Sexing the Greed, or How We’ve Gone from “Marrying Shenzhen” to “Can a Woman Get Married in Shenzhen?”

Surfing 天涯深圳, I came across a brief post by an author who claimed that her friends had urged her to leave the city because

“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.

4 thoughts on “Sexing the Greed, or How We’ve Gone from “Marrying Shenzhen” to “Can a Woman Get Married in Shenzhen?”

  1. This article raised a topic which I only knew from reading about Shanghai and Beijing, I did not know it would also be typical for Shenzhen. I personally know 3 young women who are single, each for different reasons as far as I assume (attractiveness, independance), but I did not extrapolate to whole Shenzhen, so this motivated me to ask around.

    Yes, there are obviously a lot of women “left over”, if in Shanghai / Beijing each “a few hundred thousands”, then maybe in Shenzhen100 – 200 thousand? (for Guangzhou, I read “300,000 women are single, 200,000 men”, so my guess for Shenzhen seems ok). If yes, it would mean, about 1% – 2%) of the women are single. Is this really a sign about “what is wrong with Shenzhen”?

    Some told me, there are anyway more women in SZ then men, maybe, but for China as a whole it is definitely the other way around. One of the single women I know told me, her work style (she is an independent consultant) was not appreciated by men nor their parents because “independent” and “unsafe”. She herself interpreted the development to have more single women as a characteristic of modern China, a China in which women can decide for themselves, and she would never want to exchange her life with what her parents generation had.

    She said Chinese men are generally too pragmatic, not romantic enough, too much focussed on money and “achievement”, and left-over men in the countryside are not attractive to her.

    When looking at this aspect of China’s big cities, 1 – 2% of the women (let’s say, 5% of the women, and maybe more of the men if looking all over China) does not sound as much as “several hundred thousands of women are single in Shanghai” (assuming Shanghai has 15 Mio women, 2% would be 300,000, 5% would be 750,000!).

    Let us look how much singles are in other countries? In Germany, depending on source, obviously between 10 and 25%! In US, some sources say more than 50% of all women are not married, I did not quickly find how many are in fact “left over” and real singles. More than 18 Mio men in US are single, divorced or widowed (that would be roughly 15% of all men in US).

    Also for the Foxconn topic, one needs to look at statistics as well. Foxconn is a huge company, hence can deliver statistically relevant numbers. Their suicide rate was below China’s, and China’s is somewhere in average in a world’s suicide ranking list. (I can deliver figures if required) I think it does not help if one takes single events and draws general conclusions from them.

    • Hi Dr Wessling,

      Thank you for adding your observations to the conversation. As you note, the reasons that statistics are picked up and deployed in society are intentional; people use statistics to make points, not to illustrate the truth (although sometimes that also happens.) As I understand it, the left-over women debate is a debate about the place of marriage as a means of organizing Chinese women’s lives. The fact that many men and women believe that marriage is one of their lives’ great events (终生大事) and that being childless is the gravest form of being an unfilial child (不孝有三,无后以大) means that to speak of “leftover women” is to speak of a social problem — women who are neither completing the great events of a human life and are therefore unfilial.

      To underscore the social content of statistics, we could compare the leftover women debate in Mandarin with the idea of “redundant labor” in the English speaking world. Redundant labor, of course, is a way of justifying firing (or laying off) workers, who according to cultural expectation should be gainfully employed in order to contribute to society. Children and the elderly are not “redundant” and could only be classified as such if society expected them to work. In other words, gathering statistics to illustrate surplus or redundancy or excess or leftovers is an intentional act to comment upon the world as we find. Thus, the categories and their labels matter precisely because that is the form that our moral indignation or righteousness take. After all, as you note anyone can be part of the “unmarried” statistical category, but not every society or person is going to use those statistics to achieve the same ends.

  2. I did not cite the statistics to talk around the “truth” (whatever that may be), but only in order to show that the problem of “leftover women” (and men) is not a specific Chinese one.

    After I looked and read around a little bit, it seems to me that it is a world-wide phenomenon. My impression is that in China as well as in Germany or US, more and more people consciously decide to live alone (stay independant) (which does not mean they don’t have longer or shorter more or less deep relationships and affairs), but they simply choose a lifestyle different from married people with children and everything around it.

    In this respect, China seems to me still in the beginning of a trend which in Europe has further proceeded and in US already reached a all-time high.

    I do not mean that all of the singles or “left-overs” do consciously decide to live that way, some (in my small environment here: 2 out of 3 leftover women) would like to find a partner and marry, but somehow they fail. The 3rd one consciously decides to be independant. (I do not extrapolate to SZ nor China as a whole)

    What I want to say is, that I have the impression that this is not a specific Chinese nor specific Shenzhen issue, and still by far the majority (> 95%) get more or less married and have children (my about 50 Chinese friend and acquaintances from soccer plus many more from business to my knowledge are all married or in a stable partnership, and when I play soccer twice every weekend, so many young families are around and do sports, so many soccer palyers have their children with them).

    I would say, everybody should live as they like.

  3. Particularly relevant piece. In Indian cities like Delhi and Gurgaon too, we observe that society’s ills are laid at the door of women and see how women are “blamed” for transformations that they are merely adapting to. The 3’O’ mark is traumatic for many single urban educated women in India who no longer want to go by the “arranged marriage” system nor are they able to “find” partners that suit them. For instance, I have far more single female friends at my age than men. The amazing thing is that once they approach their ’40s, these women re-invent themselves and find inner strength to do some amazing things and shake off the stereotype that a man is necessary to be relevant to society. Of course, women’s internalised ideas of what they must mean to society (reproductive roles especially) are harder to deal with….

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