“Leftover Women” and Changing Attitudes towards Marriage
In line with the global trend of decline and delay of marriage, the number of millennials in China who are postponing or even rejecting marriage is growing. Between 2013 and 2019, the number of Chinese people getting married for their first time decreased by 41 percent. While the average age of marriage has risen in the past decades, the traditional view on women marrying young seems to have endured. Women in China are sometimes called “leftover” if they remain unmarried after the age of 27. Although demographic changes have been cited as one of the main reasons for China’s decline in marriage rate, the drop is also a result of social and economic changes which seem to have altered many women’s attitudes towards marriage.
A Looming Population Crisis
Demographers have for many years warned of a future population crisis in China, as the population is expected to decline due to decreased birth rates in the coming decades, while the aging population is growing and the work force is shrinking. This forecast is probably the reason why the one-child policy, introduced in 1979 to reduce the population growth rate, was relaxed in 2016. The one-child policy caused a severe gender imbalance, as the traditional preference for having sons made couples abort female fetuses and abandon baby girls, to make sure that their only child would be male. As a result, there are about 30 million more men than women in China today, which is particularly noticeable in rural areas. Rapid urbanization has further spurred the gender imbalance in rural regions, as many women move to cities to find work.
Some have argued that the decline in marriage rate mainly is a result of a decrease in the number of marriageable people, due to the one-child policy. However, despite the relaxation of the one-child policy, both marriage and birth rates have continued to decrease. This trend seems to worry the Chinese government, which is urging people to have more children, possibly as a way to prevent the looming population crisis, which would most likely affect economic and social stability in China. Last year, an official from the Ministry of Civil Affairs stated that the decline in marriages affects birth rates. While arguing that reproduction and marriage are closely related, the official said that social policies would be improved and that propaganda efforts would be enhanced “to guide the public to establish positive values on love, marriage and family.” Moreover, state media have also stressed that giving birth is not only a family matter, but also a state matter.
The “Leftover” Label
Historically, there has been a long tradition of women marrying at young age in China. While the average marriage age for urban women marrying for their first time was just under 20 in 1950, it had risen to 25 by the 1980s. Although today the average age is around 27, single and unmarried females in China that are 27 years old or more are sometimes labelled “剩女” (shengnü), which translates into English as “leftover women”. The term was used in 2007 by the state-backed All-China Women’s Federation, when referring to unmarried women above the age of 27. That same year, China’s Ministry of Education included the term in its official lexicon. Since then, the term has been commonly used in online discussions and headlines, not seldom as a way of criticizing women that are highly educated and considered to be “too picky” when it comes to looking for a partner.
State media have also used the term, which has stigmatized educated, unmarried women above the age of 27. A big share of these women live in urban areas, are highly educated and leading professional lives. Nevertheless, many are still being measured by traditional values when it comes to marriage, in which their intellectual and professional achievements are seldom taken into account. Against this backdrop, it seems like the traditional view of women marrying young has endured, even though the average age of marriage has risen over the years.
Social Changes and Shifting Attitudes
China’s drastic decrease in marriage rate is, in addition to demographic changes, also a result of women becoming more educated and economically independent, which seems to have caused changes in their attitudes towards marriage. Indeed, more women feel that marriage is not their only option in life. Self-development and a good career are some of the goals that many women strive to pursue before getting married, which in turn may delay or even rule out marriage. Gender inequality probably also makes young Chinese women think twice before getting married. The decreased desire to marry seems to coincide with traditional gender norms and patriarchal traditions which are deeply rooted among many men and parents-in-law. Such attitudes include the expectation of women doing most of the housework and taking care of children, even when working full-time. At the same time, job discrimination against women is common in China, which makes it difficult for women to handle both a career and having children. Gender inequality and traditional gender norms and roles in marriage could thereby be viewed as another driving force behind women’s changed attitudes to marriage.
To stigmatize single women as “leftover” could be argued to serve the opposite purpose of acknowledging and being sensitive to the ways in which women want to lead their lives. It also seems that the changed perceptions and attitudes towards marriage among many Chinese people, particularly young women, could be at odds with the push by the state to raise marriage and birth rates to avert the approaching population crisis. The stigma and the lingering traditional gender norms and roles would most likely need to be further acknowledged and phased out to make marriage equally desirable and beneficial for both women and men, not only for the sake of individual women, but also for society as a whole.