Deconstructing the Narrative of ‘Leftover Women’ in China: amid CPC’s 100th year

        Leftover Women' Documentary Chronicles the Story of China's Attack on  Unmarried Professional Women             

by Zahoor Ahmad Dar, Raja Babu, and Shital Baraily   3 February 2021 


The intellectual history of International Relations (IR) has conventionally circumnavigated around great power politics. The histories and memories of the domestic politics, economic and social issues transpiring within a state have been marginalized and subordinated by realists. The reductionist approaches of positivisms and high politics undermine individuals, groups, and institutions’ everyday lives and experiences within the states. Contextualizing China’s Leftover women as a case warrants deep analysis. Leftover Women in China suffer from social stigma and apathy from the state apparatus and, ergo, the society. Silencing and stereotyping one group or community engenders fear and perpetuates domination and exclusion.

Amid the rise of the Communist Party of China (CPC), as they celebrate 100 years of its foundation in 2021, it is clear that Chinese ascendance in the distribution of capabilities has unambiguously increased. Still, on the question of ‘leftover women,’ it highlights how a constructed identity can be pathological as it perpetuates selective discrimination and everyday humiliation. In this context, Leftover Women’s narrative in China needs an anatomical investigation to trace the process and state policies by which “Leftover Women” has transformed into a detestable social reality of modern China.

 Mapping the Identity of ‘Leftover Women’

‘Leftover women’ has its roots in the cultural evils and the policies that were primarily adopted for the “emancipation of women.”  Owing to the Chinese controversial “One Child Policy,” aimed to curb the burgeoning overpopulation, China has a skewed sex ratio and a meager birth rate. This indicates that China’s benefits once from its young workforce, enabling it to become a global economic power (China secured rank 1 in Global Manufacturing Competitive index 2016), may now see a greater number of retirees and a lesser workforce. (1) The one-child policy resulted in the proliferation of social problems like sex-selective abortion. Aging parents would prefer only a male child since a female child moves in with the husband or the in-law’s house. Sex-selective abortion led to a deepening imbalance of the sex ratio. Therefore, to rectify and balance this ratio, the government implemented the “Two-Child Policy” in 2015- 2016. However, this gives couples the freedom to have more than one child but did not ensure gender equality as China remains a patrilineal society. As women became more career-oriented and did not desire to marry and have children, or they naturally desired to marry only those who matched their status, the government added the term shengnu (Leftover Women) to its official lexicon to overcome this “problem.” (2)

Shengnu refers to the women who are above twenty-six-year-old, do not wish to marry or have children, and are career-oriented. It is believed that coining this phrase by the government was intended to make society aware of their existence so that government arranges their take the task upon themselves to marry them off and have children, which will serve the purpose of the government in maintaining the sex ratio for the next two decades. Although the sex ratio is not favorable to women in China, this means there are more men than women, and men are the ones who get leftover. As per the 2018 national statistics, the sex-ratio in China was 104.64 men to every 100 women; hence there are 31 million more men than women. Shengnu is divided into four categories: (i) leftover women, describing it as initial phase 25-27 years old. (ii) leftover fighters, second phase 28-30 years old (iii) doomed singles, the third phase (31- 35) and (iv) leftover Buddhas in the battle, fourth and the last phase above 35 years old, described as a great sage of leftover. However, the Leftover Women, not the Leftover men, are looked down upon by the government and society, which is China’s grim reality.

Liberal reformers and Socialists have argued that women’s liberation and equality can be achieved through education and by including women in the workforce. China has both the components, and yet Chinese women are yet to break the political glass ceiling. (3) Only a limited group of people in any society indeed engages in theorizing ideas and construction of knowledge. Still, everyone else participates in its knowledge in some way (1966, Berger & Luckman).

