Fresh out of college, I was proud about my first job at an IT company. Maybe it wasn’t exciting but it had prospects. After a year and a half I was promoted to a specialist role at our Shanghai office.
The forefront of China’s rapid economic development, and located in the city’s district of former farmland, it had developed to become a booming metropolis constructed with what looked to be gigantic Lego pieces. Long hours, more responsibilities, I was prepared to take on the challenges.
At the time I was also younger, a little more fair-skinned, and a lot more naïve.
Nevertheless, in time I learnt to lift my head up as I got gawked on by Chinese business men during meetings. Exhibit my strength as I fended off men who thought they could do or say whatever they want; hold my ground when I got passed over for a male counterpart.
After some time on the job, my boss would say, “Its good that you girls nowadays take your work seriously. But you should focus on finding a boyfriend, getting married. Having a kid.”
“Don’t you know, with your European passport, Chinese men would pay you thousands of yuan if you would get married to them?” he chuckled in front of my all-male colleagues.
And there it was: a full-in-the-face statement, which forced upon me the irrefutable difference between my self-image and my status in China where, I was simultaneously fetishized by Asian standards of beauty competing in terms of ability but never by gender. And regarded as a Westernized commodity possibly to be purchased for “love”.
Or a joint venture – whichever came first.
It took a moment to realise that it wasn’t so much that I needed to surrender my self-image as that I should consider suspending it.
Only after living and working in China did I come to understand how women there struggle to break through the male-dominated work environment. Very few possess the emotional and financial resources required to brave the tide of political, social and parental waves pushing them towards marriage.
You see gender discrimination is as much part of modern China as bad air is. But unlike the air, which degraded in recent decades and is theoretically reversible, gender inequality stretches back centuries and is deeply entrenched.
Confucius, who continues to occupy a godlike position in China, said that men were at the top of the social hierarchy, while women were at the bottom. According to him, women’s only role was to get married and have children, ideally sons. He also believed that an unmarried life is an incomplete one. Not much luck finding "love' during your time on earth? There's always hope in the afterlife!
To ensure a son's contentment even after they're dead, some grieving parents will search for a dead woman to be his bride and, once a corpse is obtained, bury the pair together as a married couple, called minghun or “ghost wedding.”
The existence of such a market for brides has even led to scattered reports of grave robbing and corpse selling during Qing Ming Festival – a public holiday to honour the souls of the departed – during which a female corpse can sell for up to 10,000 yuan. Families with deceased unmarried children believe they are also carrying out an obligation to their child, as a way of finding them a place in a society.
Chinese culture traditionally prefers sons because it was believed a woman does not belong to her parents. She must marry and have children of her own before she has a place among her husband's lineage.
Flash forward to today and as my boss’s comments indicate, the view of women hasn’t changed much.
Haven’t they heard? Chinese women have become quite a force to be reckoned with in recent years. “China dominates listof Female Billionaires” and “Women in China: The Sky’s the Limit” are just some of the headlines from international press.
But the rose-tinted portraits detracts from what is really happening to women’s position in Chinese society and in its fast-growing urban work force. The reality is China’s figure is high because it includes women working in the countryside, and unlike developed countries, nearly half of China’s population is still rural. The picture for urban women is very different. They are losing ground fast. Ground, which technically was never theirs, as some may say.
“Would be a pity if you end up being a ‘Sheng nu’” my boss continued. A few more years and you could be ‘on the shelf’.” I was 23 years old.
Shengnu, (剩女) “leftover woman”, is a term China’s Ministry of Education has added to its official lexicon. It describes an urban professional woman over the age of 27. The prefix, sheng, is the same as in the word shengcai, or “leftover food”. Between 31 and 34, still-unmarried women are referred to as “advanced leftovers”. By 35, a single woman is the “ultimate” leftover, spiritually flawed in thinking she is higher than the mandate of marriage.
Annkie, a woman in her late-thirties I looked up to, was “spiritually flawed”. A decent, well-educated, hard-working woman, she had made a fortune launching an interior design company. Annkie proved an astute businesswoman and, by Eastern and Western accounts, a great success. But in a conversation in her loft apartment, she told me her younger sister was more successful in the “important way”.
“Why would you think that?” I asked.
“It’s what I know. My sister is married, and I am not because I refused to play the game they all play."
“What game?” I pried.
“You know - the marriage game. All my friends would either pay top dollar to enroll in the top universities and Ivy League Schools abroad or work really hard if they had the brains, get hired by Fortune 500 companies, all in the hopes of meeting the right caliber of men or people who could potentially know of such men. Then they get married and quit their jobs and become a full-time tai tai,” she laughs.
“It’s a choice I made and I am happy I did. Just sometimes I still feel I am shaming my parents by still being a Shengnu.”
Now, why would China’s state feminist agency conduct a scare-mongering campaign against single, educated women?
