Nu Qiang Ren and Shen Nu: Power Women and Leftover Woman in China

Happy Families: Images reinforcing early age marriage are everywhere in China. This poster was an ad for cooking oil on the subway.

Names have been changed in this article and dialogue has been translated into English.

A recent advert by the cosmetics company SK-II telling the story of China’s ‘sheng nu’ or ‘leftover women’ has created a viral storm. ‘Sheng nu, a phrase from State-run media in 2007, refers to woman in their late twenties who are unable to get married.

Still image from the SK-II advert (link below)

Since the birth of the phrase there has been an ever increasing stigma for those who are unable to tie the knot, the term ‘leftover’ conjuring images of unwanted table scraps.

In China, the family is the most important thing in anyone’s life so the pressure to get married is a continual burden that gets heavier as time ticks by for a single woman. Your children will be the ones to take care of you when you are older after all. Grandparents normally live with the family and look after the kids while mum and dad are at work.

As one of my friends Zhang Fu pointed out, failure to get married is a stain on the family reputation.

“Most Chinese women feel really guilty and depressed about having no husband. They don’t want to meet others and they feel ashamed when they come back home especially during Spring Festival. They feel like that is their fault and they are sorry to everybody. People think you should get married no matter how bad their relationship or life is.”

Here are a few facts about China we need to get sorted before we move on:

  • A person is considered single until they are married in China.
  • Most Chinese people will only have one or two partners in their life.
  • Most Chinese people enter into romance with marriage at the top of their agenda.
  • Most Chinese people will live together only after they are married.
  • China is still very traditional regarding roles of husband and wife. Generally the man earns the mainstay of the family income and the woman will do the housework.
  • When a woman is divorced it is unlikely that she will be able to remarry.
  • It seems crazy but there is now even a trend where you can hire a fake boyfriend from the internet and take them home to deceive the parents.

Zhi Li is twenty four years and old and is still not married. By Western standards it may seem somewhat strange to use the word ‘still’ at such an early age but this is just the way things have been in China since ancient times.

Though only in her early twenties, Zhi Li comes across with the confidence of a professional who has made up her mind what she wants. She has a degree in accounting from the Capital Normal University and is one of the many educated woman now termed as ‘Nu Qiang Ren’ or ‘Power Women’. These are the professional woman who have made a conscious decision not to get married.

Whereas those who consider themselves ‘sheng nu’ will rarely want to reveal their inner sadness to the world, in contrast there were many single professionals such as Zhi Li who were more than happy discussing the subject and their life choices.

What’s most important to you? Getting married or having a career?

“In the future I want to be a teacher. I don’t believe that relationships with men are so solid. I have no faith in relationships and that the right man is out there.”

What if you met someone who you felt was the right person for you unexpectedly and you had to choose between your career and marriage?

At this point Zhi Li sits back and our conversation, falling into an unexpected silence while she ponders on this. A sudden change in her demeanor, she starts to look more thoughtful at this time.

“My parents divorced and this has influenced me. I am not very sure about things. I still need time to consider what I want. Maybe I don’t want to be in a relationship.  I’ve never had a boyfriend. It’s because I’m looking for someone who I trust. Also for Chinese students when we are at primary school, high school, senior school our parents forbid us to have a boyfriend as it detracts from our study.”

What does your Mother think about you being single?

“She says she doesn’t care about it but she has asked a lot of people to try and find someone for me. Actually I know she is very anxious and worried but she doesn’t show it. Some men have already shown some interest but my Mother decided that they weren’t suitable for me.”

Does your Mother give you pressure about getting married?

“My Mother doesn’t but my relatives and friends all do. They keep asking when I’m going to get married. They ask if I have found the right person. Maybe a colleague. Will I find the right person in the future? Will it be this year? Will it be next year? I should find someone soon and so on. Everyone asks me. My peers already have children. There is pressure from everywhere, even on the TV. Some of my colleagues married as soon as they graduated from college. They have had a boyfriend when they were at college and they didn’t want to waste any time. This may have been a secret from their parents. All of my friends from college were in a hurry to get married as soon as they left.

In China if a girl reaches the age of twenty eight they will seldom find the right person. Generally after that it is regarded as too late to get married. Also it is thought that a woman at that age is not as beautiful as before and they won’t be able to get enough money or social status or something like that. You know when a girl is in her early twenties she won’t have any financial ability so she needs to rely on her family to get married. In China parents always give a lot of money for their children to get married. For boys, their parents will buy a house or car or other things. The girl will also receive money from the boy’s family. We call this ‘cai li’. But people get married too early. It’s one of the reasons why people get divorced these days”.

My final question to Zhi Li is whether she would ever like to get married?

Zhi Li

 “I want to but I dare not to. I am really afraid that I will get a divorce with my husband and this will influence my life. You know it’s common for a man to have a relationship with other woman, especially if he has money. The things that happen around me are always like this. My parents divorced when I was four years old because my Father cheated on my Mother. Although I was very young I still remember that time clearly. I think it is something that has been with me my whole life. Now I belong to my Mother by law so I can never meet my Father, even during the Spring Festival.”

When we parted, Zhi Li was unphased by the interview and returned to the work. Rolling her sleeves up it was merely business as usual. I wish her well on her journey and am sure that her determination will lead her to the success that she deserves.

