Even with recent activist arrests, China’s feminist landscape is shifting with many women challenging rooted norms.
BEIJING – Zhang Lin waits in a noisy restaurant outside the university where she has taught for more than 10 years.
“I’m sorry I’ve started already; I haven’t had a chance to eat all day,” she says.
Surrounded by noisy groups of older men and rowdy students she sits alone in a flowing white dress, her wavy air tumbling over her shoulders as she eats. She is 38, but could pass for a student.
Between bites, she explains that she’s from the country’s south, and although she has lived in Beijing for 11 years, her father has never visited her.
“Among their four children, I’m the only one who’s not married. He says because I don’t have a family he has no reason to come here,” she says, her tone momentarily subdued.
“My mother came once, three years ago. But it was a disaster, a complete disaster,” she adds.
Zhang was raised in a small city in what she describes as a very traditional family.
“My mother especially, she’s always worrying about me being single. My parent’s generation are always on stand-by to sacrifice themselves for their children. One day she called me and said she would visit for the summer to help me find a husband.”
Zhang’s mother had read an article about Beijing’s ‘marriage markets’, where parents of single children would gather at the city’s Zhongshan Park, in the hope of matching their child with the offspring of another desperate parent.
Twice a week, groups of about 30 to 60 parents meet in the same spot, each carrying pieces of paper containing information about their child – their job, level of education and salary, as well as their physical attributes.
“When the markets started it was just for parents. But these days, you see more and more single children are dragged along with them. It’s like a fair for parents and their ‘leftovers’, mostly women,” sighs Zhang, who admits to having helped start the trend.
Out of duty, she reluctantly accompanied her mother to the market twice a week, standing silently beside her for more than an hour at a time. “I felt I couldn’t refuse, but doing it made me feel everything bad you could possibly feel; humiliated, depressed, furious. I felt like such a loser, standing there to sell myself.”
The term ‘Leftover Woman’ was first coined in a report by the Chinese Women’s Federation in 2007 to describe young females in their late 20s who had not yet married.
The phrase quickly gained momentum, finding its place among popular colloquial terms such as ‘Gaofushuai’ (a rich, tall and handsome male) and ‘Baifumei’ (a pale-skinned, wealthy young woman).
But while the label is relatively new, its message isn’t.
China’s foremost ancient thinker, Confucius, wrote: “The Chinese girl was brought up, then as now, with matrimony in view as her goal,” and “the woman follows the man. In her youth she follows her father and elder brother; when married, she follows her husband; when her husband is dead, she follows her son”.
According to these tenets, marriage in China had less to do with romantic love, and more with filial duty and societal stability.
Hundreds of years later, China has modernised, and women, according to Mao, “hold up half the sky”, but most still face harsh judgements for remaining unmarried past a certain age.
“There’s a sense of failure. People would just assume that there must be a problem with you. That it’s your fault,” says Zhang.
But the pressure to marry doesn’t just come from external sources. For some, it is self-inflicted.
Twenty-seven-year-old Li Yuan was so desperate to rid herself of the ‘leftover’ label, that she says she practically stopped eating.
“I wanted to be normal, to get married and have a baby. I think even if you are very beautiful, and you’re not married you’re still pitiful because it means no man admires you,” says Li.
Speaking from her modest but tidy bedroom in Beijing’s southeast, Li explains that she was born in China’s poor Qinghai province and raised in Hebei, a rural area not far from Beijing.
“Because of the one-child policy my mother actually went to Qinghai to give birth to me and avoid punishment because she already had a son,” she says.
Born into a farming family, Li grew up dreaming of life in the city.
“Our farm wasn’t the kind of farm they have in Australia or America. It was just a little patch of land we shared with other families where we grew corn and wheat. When I was in high school the money wasn’t enough to support our family so my father started doing sales in town. That’s when he realised that I would have a much better life if I left the countryside.”
Li went to a local university to study supply chain management. It was there that she was introduced to her first love, a young soldier. They dated for three years.
“He was a very nice guy and also very handsome, and sometimes when I see romantic movies I think of him,” she says.
“[But] being with him taught me that love is sometimes not enough.”
Both Li’s family and that of her boyfriend disapproved of the relationship. Li had graduated from university, but her boyfriend had not, and, she says, “They didn’t think a college graduate like me would be suitable.”
In the end the pair split up. A year later, she discovered that he had married a local girl introduced to him by his parents, and had already fathered a son.
“I became depressed and it took me a long time to accept it,” Li says.
When their relationship broke down, Li took up a job in Beijing, and made it her mission to find a partner and settle down. Her biggest fear, she says, was being perceived as a “spinster monster”.