Leftover women are contested greatly by feminists; it reveals the Chinese society’s mindset, which dates back to Han times (202 BCE – 220 CE) when Confucianism and the centralized administrative structure of the state shaped the Chinese family system and the place of women in it. In Han’s, there was a greater emphasis on cultivating virtues in women. This shows the imposition of a value system on women rather than choice. The accounts in ‘The Biographies of Exemplary Women’  narrates China’s past stories of women valorizing the sacrifices they were forced in choosing between their husbands and fathers, providing an advisory role to their husbands, or undertaking heroic deeds. In her Admonitions for Women, Ban Zhao prompted girls to gain mastery over seven virtues appropriated to women: obedience, self-abasement, resignation, cleanliness, humility, subservience, and industry. (4)

Representation of ‘Leftover Women’ in China

According to the IPU-Women map highlighting women in politics (2020), only 24.9%, i.e., out of 2975 seats in the Legislation, only 742 are held by female politicians. (5) With Sun Chunlan being the only woman member of the Politburo, a significant post has 25 members. As women from a minor political representation, the outcome can be seen in biased policies against women. In an era of an increasingly interconnected world, policies shape the society affecting each person and each socio-economic and cultural group; therefore, Carol Hanisch, in her famous essay, states that “personal problems are political problems, there are no personal solutions to political problems, and there is only collective action for a collective solution.” Converting these policies into social reality consist of steps like institutionalization, legitimation, and internalization.

Pre-modern Chinese society was characterized mainly as patrilineal and patriarchal the Shang and Zhou dynasty, also known as the Bronze Age of China, saw the establishment of social order. They made sacrifices and prayed to their ancestors, which established them as a patrilineal society. Confucius, considered the most influential Chinese philosopher in that era, revered ancestral rites and family virtues like filial piety. He believed that through the practice of ritualisation, everyone, gender, social class, and age group would be socially attuned to a set role played in the dispensation of their duties. The role-playing of Women was generic to kinship roles. These roles mandated women to concur with the whims and fancies of closely-related men: when young to their fathers, when married to their husbands, and when widowed to their sons. Confucius’s follower Mencius declared that the worst of unfilial acts was a failure to have descendants (Mencius 4A.26). (4) (6). The over-emphasis on the necessity of sons over daughters was preferred in later centuries. (7) .Therefore, we can infer that women’s agency was subordinated to the embedded social and cultural milieu in which patriarchy was the determinant structural principal. Societal mores and social facts deterred her assertion of agency.

The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic of China (1949), and Reforms and Opening up (1978) marks the major landmark changes in China. As China pledged to reform itself, Chinese women were encouraged to join the workforce. The European socialist tradition was centered around an older discourse of female emancipation, focusing on women’s independence from men. The conclusions derived from this framework argued that educating women in the same manner as the men, securing economic independence in waged work, or both. For Liberal reformers, the emancipation-through-education route was emphasized while socialist stress emancipation-through-waged work, even though with various overlaps between the two paths. (8)

Influenced by the west, slogans like “women hold up half the sky,” “what a man can do, a woman can also do” surfaced, and Mao ventured women’s path into the labour force.  Chairman Mao Zedong’s movement found broad popular support because of his explicit efforts to enforce gender equality. Compared with China’s Confucian patriarchal system that had oppressed women for so long, many saw this as a welcome change.  Nevertheless, part of what makes patriarchy so insidious is its ability to trick whole generations of people—including women—into propagating an oppressive system rather than overthrowing it. For women suffering the pains of patriarchy, this movement and the step including women in the workforce were perceived as emancipatory but analyzing the policies framed in the last four decades, the emancipatory move seems like an illusion created to oppress women further. (9)

Popular campaigns and policies that concern Chinese women

Iron Girl Campaign during Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – When women were asked to join the workforce in China “Iron Girls” was used to describe those women who could work in the field, factories, outside their home like men. According to the Central Planning system 1950, the government shouldered the responsibility for employment and job assignment. As the government decided on rapid industrialization in the late 1950s, women were also asked to join the workforce.

