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On Being a Shengnü — One of China’s “Leftover Women”

“You are not young anymore,” my mother told me—cruelly. “You are a shengnü. It’s time for you solve your personal problem.”  My personal problem. To solve “your personal problem” is a typical euphemism in China; it means “get married.” Being single is not just considered a “problem,” it’s considered a public concern. And shengnü (剩女). […]


On Being a Shengnü — One of China’s “Leftover Women”

“You are not young anymore,” my mother told me—cruelly. “You are a shengnü. It’s time for you solve your personal problem.”  My personal problem. To solve “your personal problem” is a typical euphemism in China; it means “get married.” Being single is not just considered a “problem,” it’s considered a public concern. And shengnü (剩女). […]


“You are not young anymore,” my mother told me—cruelly. “You are a shengnü. It’s time for you solve your personal problem.” 

My personal problem. To solve “your personal problem” is a typical euphemism in China; it means “get married.” Being single is not just considered a “problem,” it’s considered a public concern.

And shengnü (剩女). It means “leftover women,” or any single woman who’s over 25. What a despicable, ridiculous term.

But I’m 27. And I’m a shengnü. It is very difficult to be a shengnü. In addition to the social stigma, there’s my mother—she’s anxious to see me married. My dowry is already piling up in their apartment: kitchen appliances, a cauldron, quilts for different seasons, and a dinner table with four chairs. Every time I stop by, she’s collected something new.

So when she had the audacity to call me a shengnü, I called my friend Echo for sympathy. But it was nothing new to her. “When I was 25 and boyfriend-less, my mother was already sewing clothes for my future baby,” she said.

I know I should feel sympathetic towards mother’s anxiety. At my age, she was the mother of a three-year-old. My grandmother, at my age, had already been married for a decade.

Further, my mother’s world was one where things always went according to plan. Food was distributed through coupons, jobs were assigned by the government. Mother feels secure when things go according to plan, but an unmarried 27-year-old daughter is not something she planned.

I was able to turn a deaf ear to my mother’s complaints and warnings. And to the warnings of her sisters, and of my father’s sisters, and of my married friends. One of the unmarried friends even gave me a book titled “女大当嫁” (Nǚ Dà Dāng Jià, “A Woman Old Enough to Marry”), about how a woman can find a husband after 30. But I could do nothing about my grandmother.

“I’m old, and I don’t expect myself to stay in this world for long,” she told me. Before I could interrupt, she continued, “You are my favorite grandchild, and you are the only one I worry about. If you don’t bring a fiancé to me, I won’t be able to die with my eyes shut.” To die with your eyes shut is extremely important in China. It’s the same as dying peacefully.

And that’s when my pride evaporated. I don’t really want to get married, but my grandmother raised me—and how could I cause her such pain?

I asked an American coworker how people meet each other in his home country, and he seemed confused by the question. “If I see someone I want to meet in a coffee shop,” he said, “I just go up and say hi.” I couldn’t possibly do that. I’m shy. Further, in China it’s not the way things are done. I’m the kind of person a matchmaker would be more than willing to help. 

Matchmaking used to be the only way the Chinese got married. Girls were raised in the strict confines of the home, not allowed to meet people outside of the family. When it came time for marriage, the matchmaker would find the right match.

I thought matchmaking had disappeared, like bound feet. But after I started to seriously think about ways to marry myself off, I gradually discovered a world I didn’t know existed.

My friends told me to go to matchmaker websites, each of which has millions of subscribers, and it is not uncommon for a new face to get over 500 responses. On TV, matchmaking shows are incredibly popular. One of them, “If You Are the One,” has been receiving the top audience ratings for months in a row. In most traditional Chinese weddings, a matchmaker must be introduced to the crowd, even if the couple didn’t have one.

I’m surprised that matchmaking remains so hip; it’s like a collective madness here.

There are even matchmaking parties organized by workers’ unions (工会 gōnghuì). In the West, a union might ferociously fight for the rights of workers; but in China, especially in governmental departments and state-owned companies, the relationship is more harmonious, like a family. So the unions take care of workers’ well being in other ways: organizing concerts, celebrating birthdays, giving out cinema tickets and… organizing matchmaking parties. Sometimes these matchmaking parties last for days, and involve thousands of potential matches, and their parents.

My personal belief is that on the back of all the young singles subscribing to the websites or watching the shows or attending the union events, there is a hole being burnt by the anxious gaze of his or her mother. It is still common for the parents to be involved in the children’s matches. There are even matchmaking parks in every big city across China, and most of the children have no idea their parents are going, walking through the park with photos and resumes to exchange. The resumes, which range from beautifully printed to handwritten, are hung from trees, plastered to lampposts, draped around the parents’ chests. Walking through one of these parks, it feels somewhere between a vegetable market and a job fair. And the chatter is constant: “Do you have a son or a daughter?” “What’s the animal of your child’s birth year?” “What is their temper like?” “Are they the only child?”

