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China

"Sheng-nu" No More - Revenge Of China's Unmarried Career Woman

The frequent use of the Chinese term "Sheng-nu," translated as "leftover women," is a sign of the lingering stigma in China of women who don't get married. But financially successful women are turning the tables on the question of social status.

"Sheng-nu" No More - Revenge Of China's Unmarried Career Woman

Some Chinese women are using consumerism to counteract longstanding stigma over their single status

Robert Kozinets and Chih-Ling Liu

In China, if you are female, educated and unmarried by the age of 27, people might use a particular term – "Sheng-nu" – to describe your social status. It translates simply as "leftover women".

The label was deliberately invented to curb the rising number of single women in a traditional society which sometimes views not marrying as a moral transgression. Some even consider it a threat to national security.


Indeed, portrayals of single women as lonely, desperate, overqualified and intimidating appear regularly in Chinese media and news outlets. Research has shown that the "sheng-nu" stigma has pressurized many women into marriage.

Economics as protest

Partly as a result of the expansion of mass education since the economic reform of the 1980s, women in China appear to be increasingly confident about their place in modern society.

The 7 million single women aged 25 to 34 in urban China are among the largest contributors to the country's growth. Women now contribute some 41% to China's GDP, the largest proportion of any country in the world.

And our research reveals that single professional Chinese women are changing how others see them not through protest or activism – but through their economic power. They are using consumerism to counteract longstanding stigma over their single status.

One 33-year-old woman told us:

"During family gatherings, my aunt just loves to tease my parents about why I'm still single. In her mind, I must lead a miserable life. I need to defend my parents [so] I constantly upgrade my own self-image by buying myself more and more expensive clothes to wear."

She continued: "I want the best of everything in life. My sunglasses are from Burberry, my handbag is from Louis Vuitton, my laptop is from Apple ... I show that I'm not miserable and I lead a great life. [My relatives] can then leave my parents alone."

Consumption and economic power have become a way for these women to build legitimacy for an alternative lifestyle

ImagineChina/ZUMA

Gifts for worried parents

And a 30-year-old explained: "The more people want to laugh at you, the more glamorous you need to look in front of them. When you look glamorous, people become more tolerant of you [and your family]."

An IT developer of 35 recalled: "When I bought my mother a golden ring, she was over the moon. My father was very poor when they got married, so she never received a ring from him. I wanted to show both of them that I can afford many, many things."

The marketplace is also capitalizing on the rise of singlehood and its economic muscle. China's "Singles' Day", invented in 2009 by the e-commerce giant Alibaba as a kind of anti-Valentine's celebration for single people, has overtaken Black Friday to become the biggest annual shopping festival in the world.

Singles-day spending

Held on November 11 every year (the date was chosen because of the four number ones in the date 11.11), 2021 has seen record levels of spending.

Japanese beauty company SK-II has also seen a growth in sales after it launched a series of popular videos featuring successful professional women who have chosen not to marry.

Of course, not all single women in China can afford to demonstrate this kind of spending power. But our study suggests that for those who can, a new sense of economic liberty helps to define themselves and their place in Chinese society.

The chance to spend money on themselves – and often on gifts for their parents – helps to positively redefine their single status as something to be proud of.

Through conspicuous consumption, they promote themselves as morally upright, economically independent, successful citizens. The women in our study are deploying the power of the market to counteract the "sheng-nu" stigma and its spread.

Consumption and economic power have become a way for these women to build legitimacy.

As another woman commented: "Single women really should go out more, especially when they are not bound by family life. Go out and see new scenery, experience a new life. You might realize there is another possibility to live."

Despite its rise in contemporary China and Hong Kong, the act of protesting can lead to imprisonment and severe consequences. For stigmatized "sheng-nu" women, direct confrontation in the form of social activism could lead to serious professional or legal consequences.

Instead, consumption and economic power have become a way for these women to build legitimacy for an alternative lifestyle. Their struggle pits the modernizing and global power of the contemporary market against the traditional cultural authority and media power of China's modern party state. And in a surprising turn of events, it looks like the single women are winning.


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Society

Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*

-Essay-

When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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