“A colleague told me about her flat mate, who’s 36 and not married, also from a poor farming family. When she first arrived she just spent all her time studying, making money and sending money back home. By the time she turned 30 she still had no idea about relationships, or how to use make-up or make herself more beautiful. My colleague told me that recently she stopped going back home because her family, her community, everyone, would look at her as if she were a monster,” Li recalls. “This story had a big impact on me.”
But after a string of unsuccessful blind dates and fruitless singles events, where women vastly outnumbered men, Li’s confidence was at an all-time low. She blamed her weight and took up a regimen of strict dieting and running. “Men believe for a woman to be beautiful she must be thin, it’s a fact,” she explains.
Li joined a running group and met someone there. “He told me he used to be very overweight but lost 30kg. He hadn’t eaten dinner for three years and I was impressed by his discipline. It was my first relationship in four years and I was so excited that I called my parents late at night and said that if he decided to marry me I wouldn’t hesitate.”
But the relationship didn’t go as planned.
“It turns out he was chasing after another girl the whole time,” she says, adding: “Maybe I was too honest about how much I liked him, took too much initiative and he thought I was too easy.”
She has now learned to be less anxious about her single status, she says. Through running she has made friends with foreigners and some divorced Chinese women, who have helped to broaden her perspective. “They warned me about being too eager to get married, even to the wrong person,” she says. “Now I’m more optimistic, but of course I still want to settle down.”
Li’s room is largely undecorated except for one corner, where she displays the medals and badges from the races she has completed. It’s when talking about them, that the usually softly-spoken and pensive Li suddenly grows animated. Her immediate goal is to complete the Beijing marathon.
“It doesn’t matter whether I’m alone or not, I will finish all 30km,” she says. “I want to do it for myself.”
Today, Roseann Lake spends most of her time in the US. Formerly based in Beijing, the journalist spent three years travelling across China, meeting and interviewing more than 100 women for her upcoming non-fiction book about the ‘leftover’ phenomenon.
She subsequently produced and directed the ‘Leftover Monologues’, a unique spin-off from the American Broadway hit ‘Vagina Monologues’. The show involves more than a dozen Chinese and foreign women and men, each individually taking to the stage to share stories, in what Lake describes as an “insight into the complexities of love, sex, marriage and relationships in China – with an emphasis on the unrealistic societal pressures and expectations that accompany all of the above”.
Debuting in Beijing in July 2014, a second rendition was performed in May this year, in both the capital and Shanghai.
“I think attitudes in China are changing, albeit slowly,” says Lake. “More and more parents are understanding and accepting that their daughters want a different kind of life.”
Before her time
If Chinese attitudes about women have only recently started to shift, then Lily Lu was ahead of her time.
The 51-year-old welcomes me into her apartment like an old friend, hurriedly preparing tea and a range of biscuits and fruits for us to snack on. “All of these I brought back from America, food in China just isn’t safe any more and you have to be careful,” she says.
A retired retail buyer, Lu’s apartment is full of souvenirs and trinkets picked up during her extensive travels. “It’s my hobby and keeps me very busy,” she says, proudly giving a brief tour of her collection. “Even though I’ve never been married, I have a full life.”
Born in 1964, Lu was raised just outside Beijing in a rural commune close to the Japanese company where her father, a retired military officer, worked. Most families in the area relied on farming, but Lu and her two siblings were comparatively better off.
“In the 1970s, most families could survive on less than 20 yuan a month because food was cheap and housing was allocated. But my family had more than 80 yuan a month, so we lived very well,” she recalls.
As a little girl, Lu says she loved to listen to radio programmes about love stories and romance novels. “I’ve searched for love my whole life. I dreamed of being Cinderella and finding my Prince Charming. Many boys chased me at school, but I was proud and had high standards.”
After school, Lu started working at her father’s company, fixing watches while completing her diploma in finance part time at China’s ‘television university’. She says it was common to study this way, watching relevant lectures broadcast two or three times a week on a designated educational channel and attending a local school for tutorials.
Though Lu says she enjoyed working with her hands, she craved more social interaction and at 23 moved to Beijing to take up a position as a salesperson at a large suit company.
“I’d ride my bike around the city, showing my friends and people I knew. The clothes were cheap but good quality, so even though the fashion was a bit dated people still bought them.”
By 25, Lu says she was one of the top salespeople in her company, but still single.
“Most of my friends had settled down by 24 and I was already considered quite ‘leftover’. People were always trying to set me up with men, but I didn’t like any of them. People generally didn’t marry someone they fell in love with, but someone who was ‘close enough’. I refused to do this,” says Lu.
When the suit company she worked for merged with a large Japanese retail company, Lu was promoted to buyer. It was during this time that she met her first boyfriend, a tailor who lived nearby.
“Being with him was my first sexual experience. I was clueless about sex, which was taboo and I think it frightened me.”
