“A woman can’t marry in Shenzhen. The most desperate are those who’ve been here form more than two years. There are more and more leftover women in Shenzhen and it’s a big problem (在深圳嫁不掉。其中一个在深圳待了两年的人更是发感慨，深圳剩女越来越多，是个大麻烦)”.
Clearly, this is a small blip in the much larger national discussion of “leftover women (剩女),” which (according to 百度百科) designates upwardly mobile, successful women who are still unmarried as they approach their 30th birthday. The over-30 crowd, it goes without saying, are desperate or resigning themselves to being single for the rest of their lives. The term as well as the debate are obviously misogynistic. More distressingly, however, like the phrase “naked marriage (裸婚)”, the expression “leftover woman” sexes the greed that has come to characterize Socialism with Chinese characteristics as if by fixing what’s wrong with women we could fix what’s wrong with society.
It’s a scary logic.
Once upon a time, however, romance and love and sexual freedom infused Chinese stories and media. During the Mao years, individuals did not fall in love with each other, but rather committed themselves to capital S Society. Early 1980s stories such as The Right to Love, Love Should Not Be Forgotten, and Love in a Small Town explored how romantic love and sexual desire were necessary to human society. Indeed, Zhang Kangkang, Zhang Jie, and Wang Anyi were not simply lauded as women writers, but recognized for changing the nature and scope of public debate in post Mao China. These women and others like them created a space for personal expression and feeling within the public sphere.
In turn, Shenzhen provided a space for experimentation with romance and lust. Pre 1992 Shenzhen, with its dormitories and rental properties, parks and restaurants, Hong Kong fashion and Taiwanese music was the city where it was possible to go from boyfriend to boyfriend as easily as one learned to go from job to job. This Shenzhen offered women a chance to remake themselves (and yes, there is a difference between remaking oneself and undergoing a makeover) into figures that had been prohibited, suppressed, and often vilified during the Mao era. Indeed, this was the Shenzhen that inspired early working girl literature such as “Why I Married Shenzhen”, which I read years ago in the magazine, Outside Workers (外来工).
In contrast, many populist critiques of Shenzhen specifically and by extension China today do not criticize capitalism as an inhuman system, which places the acquisition of objects before human life. Instead, anger about the inhumanity of the system — Foxxcom Suicides, Wukan, the fact that most people can no longer buy a house, for example — is directed at what women are doing “wrong”. But here’s the rub: what the women are doing wrong is successfully adapting to the system. So here’s my point du jour: the leftover woman, who has a college education and managerial position; the Generation 90 pillow girl, who offered her body for a house; the working girl (打工妹), who came to Shenzhen to labor in a factory or in the service industry; the hostess (小姐), who drinks with business men and officials so that wheeling and dealing proceeds more smoothly, and of course the pheasant, who has sex for money — all have become symbols of what’s wrong with contemporary Shenzhen, which in turn symbolizes China’s post Mao transformation gendered fall from grace.