But as far as I know, my mother has never been to one of these parks. I don’t think she even knows about them. Instead, she hassles me directly and also through her friends—Liu Ayi, Ding Ayi, Chen Ayi, and others—who phone to set me up with matches. I call all of them ayi, which means “aunt,” but they’re not really relatives. They are kind, married women in their 40s or 50s, friends of my mother who consider it their obligation to make matches. They save shengnü from loneliness and save shengnü‘s mothers from worrying. Unlike ancient matchmakers, who made matches for their livelihood, those modern matchmakers do it simply because they are warm-hearted.

A promising young match, in the eyes of my ayis, is a man with a job from which he can never be fired, what’s called an “iron rice bowl.” He’d best work for the government or a state-owned company, and a civil servant is ideal. If that civil servant happens to be a Communist Party member, he’s perfect. That’s the first thing I’m told about a potential match.

The second thing is, without fail, always their education. Having been through an education famine during the Cultural Revolution, my mother’s generation is paranoid about degrees. A doctorate always has a special appeal, and a master’s is acceptable. But when one of my ayis introduces a man without these, she’s always unexpectedly apologetic, “He graduated as a bachelor, but he’s really nice otherwise…”

The third thing I’m told about is their family, in a roundabout way. An urban man is preferred over a man from a rural family, because marriage is about the union of two families; a rural family, because it is much larger, is considered more difficult to deal with. Who wants so many aunts and uncles and cousins?

When I finally agreed to meet one of these men, Cui Ayi was ready with a match. His job: an editor. Education: master’s degree in news. Hometown: Anhui Province (“but he has a Beijing hukou (residence registration),” she quickly added.) My mother was pleased.

Then I discovered that my so-called “personal problem”—my shengnü status—was no longer personal at all. The day before I met the editor, my maternal aunt called out of the blue. She only talks to my mother on holidays, and she’s never called me before. “Are you going to find a duixiang (mate)?” she asked, excitedly. “I have advice for you: never call a man back.”

She then related an old Chinese idiom.

When a man pursues a woman, he needs to climb mountains,
Nán zhuī nǚ gé zuò shān,

When a woman pursues a man, he is only a thin layer of paper away.
Nǚ zhuī nán gé céng zhǐ.

“But once you rip off that paper,” she continued, “your marriage life will be doomed. He will no longer treat you with respect.”

Then my father’s sister called, and I realized the whole family was in on it. “I heard that you are starting to meet people, and I have two pieces of advice for you.” Her advice, it turned out, was culled from talk shows and televised lectures on marriage. “First, however different you are from your future husband, you should share the same ways of looking at the world; the second is that your families should match, men dang hu dui (门当户对)!”

My cousin called. “Getting married is different from dating, so be realistic. Marry money and stability, not love.”

Even a taxi driver joined in, shouting over the Beijing traffic and horns, “Don’t marry someone too rich. You will be in trouble.”

So I went on my first matchmaking adventure with all these words elbowing each other in my ears.  

And, sitting at a lunch table across from the editor, I had little to say. He asked me where I was from, and where I went to school, and what my major was, and where I worked. He always acted surprised at the answer, and paid a little compliment to whatever it was. I asked him the same questions in return, to keep the conversation going.

But this was just play-acting. I knew all the answers to the questions already. And so did he. We both knew all of this, in detail, from our ayi.

But that wasn’t the most painful part. That was yet to come. After a fruitless lunch, in a ritual that would be replayed after every meeting with a potential match, I had to tell everyone—my mother, my relatives, and the matchmaker—how it went. If it didn’t go well, why didn’t it work out? If I’m going to see him again, why?

This first meeting left me so disheartened, but my friend Echo can boost my morale. And she is also a “matchmaking master.” Through matchmaking, she got to know the restaurants of two cities by heart, and as many matches as I’ve been on, she’s been on 10 times more. Every time I’ve told her a bad story, she’s told me one worse, which is very comforting. On one of her early matches, after hearing about a man in great detail, she completely forgot his name when they met. He, fortunately, forgot hers too.

But Echo never lost faith in matchmaking; on the contrary, she’s a fan. She’d always look forward to the next match with excitement. Ever since she was a kid, playing the bride marrying a prince was her favorite game.

Now Echo is living happily ever after with her husband, whom, of course, she met in matchmaking. “When we first met, we didn’t even talk,” she said. “We were playing cards, in a group that was set up to introduce us. But both of us knew each other was the one. There was a spark in his eyes, and in mine, too. You just need to wait.”

But I doubt that Echo’s fairy tale story could happen to me. After spending just weeks on matchmaking, I was exhausted. What made it so hard was that it is so purposeful—find a husband, find a husband—which made it too forced, which then made it feel pointless. I tried to be filial and not to disappoint, but when my ayi popped up on my caller ID, I found it hard to answer the phone.

And then I thought of my grandmother, and I decided to try once more.

  • personal problem
  • gèrén wèntí 个人问题
  • matchmaking
  • xiāngqīn 相亲
  • matchmaker
  • méirén 媒人
  • dowry
  • jiàzhuang 嫁妆
  • I am organizing a matchmaking party.
  • Wǒ zài zǔzhī yīgè xiāngqīn huì. 我在组织一个相亲会。
  • Just a toaster? You call that a dowry?
  • Jiù yīgè kǎoxiāng? Zhè yě jiào jiàzhuāng? 就一个烤箱?这也叫嫁妆?

Image courtesy of Tanjila Ahmed on flickr.com