Leftover Women: In Pictures

I began reading Leta Hong Fincher’s eagerly anticipated Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China last night, and one chapter in, I now know that the Marriage and Family Research Association here classifies me as a Category 3 Leftover Woman (ages 31-35, dubbed the “Buddha of victorious battles” for achieving professional advancement—though a personal failure for remaining unmarried). Hong Fincher’s focus is on the anxiety, often fostered by Chinese government organizations, among educated urban women who have reached the elderly age of 25 without walking down the aisle.

Part of her first chapter contains a discussion of shengnü (剩女 leftover women) cartoons that have appeared in the Chinese media. Hong Fincher’s description of these cartoons sparked my curiosity, especially as I plan to have a section on contemporary gender issues in one meeting of my Modern China course this fall—students always like cartoons, and the images usually get class discussion going. So, jet-lagged and looking for something not too intellectually taxing to do at 4am today, I searched Google Images for 剩女 and examined the results. A quick overview of what I found:

Leftover women 1

The first cartoon is one that Hong Fincher mentions in her book, and is pretty self-explanatory, showing a hopeful bride who has an education but no groom.

(It reminds me of the time when an American classmate of mine at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center asked me what I would be doing after graduation. With great excitement, I told him that I’d been accepted to the PhD program at UC Irvine. “Well,” he replied, “you know that if you get a PhD, no man will ever marry you.” My sophisticated, ladylike response was, “I don’t give a [expletive deleted].”)

Leftover women 2

Next, a leftover woman who is reaching for love but finds her side of the scales weighed down by her baggage: “high education” (高学历), “high salary” (高收入), and “good looks” (貌美, indicating, I guess, that she’s too beautiful to want an ordinary guy, especially given the first two). She’s exclaiming, “It’s not fair!” (不公平啊), and the slips that fill her basket all say “leftover woman.”

Leftover women 3

The third cartoon I found (and remember, this was a totally unsystematic and very quick dip into seeing what’s out there) is part of a series called, in quirky English, “The Mr. Right Must Be Found” (一定可以嫁出去). This particular panel shows a career woman running along the Bund in Shanghai, chasing three women dressed in Disney Princess-like clothing. The text says that since the woman was little, she was always racing to be head of the pack. But in the rat race of life, there are always people striving to overtake us. While the career woman was racing to get ahead, we see, she was passed by the women who had found their fairy-tale endings, and now she’s trying to catch up. “Mr. Right—where are you?”

Leftover women 5

Finally, another cartoon that Hong Fincher mentions in Leftover Women, so I’ll let her describe it. The panel

shows a woman shivering in her graduation gown, mortarboard on her head, clutching her university diploma as she stands on top of a tower covered with snow, with a blizzard of snowflakes swirling around her. Her eyes are bulging from fright or cold, and the caption on her tower reads: “Urban ‘Leftover’ Woman Seeks Marriage Partner”. The poor frigid woman is out of luck as the two men standing beneath her tower reject her. In contrast to the cold blizzard battering the woman on the tower, there is no snowstorm where the two men are standing, and they appear to be very comfortable in their coats, scarves, hats and gloves. “She’s too highly educated,” says one man. “She’s too successful,” says the other.

Though there are elements of the cartoons that are particular to China (the “Double Happiness” marriage symbol in the first, the unmistakable Shanghai skyline in the third), none of the women is drawn as identifiably Chinese—and in the last one, she definitely isn’t. High education, emphasis on one’s career, and later marriage all seem to be connected with the West

I’m sure there are many more cartoons that I could find if I dug deeper or switched over to a Chinese search engine like Baidu, but these pictures offer plenty to start with and will certainly be going into my PowerPoint when class time rolls around next fall.

3 thoughts on “Leftover Women: In Pictures

  1. One thing isn’t making sense. Sex selective abortions are reasonably common in China under the one child rule. This means that the male population is significantly larger than the female population. Would this not make for a great deal more “leftover” men than women? Why the focus on unmarried women not unmarried men?

    1. There is a large population of “leftover men” (or “bare branches”) in China, clustered at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder—women tend to marry up, so a poor woman will choose a medium-income man over someone of the same economic status as her. But ideas about “quality” citizens who will produce “quality” children for the nation are still strong here, so there’s more anxiety about well-educated, successful women not having children than about poor rural men going childless. I also think it boils down to a plain old double standard—it’s still far more socially acceptable for a man to be single well into his 30s or beyond than for a woman to make it past 30 without marrying.

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