To see the complete SK-ii advert click here (go to cc at the bottom of the screen for subs)

64 replies

  1. Interesting. I can’t help thinking it’s not very healthy to pressure anyone — man or woman — into getting married if they don’t want to or before they’re ready. It also sounds as though many women feel they have to choose between marriage and a rewarding job. That’s unfortunate too.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Andy, The video was hard for me to watch. I wanted to reach out to those girls and tell them it was going to be okay and share my own experience of being a “leftover.” When I was in my twenties, everyone was getting married. Engagements, showers, weddings….and then the divorces started. It seemed that once the first break-up happened, they all started falling like dominoes. Peer pressure, family pressure, advertising all lead us to believe that a wedding day is the ultimate goal for a woman. But, it truly is nothing like the pressure on those poor young women in the video. Now in the US, women are making wiser choices and that is much healthier than when I was growing up. I was never one to be pressured. I had no interest in marriage and loved being single. It was a wonderful life choice for me. (Although I did end up getting married at age 50 . It took me that long to find the person I was meant to be with for the rest of my life.) I know this is not your usual post, but it does give important insight to the Chines culture. Thanks, Clare

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for dropping by Clare. Yes the vid is a tough one buy hope my interview with Zhi Li is a more optimistic one. I wrote it as I realised how many single 30 something women were about. And they were all studying madly trying to improve their English in order to go up the ladder or emigrate. I was wondering how people would take this post but so far its good 🙂 I got married at 45. I’m glad I did it that way. Congratulations by the way ha ha

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  3. Another reason to be grateful for our lives. There are certainly some good things that Chinese culture has over Western. It seems there is less promiscuity (a good old-fashioned word in the West). But not being able to see her Father? The pressures on the Women? Not seeing themselves as valuable in their own person-hood? Now that’s sad. Great article, Andy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes you’re right there. Lots of great things about China, no drugs and therefore no drug related crime. I can walk the streets with no crack heads anywhere whereas in Gloucester, my old home town they are everywhere especially the city centre. Cheers for reading mate. Hope your new blog goes well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting post Andy. Have not seen the vid yet but just wondering how this relates to the gender imbalance – I had thought there may also have been a problem with more males than females due to family planning strategies favouring sons ??!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya Bruce > Yes it did get a mention at the beginning. Its a big topic though with lots of closely related things going on that never got a look in. I mean because the country is so set in its ways men are less likely to choose a qualified woman who spends time in the office. From my experience at work the single women all think that 24 is far too early to get married. Cheers for reading Bruce. Would be interesting to find out how it goes down in Japan.

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  5. Another eye opening post from you Andy! I assumed every young Chinese woman would be married. Surely the shortage of women would allow for being choosey enough to have it all……career and marriage.

    And no it would absolutely not be cheesy to read about you and Suzy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it’s crazy but people have a strong criteria for people eligible to become their partner. Money is always at the top of the list but if your an educated professional then you drop down a few pegs immediately. No compromise here!

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  6. Just saw this post today.

    As a Chinese national born in the 1980s, I can feel Zhi Li’s pain,but I also want her to know that there is nothing ashamed of not being married early. I agree that one of the reasons the divorce rate in China is getting high is that people get married when they were very young, sometimes too young to be independent, mature and having strong problem-solving skills. I am glad I stayed single in my 20s despite the pressure from my family and friends, as that time I was so fresh-faced and inexperienced, and I still believe happy marriage worth the wait.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Heeeey Julie Hao jiu bu jian. So you experience this kind of thing as well, I mean pressure from family. The more I chat about the subject the more I learn. The depth of the subject is something hard to put into words really. In many ways we have a very lucky existence in the West. As long as we’re happy then our parents are happy too. Hope you are well Julie 🙂

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  7. Well my parents had set me up on three blind dates, one of the date seems very nice but that time I was only 22 and that was nine-month before I went to the USA to study. Many suggests that I should have taken him to the USA but I know there is a new world out there once I arrived in the USA so I refused the offer and my parents kinda of going on about it for years. Nowadays in China, arranged marriage is illegal, but still most friends have married not long after being set up on a blind date. Not sure if you know this but here we even have a marriage market and TV shows called “Fei Chen Wu Rao非城误扰” to hook strangers up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Phew > The thought of taking an extra person with you on your travels AAAAGH! So glad you made it on your own Julie. To think you’ve had so many amazing experiences and I’m sure there will be many more in the future. Yes there is a video about the marriage market at the end of my post. I uploaded it onto YouTube. Incredible!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Being able to live in the USA myself is the experience I wont trade with anything. I watched the video, and I am glad that many parents nowadays get the message of marrying for love and let their offspring choice their own life. Hope you are all well and look forward to more of your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve seen the very real anxiety and stress this unfortunate part of Chinese culture causes with my Chinese friends and family. Even the strongest of women can get bogged down by the weight of NEEDING to get married, and it often leads to serial blind dates and eventually speedy marriages of convenience – even if the woman is a romantic who wants to marry for love (guys, too, get this stress from family). Wish it wasn’t this way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya Jordan > Yes and normally the women with such pressure have to suffer in silence. I know so many women who don’t want to marry so early but are unable to get married when they are thirty plus or earlier. Thanks for following Jordan

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