- Beck Media
- Qiu Hua Mei, a successful 34-year-old Beijing-based lawyer, is considered a “leftover woman” – a cultural phenomenon in China referring to educated women in their late 20s and 30s who are not married.
- The phrase “sheng nu” or “leftover women” came into popularity a few years prior to the end of the one-child policy – a policy from the Chinese government that prohibited families from having more than one child from 1980 to 2016.
- Documentary filmmakers Shosh Shalm and Hilla Medalia wanted to highlight the pressure “leftover women” experience to get married and have children by following three women’s stories.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
By many people’s definitions of success, Qiu Hua Mei, 34, is a woman who has it all.
Working as a respected lawyer in Beijing, China, Hua Mei was the first in her village to get a formal university education and make it in a large metropolitan city.
For decades, in an attempt to limit population growth, the government encouraged women to ditch the idea of having big family – or even of having a family at all – marketing it as an opportunity for women to focus on their career instead of raising kids.
Now, with 30 million more men than women and an ageing population, the message has completely shifted.
“If you don’t get married, your happiness isn’t real,” Hua Mei’s mother said during a heated exchange between Hua Mei and the rest of her family during a visit back to her home village, captured in a new documentary, “Leftover Women,” which premiered this week on PBS.
According to the film’s directors, Shosh Shlam and Hila Medalia, Hua Mei is considered a “leftover woman” – a class of educated professional women in their late 20s and 30s who are not married.
Because the Chinese government fears an impending demographic time bomb – a phenomenon that occurs when a country’s life expectancy rate increases and overall fertility rate decreases – it is encouraging people to marry young and have at least two children.
Many of these efforts – including government-supported speed-dating events – put the burden on women to find a husband before they celebrate their 27th birthday, and there can be serious social repercussions when they don’t.
Shalm and Hila told Insider they wanted to bring attention to the stigma these unmarried women face and how it impacts their day to day lives throughout the course of the film. “Leftover Women” follows the stories of three “sheng nu” as they confront their families and social pressures in their dating lives – Hua Mei, Xu Min, 28, and Gai Qi, 36.
- Beck Media
Women are invited to government-backed dating events in a bid to re-balance the population after the one-child policy ended
Some “leftover women” will go to great lengths to find a comparable partner in a dating landscape that emphasizes youth and a traditional family structure above the desires of people.
The Chinese government has implemented government-funded romantic services such as speed-dating events to try and help people navigate this brave new dating world. And aside from the government-sanctioned schemes, the dating industry as a whole is experiencing a boom expert matchmakers trying to take advantage.
Past 27 years old, many women in China find themselves between a rock and hard place – told they are both undesirably old, and yet also essential to rebalance the population. It’s a phenomenon that has spurred an industry of dating gurus, dating websites, and dating events.
“You’re not beautiful in the traditional sense. You have a tough personality and need to soften yourself,” a dating coach told Hua Mei in the beginning of the film.
The dating coach goes on to tell Hua Mei she is older than the preferred age for marriage, which will make it harder for her to find a partner, especially if she has high standards.
Coming from a lower social status, it would be outlandish for Hua Mei to marry someone of a wealthier background. But, she expresses to her family, she wants to be with someone who matches her intellectually, as a high-profile lawyer, and it’s proving difficult to find someone from her background who has had a similar education.
Her family, keen for her to marry and have children, is unsympathetic.
“I could live a wonderful life,” Hua Mei told filmmakers. “All this [grief happens] because I’m not getting married. I live in a constant fight, a life of exile.”
Gai Qi, a 36-year-old professor of film also profiled in the movie, faces similar hurdles using dating services to find a match in environment that frowns upon her age and marital status.
- Beck Media
While she eventually gets married and has a child during the course of the three years in which the documentary was filmed, it is her husband, younger than Gai Qi, who is celebrated for stepping outside of social norms by marrying an older woman.
Then, there’s family pressure.
At 28 years old, radio talkshow host Xu Min is the youngest of the women profiled during the film. She is shown attending government sponsored speed-dating events with chirpy announcers, heart-shaped decorations, and a crowd of young people practicing their prepared dating versions of elevator pitches in the hopes of finding The One.
After an unsuccessful attempt at meeting a match at the event, Xu Min’s mother tells her: “You’re not old. You’re not a ‘leftover woman’ – yet.”
But while Chinese society can appear conservative from a Western lens, it is important to understand that these gender gaps come as a direct result of government policy rather than cultural tradition.
“The gap is not between the children and the adults, all the messages that are coming from the government ultimately alter the parents,” Shalm told Insider.
The phrase “Leftover Women” was coined by the Chinese government as a campaign to combat the effects of the one-child policy
The phrase “sheng nu” or “leftover women” came into popularity a few years prior to the end of the one-child policy – a policy from the Chinese government that prohibited families from having more than one child from 1980 to 2016.
The government used various controversial methods to implement the policy including monetary incentives for families who abided, and forced sterilizations of thousands.
It led to a boom in the male population.
“When you create a system where you would shrink the size of a family and people would have to choose, then people would … choose sons,” journalist Mei Fong told NPR.
This caused a massive gender gap in the country’s population, with 30 million more men than women, according to the film.
In 2007, the All-China Women’s Federation – a government body founded in 1949 to defend women’s rights – coined the term “leftover women,” categorizing all unmarried women over the age of 27 in an attempt to pressure women to marry earlier to avoid the label.
“[The Chinese government then] started this aggressive campaign to target these women on social media and on other media, and of course all of that is another result of the one-child policy,” Medalia told Insider.
It sounds intense – but women in the West face similar pressures
At the end 0f the film, Hua Mei decides she has had enough with the social pressures she faces in her home country, and moves to study in France, where there is no government-coined term for unmarried women in their 30s.
But, Medalia and Shlam say, that doesn’t mean the same stigma does not exist.
The pressure to have children and get married by a certain age transcends borders, nationalities, and cultures, the filmmakers told Insider.
For Shalm and Medalia, in making the documentary they found that many of the challenges these women face in regards to feeling “too old” to be desirable to the dating market are universal. While there are no “leftover women” in the West in an official sense, many woman feel the same pressure to get married young and have children or risk being left behind.
- Read more:
- A 34-year-old who froze her eggs said it transformed her dating life for the better
- An Indian couple just became the world’s oldest parents. A fertility expert weighs in on the ethics behind the controversial ‘medical miracle.’
- The white couple who are suing their fertility clinic after they gave birth to an Asian baby say hospital officials inferred that their daughter was a result of an extramarital affair