to have a second child (recently, couples where both sides are singletons are given permission to have two children anywhere in China). Furthermore "sheng " doesn't indicate any unmarried woman, but a special group of women at their 30s and late 20s, who have an impressive résumé in terms of their education, career and income (and may be also attractive physically), but yet supposedly disregard the marriage institution and remain hopelessly single.

Once they reach the jurisdiction age of "sheng ", these women begin to sense social and parental pressure. Most "sheng " are not indifferent to this stress and generally speaking do wish to get married, but their quest for financial independence had led them into a track that disables them from finding a spouse easily.

 sheng_nu3_439  sheng_nu2_333

  Internet "sheng nü" images

A survey among single women conducted by the Shanghai Daily confirms the tendency of "sheng " to enjoy an impressive income and a sustainable educational foundation (the largest percentage having an M.A. degree). This survey also explored their subjective input on this matter. The survey shows that single women who are beyond the conventional marriage age (about 45 and above) do not regard themselves as "sheng ". Women in their 30s and late 20s, who still maintain some hope for finding the 'second half', feel greater pressure and thus own the title "sheng ", yet about half of them also claim to live a happy and fulfilling life. In other words, pressure exists, but their immediate lifestyle allows them to focus on other things (such as career, friends, vacations, merchandise) and not truly sense urgency in changing their marital status.

Women empowerment in cities is one of the positive outcomes brought by the disputable One-Child Policy. Parents concentrate not only their affection in their single daughter but also their expectation that she becomes independent financially. Socioeconomic instability makes it difficult to maintain a traditional family structure where the groom provides a suitable economic foundation to the newly wed, not to mention that individualistic liberal values also contribute to emergence of more independent women, seeking for equal status.

"Sheng " are women whose lifestyle emphasizes this equality. It is likely that these women have great fear of the future post-marriage changes in their romantic relationship, where they might be expected to give up their aspirations and become dedicated wives (after all, traditional tendencies do exist even in the most progressive cities, represented by the older generations). From the masculine point of view, even men who are not particularly conservative might prefer to marry women who seem more flexible and not attached to their duli (independent) lifestyle. In deeper psychological layers, these women can seem castrating to men. An article by Global Times quoted netizens who suggested that 'alpha' men usually choose 'beta' women in order to protect their manhood, which leaves the 'alpha' women as... leftovers.

While innocent men who fall in the dark side of demographics receive the sympathy of Chinese society, the "sheng " are considered as women who went one step too far with their modern lifestyle. Feminists would find many reasons to negate this term, while for the mainstream of Chinese society, "sheng " represents a fear of taking things too permissively: appreciating career while discounting the continuation of a family lineage, seeking independence while forgetting the biological motherly duty, fulfilling individual desires while not caring about the stability of the society as a whole...

Another confusing dual relationship is the one between generations; the values of the grandchild-pursuing parents (and grandparents who expect a great-grandchild) versus the values of urban youngsters. When sensing this gap, many "sheng " fear of committing themselves to the lifestyle which their parents represent. This clash often actually prevents "sheng " from realizing what they really want in life.

Future developments and in-depth studies will show us whether "sheng " becomes a major demographic force or will this term serve as a more symbolic alert for Chinese of the risks of the contemporary urban developments. 

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