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It’s no fun being leftover

The trials, tribulations, and origins of the shengnu and shengnan

10·08·2014

It’s no fun being leftover

The trials, tribulations, and origins of the shengnu and shengnan

10·08·2014

In a nation that often feels like it is creaking under the weight of its own outdated Confucian ideals, some things are more important than others, and the most important thing of all—at least in a familial sense—is having children. And in China there is one particular ceremony that is virtually unavoidable: marriage. The problem is that, in China today, quite a lot of people are not getting married at all, particularly males. And some people are getting very worried about it.

“Leftover men” (剩男)—those men that have failed to find a bride around the age of, say, 30—get a bit of a bad rap in China; they are typified as serial masturbators, Internet addicts who rarely leave home or zhainan (宅男), and as not having two farthings to rub together, still less the house and car that are now essential for finding a bride in China. There are a lot of shengnan, currently just under 13 million, but by 2020, it is estimated that there will be up to 30 million men of marrying age in China not able to find a wife. By some reports this will be up to 20 percent of all marriageable men. And there are, of course, many reasons for this. The prime candidate is the havoc the one-child policy played with demographics. Allowing the populace of an agrarian country, with a predilection for having boys, to only have one child led to the inevitable—a hugely disproportionate birthrate for boys. As many adopted to aborting unborn females, by 2004 more than 121 boys were born for every 100 girls. What it left behind was clear: too many men, not enough women.

However, demographics are not the sole reason to explain away the “leftovers”, men or women. In Chinese society there is an intense pressure on women to “marry up” and find a spouse who earns more money and has a better education than they do. It ought to be pointed out that this is not just an idea that is exclusively the desire of women. Many a Chinese man simply cannot deal with the idea of a wife being better educated or richer than himself; it’s all a bit too emasculating. And this, of course, puts everyone in a rather precarious position.

Let’s for a moment, somewhat crudely, divide up Chinese society on slightly mythical social lines. Say China is broken up into four groups, the very rich indeed, the rich, the relatively poor, and the very poor indeed, ignoring the middle class for brevity’s sake. The men who are very rich indeed, marry the rich women; the men who are rich, marry the relatively poor women; and the men who are relatively poor, marry the very poor women indeed. So, the two groups that lose out in marriage stakes are the women who are very rich indeed and the men who are very poor indeed. Now, what are the odds of these two groups marrying each other? You got it: zilch. This theory been clearly laid out by a chap called Zhang Jiarui who the Internet, a perennial source of infallible wisdom, informs me is a “marriage expert”.

Traditionally, throughout the world, the roles of the bachelor and spinster couldn’t be more different. The former is portrayed as, perhaps, an ageing silver fox, a playboy, the man about town enjoying his freedom; the latter, however, is seen as neurotic and having too many cats. However, with Chinese “leftovers” the stereotypes play out a little differently. Where the shengnan are portrayed as the veritable proud losers, “leftover women” are seen as highly–educated, sexy, sassy-types largely found on our screens in films and TV shows such as Tiny Times or Sex and the City. And while, as with many stereotypes, there is possibly a grain of truth to this, it doesn’t quite hold-up to inspection.

In 2013 the dating website Shiji Jiayuan published a report called “Confessions of Leftover Men”, a survey of about 56,000 single men born in the 1970s and 1980s. The survey found that 36 percent of these male respondents were middle or senior managers, and 37 percent possessed a master’s degree or higher, while 31 percent owned homes and 29 percent had monthly incomes of more than 15,000 RMB—hardly the stuff of our “very poor men indeed”. Although 49 percent admitted to not owning a house or car, and 60 percent said they were the aforementioned zhainan—as perhaps one would imagine with chaps filling out an online dating website survey. The shengnan, it seems, are a mixed bag.

Materialism is certainly an issue; from the 1950s right through to the 70s, a marriageable man was expected to have the “four big things” (四大件), and they were delightfully humble: a bicycle, wristwatch, radio, and sewing machine. After the Reform and Opening-up, things changed a little and the man was expected to have a refrigerator, TV, washing machine, and rice cooker. Today, things have changed and a man is expected, at the very least, to have a house, a car, and some fairly sizeable wages—and you can throw in a hukou (residency permit) for good measure. Now, that may sound like an exaggeration, but it is so entrenched that the idea of actually marrying without a house, a car, and all the assorted accoutrements now even has its own term, a “naked wedding” (裸婚)–so outré and bizarre is the notion that people might marry on the basis of, say, love and love alone. The truth is that, for centuries and throughout the world, the love marriage was pretty rare. It is probably only in the 20th century that the love marriage has become the most common—and even then only in some countries.

So what can be done for these doomed leftover types? Well, several things. In the long-term, the most obvious answer is for the nation to sort out its disparate birth rates, and that is already being done, albeit slowly. Couples are not (legally at least) allowed to know the sex of their child before birth and the one-child policy is slowly becoming a “two-child policy”. Currently the birthrate is at 117 boys for every 100 girls, so things are moving in the right direction.

Next, and this is more difficult, is for people to realize that, well, if you don’t want to, you don’t actually need to have children or get married at all. Many are gloriously happy being single and some are joining the ranks of the cash-rich DINKS (double-income, no kids). Though in a country such as China, there will always be limits to this. As feudalist as it sounds, pressure to produce an heir and continue the family bloodline is high. Another option would simply be to get naked—a naked marriage that is. If people are waiting around to own houses and cars before they get married, it might just never happen, especially in the larger cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, where properties are rapidly becoming amongst the most expensive in the world.

And the “leftover men”, in the parlance of our times, need to man up a little. If a woman is richer, more intelligent, and worldly than a man, he should count himself lucky instead of bemoaning her independence. And, being a self-professed zhainan whilst moaning about not having a lover isn’t really going to cut the mustard either. Finally, it might be useful to put marriage in China back in the domain where in modern times it claims to belong, love; forget about the market, income, education, what type of person the family say you must marry, and follow your bliss, your passion, your lust. Then, hopefully, you won’t be “leftover” for long.