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Who are China’s ‘Leftover Women’?

The Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year, is filled with all sorts of traditions. Some common traditions involve popping firecrackers to scare away evil spirits, feeding lion dancers heads of lettuce, and giving out red envelopes full of cash to those who are not yet married. For those not yet married, the cash in the red envelopes is a boon.

As for those handing out the red envelopes, if the same woman relative is receiving the envelope year after year, there has to be something wrong with her. She hasn’t married yet, and soon she will be too old to marry and have children. It is considered disgraceful.

Such a girl is known in Chinese as a heng nu, or a leftover woman. A leftover woman is a woman who has not yet been married, and who is considered by the family to be  “incomplete.” Longstanding tradition holds that most families in China expect their daughters to marry at 25, or 30, if they live further into the city. The trend of leftover women is one that seems to be growing because more women are taking advantage of opportunities to further their education in other countries.

“I’ve been a leftover woman for so many years,” says Rachel Xu, a manager in Shanghai. Xu is still single at the age of 35 but remains optimistic. “On the eve of every new year, I have only one resolution, and that is to find my Mr. Right and get married as soon as possible.”

In a society that is deeply rooted in patriarchy, it’s tragic that just as women are receiving more opportunities to flourish, the misogynistic aspects of their ancestral culture comes back to haunt them. A lot of things women do in Chinese culture are defined by men.

For example, on the Lunar New Year, parents will set up a string of blind dates for a single child in the hopes that they will find their match. It’s also common in Chinese society for a man to buy a woman a flat as a wedding present before they are allowed to get married. This shows that the wife’s family believes that their daughter is incapable of being financially independent.

In a way, this is understandable. China has relied for so long on a patriarchal society, and so to ask China to give up one of its main cultural pillars is blasphemy.

While there may be no room for complete change, perhaps there is room for compromise. Instead of shaming women for not tethering themselves to a man the moment they come of marrying age, perhaps families can appreciate their daughters for pursuing education.

Companies are already rising up to fight against the stigma of being a heng nu. Last April, the cosmetics company SK-II became widely recognized for a video it created that supported confident and independent women.

Frankly, while the idea of the leftover women is outrageous, it’s a painstaking process to change tradition. China must work with its culture slowly and hope for positive change.

Featured Image by Sodanie Chea on Flickr

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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