A 2007 announcement issued by China’s state council, claimed the country faced a severe problem of low population quality that would impede its ability to compete on the world stage. As a result, the government made ‘upgrading population quality’ a priority, citing China’s severe sex ratio imbalance as a threat to social stability.
What better way to upgrade population quality than to frighten “high-quality” women into marrying and having a child for the good of the nation?
Three decades of combustive economic growth have reshaped the landscape of marriage in China. For years, people could rely on village matchmakers and parents, factory bosses and Communist cadres for efficiently pairing off young people; with minimum participation from the bride and groom. Romance then became political in 1919, when Chinese students demonstrated for democracy, science, and an end to arranged marriage, on behalf of what they called “the freedom of love.”
But of all the new “freedoms” the Chinese enjoy today — making money, owning a house, choosing a career — there is one that has become an unexpected burden: seeking a spouse. At a supposed time of sexual and romantic liberation in China, the solemn task of finding a husband or wife is proving to be a vexing proposition for both the rich and poor.
Nobody seemed to know how to make the most of that freedom. Instead those practices merely reinforced existing barriers, and for vast numbers of people the collision of love, choice, and money was a bewildering new problem.
As we sat down to lunch with my then Shangainese boss, he flashed his Patek Philippe watch while accusing the barista of watering down his latte. Epitomizing today's China nouveau-rich, he likely drives a slick car, owns an even slicker high-rise and probably shelled out for a Western-style tuxedo, wedding cake, live music, and, of course, a platinum Tiffany ring for his wife during their wedding, I thought.
By contrast, millions of his fellow rural countrymen will likely never know such splendor or even the joy of matrimony. The male equivalent of “leftovers” these young males are known as "bare branches," trees without leaves, involuntary bachelors demographically destined to a life without a wife or child.
It's a reversal of hundreds of years of gender discrimination in China. A longstanding preference for boys -- presumed better able to assist in backbreaking farm work and carry the family name -- has played out in sex selection through abortion and infanticide. After the country instituted its One-Child Policy in 1978, seeing a total of 336 million abortions, completing 196 million sterilizations, and inserting 403 million intrauterine devices - it gave most families only one chance at that precious baby boy.
This only exacerbated the imbalance. By the end of this decade, Chinese researchers estimate, the country will have a surplus of 24 million unmarried men.
Without traditional family or social networks, many men and women have taken their searches online, where thousands of dating and marriage Web sites have sprung up in a million-dollar industry. With the proliferation of premier match making services, “love hunters” and social media apps with a function that allows people to find one another when they shake their phones simultaneously, it would seem like the Chinese netizen today in seek of a spouse would be spoilt for choice.
Even courses on “How to marry an‘elite’ foreigner in 90 days” seem to enable the quintessential Modern Pocahontas Tale whereby the white man is a one-way ticket to freedom far, far away from the rigid, traditional structures of the deep-rooted Chinese beliefs.
However, how much of those beliefs do really transcend virtual, let alone geographical borders?
My boss continues, “You should look for a Shanghainese boyfriend if you want to stay in China. They cook, clean, look after the kids – they make the best husbands.”
“Look at the new watch I bought my wife – do you know the brand?” He asks, taking out his iPhone to show me a snapshot image.
“Getting married is very important in China. But I don’t understand how you foreigners can marry between races; blacks with whites, Indians. I see so many white guys that go after Chinese women – usually they end up marrying the ugliest girls,” he shakes his head. “White men really have no taste,” he laughs.
“Whereas, we Chinese, we find it impossible to marry within different province! Let alone country! Like for me? I couldn’t possibly marry a non-Shanghainese girl. Our dialects, diets, way of thinking and manners even would be too different.”
The greatest shock to the marriage tradition came from an unlikely source: in 1997, the government gave people the right to buy and sell homes on the open market. China had never had an official term for “mortgage,” but real estate was suddenly an asset.
Therefore cost of rural females marrying up is leaving the men from their villages high and dry. Hard-pressed to compete with higher-earning males and unable to spring for the car and perhaps the house that some young women see as a matrimonial prerequisite, such bachelors subsequently fall victim to what could be deemed as the "poor->bare branch->poorer" cycle.
"In China we have a term for if a man doesn’t have a house, a car, or a nest egg, he is a “triple without.” Women from good backgrounds wont look at a guy who doesn’t have at least one of the three now.”
My boss’s words spoke of the worst kind of self-judgment, and it was difficult for me to understand the irrational degree to which a woman’s self-esteem or even existence in the world would be held in abeyance until she was married. Still, his and Annkie’s plight was not without claims on my pity and sympathy. Because even if at one time I, like Annkie, would have been an “advanced leftover”; eventually, I like to think, I will get married, after falling in love with a man.
Which and when of course, I will give myself to him for free.