'Leftover women' not keen to settle for less

ALL BY MYSELF: Sheng nu, or single women in their late 20s and beyond, face societal and parental pressure to get hitched. An SK-II ad featuring such women telling their parents that marriage isn't the only path to happiness resonated with women in China but some felt it was exploitative.


    Apr 19, 2016

    'Leftover women' not keen to settle for less

    "I AM a sheng nu," Jenny Yan, 30, proclaimed. The car sales executive has been single for about a year after breaking up with her boyfriend of three years.

    "I am now searching for my life partner with the frame of mind of a sheng nu," she said.

    Literally "leftover women", sheng nu is a derogatory term in China for single women who, in the eyes of society, have passed the ideal time to get married and still remain unattached in their late 20s and beyond.

    The term sheng nu suggests that Chinese society sees the singletons as undesirable, almost like the coarser particles that are left on a sieve.

    Single men, on the other hand, are known as sheng nan (leftover men) or guang gun (bare sticks).

    The situation seems to be more dire for men, as they will outnumber women by 24 million by 2020 due to the country's gender imbalance, but they are less stigmatised than single women in the patriarchal society.

    While Ms Yan said her parents look forward to her settling down, they are not putting too much pressure on her. She is taking the initiative to search for a suitor.

    "When I was in my 20s, I relied solely on feelings and paid no heed to all the realistic factors, but now I won't have too much expectation," Ms Yan said.

    "To create more chances for myself, I'll agree to meet and get to know the other person whenever friends recommend possible suitors to me."

    The stigma surrounding sheng nu often leads to heated discussions, with single women determined to shake off the shame and outdated judgment that society forces on them.

    A recent advertisement by Japanese beauty products brand SK-II rightly triggered a flood of support from women in China.

    Themed Change Destiny, the four-minute-long clip walked viewers through the humiliation single women faced in China, which more often than not resulted in self-doubt and self-criticism.

    "Maybe I should give up on someone I love for someone who's suitable," one of the women said to the camera, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

    Their parents were a major source of pressure, urging them to stop being so choosy and quickly settle down. Instead of being supportive, they were critical of their daughters.

    "I used to think my daughter has great personality.

    "She is not too pretty, just average. That's why she is a leftover," a mother said with a light chuckle, while her daughter, who was sitting next to her, tried hard to contain her tears.

    A father said: "As long as you are not married, I cannot die in peace."

    In the advertisement, the women decided to attend the Shanghai Marriage Market, a weekend fair at the People's Park where parents "promote" their single and available daughters and sons with details such as age, height, profession, income and assets.

    In a turn of events, it was revealed that the women were not there to look for partners, but to tell their parents that marriage is not the only path to happiness.

    Professional portraits which depicted them as confident and glowing women were exhibited in the park, along with a personal message.

    "I don't want to get married just for the sake of marriage. I won't live happily that way," one of them, identified as Li Yuxuan, 33, said.

    Since it was posted on SK-II's official Weibo account, the video has recorded two million views and was shared 25,000 times.

    Sindy Huang, 36, said she was touched by the advertisement.

    "The details in the advertisement were moving, such as their skin condition, their sleep-deprived look and the helplessness in their eyes. I feel like I am watching myself," she said.

    The Beijing-based journalist, who hails from Zhejiang province, said Chinese society has the tendency to sympathise with single women.

    "Many people think sheng nu is the main cause of an unstable society, and parents are desperate for us to get married because they don't want us to grow old alone," she said.

    Both Ms Yan and Ms Huang said while they yearn for true love and a family of their own, they would not rush into a relationship and preferred to wait for the right person to come along.

    Ms Huang said girls have to have a strong inner centre to help them face the pressure from society.

    When ridiculed by married friends, she said she would retort by asking them if they are in a state of perfect happiness.

    "That shuts them up. Some of them even conceded that I was right," she added.

    However, not everyone held the SK-II advertisement in high regard. Some were of the opinion that the short film has exploited single women's weaknesses to boost views.

    A writer, Gu Yingying, likened the advertisement to "a bottle of dirty water splashing onto (women's) independence and confidence".

    Towards the end of the short film, one of the mothers exclaimed: "Sheng nu should be proud!"

    In taking an apparent jab at this particular line, Ms Gu wrote on her WeChat official account: "Sheng nu is not an honour, and neither is marriage. This is just a life choice and has nothing to do with honour."

    Ms Huang disagreed with the comments that dolling the women up in the advertisement is just a typical way to confront the dominant ideology of patriarchy.

    "There isn't anything wrong with dressing up. Those who are not sheng nu will never understand the pain of singletons.

    "I am okay with the creative execution of the advertisement. It isn't targeted at men or housewives, after all," she said.