According to Deng Yingchao, the Vice President of the All-China Women’s Federation, women joined the workforce to answer the “State’s call” as the state prioritized heavy industries emancipating self but serving as a reserve army of labour to the state. (10) Under the employment policy of urban dwellers first and rural dwellers second, urban women became the first tire of the reserve while peasants became the second tier of reserve labour. The Iron Girl campaign was a planned form of mobilizing more women to work harder. The plan had three parts; firstly, a target was identified to be condemned, then a role model would be identified for the masses to follow, the masses would then internalize such role models. The Daizhi Iron girls brigade came to be famous during the cultural revolution. Such models and policies gave women more opportunities to work outside their homes and break the gender barrier as women’s physiology was not considered. In rural areas, the workforce is majorly women, but only because men leave for more profitable works in the urban areas. (10) Iron girl or the Daizhi Iron girls was first institutionalized. It was legitimized as the role models and then internalized by all so that each woman enters the workforce and produces some value.

The One-Child Policy (1979) – The most controversial policy of all, it was aimed at population control and poverty alleviation brought by a long famine from 1959-1961.

Owing to the patriarchal and patrilineal practices dating back to Zhou and the Shou Kingdom, where men would pray to their ancestors and women would pray to their husbands’ ancestors, women’s role was considered to be of kinship only. (1) Lu Xun is a revolutionary writer and opposed to Confucianism. He often wrote on how Confucianism and its ill effects prevailed in modern China. Sex detection and female infanticide became rampant from 1979 to 2015, which has led to a skewed sex ratio and aging population in China. When people pray to their ancestors, Festivals like Qingming are still very relevant in China, so are patrilineal and patriarchy. Women are often considered as an outsider by in-law’s and one’s own family. (11)

Leftover Women/ Shengnu – In 2007, the Ministry of Education coined the term Shengnu or left-over women. Shengnu refers to urban women who are highly educated and professionally successful. They are believed to have overly high expectations from marriage partners and thus end up being “left behind,” with no men available in the marriage market who are willing to marry them. Coined by the Chinese government themselves, the term is believed to have been disseminated to warn women that they will become spinsters if they do not marry between the ages of 27-30.

Change in marriage patterns or delayed marriage can be linked to rapid economic growth, rapidly advancing educational levels for women, related changes in employment patterns, etc. The traditional arranged marriage systems have weaned, and women procrastinate since their financial security is not contingent upon the husband. With a much higher ratio of well-educated women to well-educated men than before, traditional attitudes are still prevalent and act as constraints. While a woman prefers to marry, men are still imbued with the traditional authority of being often reluctant to marry someone better educated or earn more money than they do. Societal ills like foot binding, which was practiced for beauty and curbing mobility, was brought to an end. However, it is crystal clear that women’s role is still being tied to kinship; they are being asked to give up their career and bore children for their family and the state’s future. Women were led into the workforce when the state decided to industrialize and boost the economy rapidly. In 2017 Chinese women contributed a total of 41 percent to the GDP. (12)

How could people be tricked into a clear lie? It was possible only because Chinese Society still functions on the ancient family system and Confucius sayings. Leftover Women/ Shengnu was first institutionalized and then tagged to be illegitimate. The state-run media and society legitimized those women who want to marry and have children. The repetition of advertisements in public spaces, electronic and print media, etc., led to the internalization of propaganda of lies. In ancient China, a woman’s role centered on that of daughter, sister, wife, mother, daughter in law, and her duty was to give birth to a son who can carry ahead the patriarch’s lineage and perform filial duties or rites. As it is said, social reality is “out there,” and sociology of knowledge analyses the process in which it occurs. It may be invisible to the common man to understand the construction of “reality.” Therefore, history must be inquired.


Leftover women as a socially and politically constituted identity have resulted in this affected section of Chinese society’s social and political humiliation. Adding “Shengnu” to the official lexicon is an attempt to push women back to the private realm, which women are always thought to be a part of. Shengnu is also an attempt to deprive and constrict women from participating in the public realm. The agency of women of being themselves is missing. It historically can be reclaimed only by active participation in Politics, by analyzing the reality through the lens of history and recognizing the past that is present in the present.

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