The relationship was cut short when Lu discovered her boyfriend with another woman, but she has no regrets. “Chinese people say once you lose your virginity it’s hard to find true love but I never believed it.”
Although the following years proved uneventful for Lu’s love life, her career sky-rocketed. When a new major department store was opened in Beijing in 1994 she visited only to be shocked by a myriad of problems with the merchandise, stock and display.
“I returned a few times and wrote a report of what could be improved, telling a staff member to give it to the manager. I had no idea who he was but thought he should know anyway. After that they offered me a job,” she laughs.
Employed as the nationwide buyer for female apparel, Lu was the only woman among a group of 10 men who shared the same rank within the company.
She stayed there for 10 years, visiting different parts of China for work, and eventually using every holiday opportunity she had to travel the world. She acquired a portfolio of properties, as well as a varied collection of antiques, but still felt something was missing.
“I was almost 50 and everyone around me was talking about having grandchildren, while I still didn’t even have a son.”
In 2011, Lu retired and decided to spend more time overseas. “I gave up on finding a Chinese partner. Chinese men think your value decreases with age.”
She moved to the US and, at the recommendation of a friend, started online dating. Last year she met her current boyfriend. Charles is a construction company manager.
“I hope young ‘leftovers’ today don’t give up on finding true love,” says Lu. “In China this kind of love is not the most important thing. But I don’t care what they think.”
Lu says she has no regrets.
“I don’t think having a family and a career are mutually exclusive. I didn’t plan to be so involved in my job, I just loved what I did and I did it better than many men.”
Back in the restaurant, Zhang Lin speaks about her career in academia. She looks serious as she asks that the name of the university she works for not be mentioned in the article.
“I love my job and am protective of my position. But the worst part about being unmarried at my age is how my colleagues view me,” she sighs.
While Lu says she never felt discriminated against because of her unmarried status, Zhang tells a different story. “My female supervisors talk about me and treat me like a weirdo because I’m unmarried. They make me feel like I mustn’t be able to do my job properly because I don’t have a husband. It’s the worst feeling and it’s always there.”
But the researcher and lecturer is at peace in the knowledge that she’s made every effort to please those around her. The summer she spent with her mother at Beijing’s marriage market wasn’t all she did.
“My mother was productive; she was actually able to find someone who was ready to marry me. He was also at the market, standing on the other side of the park with his aunt,” she says.
Although Zhang felt nothing for him, she started seeing him to appease her mother.
“One day he told me he wanted to buy an apartment. He brought me there and said: ‘Isn’t this apartment nice? Do you have money to buy an apartment? Apartments in Beijing are expensive and if we don’t have enough money we should ask our families to support us.’ I refused and told him I didn’t have the right to ask my parents for such a thing, and anyway I didn’t have money. So I told him to go ahead and buy an apartment for himself. He was very disappointed and I guess finally realised that I had no intention of marrying him,” Zhang recalls.
“My mother was furious and wanted to kill me. She felt I had done the worst thing imaginable to her. She said: ‘Fine, if the guy I found for you wasn’t good enough then you find someone yourself, and as soon as possible.'”
Zhang says she learned a lot from the experience. “Before all that I believed that it was my fault that I couldn’t find someone. My parents and others would tell me, ‘you know as a girl, you shouldn’t be spending your money on this and that, travellling here and there’. If Chinese guys know you travel a lot and spend a lot of time abroad they will assume that you don’t know how to take care of a family, they won’t be happy with you. But that wasn’t me at all. I’d rather be single.”
Zhang Lin, Li Yuan and Lily Lu all agree that building independence, financial and otherwise, is the key to decreasing any stigma associated with being single.
“The sad thing is most Chinese girls will never be truly independent,” says Zhang. “It’s worse in Beijing because of the cost of living and housing. If a girl doesn’t have a house she can’t feel secure. So young people tend to be more desperate here, because they believe if they at least find someone they can solve this problem together.”
In a city where properties sell at an average of 33,000 yuan (around $5,170) per square metre, and the average monthly salary is less than 7,000 yuan (around $1,098), the financial stress in understandable. “Money helps,” adds Zhang. “But you have to build your own psychological independence.”
And while traditional ideas about marriage in China aren’t being abandoned altogether, they are evolving.
“More and more women are slowly changing their minds, especially in big cities where things are slowly opening up,” says Zhang. This year she joined the cast of Roseann Lake’s ‘Leftover Monologues’, telling packed audiences of young women and men about the humiliation she endured trying not to be ‘leftover’.
“Before I was made to feel shame, and now I’m proud, comfortable. The mind-set, in bigger cities especially, is changing,” says Zhang.
“China’s becoming more open and people are starting to talk about it and even laugh about it. Slowly, we’re getting over being ‘leftover’.”