From ‘Iron Girls’ to ‘Leftovers’ – Independent Women in China


Have you ever been called a leftover woman? Yeah. Sometimes. Yeah… My name is Wei Ting Ting. I’m one of the family’s hope arrested before the International Women’s Day. We’re in China. Where women are experiencing unprecedented financial freedom. And since Mao founded the people’s Republic of China in 1949, Have enjoyed equal rights to men. Well, at least some people. Up until the Communist Revolution, women were pretty much considered property, And their feet were tied. Then Mao, when breaking the norms of social class in gender, declared that women carry half of the sky. And gender equality was written into the Constitution. Remember how American women were in power to join the workforce in 1940’s, when the men left for war. And then sent back to the kitchen in the 50’s when they returned. Back in the days of Mao, there wasn’t enough man-power to build the new China. So women joining the workforce were celebrated. As iron girls. These days, however, feminists are being detained. And for almost a decade, unmarried women older than 27, Have been called the term Xiong Nu, which means less of a woman. We’re here to find out why women’s social status in China is experiencing a backlash. Some Chinese parents are so worried of their daughters being referred to as leftovers, that they have taken the matters of finding them a spouse into their own hands. (synchronized singing with dinos) Runaway to one of China’s many wedding mar- (interrupted by velociraptors) We’re in one of Bejing’s many public parks, and today, in this one, there’s a wedding market on, where parents come to advertise their unmarried sons and daughters. These types of markets happen a lot, several times a week all over China. We met up with the local match-maker. Mr. Yan. So she’s born in 1980, so she’s actually.. 35. Is it difficult for her to find a husband at that age? Although China’s one child policy, which was introduced in the late 1970’s, was recently revoked, for parents, it has meant that an unmarried son or daughter, is the end of the family lineage. That’s why, it’s seen as a parent’s final duty in life to see their children married off. Is it possible to make an ad for me and see what happens? Finding a match is not easy. Because the one child policy has also created an extreme gender imbalance. Because sons were preferred, many would-be daughters were aborted. Meaning, there are over 20 million more men than women in China. Despite the real issue, being the leftover men, it’s still the women who are berated, for leaving their villages to try their luck in the cities, Where they can marry-up or pursue a career. Leaving millions of poor working men unable to find a spouse. Do you think I have good options to find a boyfriend? So basically, at these markets, you usually don’t come yourself. It’s usually your parents and often you don’t even know your parents are here, advertising you. Um.. And you need to put your height, your weight, usually your date of birth and what kind of spouse you’re looking for. Is the age of the man important? And is it important that the man earns more money? (Velociraptor roars) What kind of man are you looking for, for you daughter? Yeah, that’s me. Yeah. This guy wanted me to stand up, but I’m too tall, so… People seemed a bit confused as to why I’m here, and I’m pretty weirded out too, because I’m being judged, on completely superficial things, sitting here, in a dinosaur park. with plastic dinosaurs, growling. And people dancing and doing weird things. I got the feeling that it was because of the shortage of wives that the term leftover women was coined. To pressure girls to marry young, and stigmatize the women who choose to pursue a career, we wanted to find out what a day in the life is like, for one of China’s so called leftover women. So we met up with the young profession in Bejing. Actually I’m just a double-speaking teacher and listen teacher. So it this like your aspiration, like is this a job that you always wanted to do? Yeah, I mean, I like teaching because I like, help people. Yeah, I know it’s a like a two-way street. Yeah, I get to teach something, and they can just, uh… teach me something in a different way. Yeah.. It seems like everywhere you walk in China, you’re surrounded by all these ads of like, pretty young girls in wedding dresses. Yeah, I feel like it’s not e- Not everybody is lucky enough to get the one the way they want. And I feel like the leftover ladies um.. I don’t feel pity for them, or for us because we really know what we want. (unlocking the door) Ok, welcome to my home! (laughs a little) Oh wow, so this is your room! Yeah, right. It’s kind of a little bit messy, you know how a girl’s room is, you know.. And have any of these girls like experienced any sub-comment or difficulties because they’re not like weak and frail, because they’re actually like career-oriented? Yeah… Right, there are, and then we’re like called like, you know, half-women. Like “nü han zi” in China. Is that another term, it’s not just leftover women, you also have to -Yeah -Tough girl is another term? Exactly, these are two really famous popular terms in China. Wow, they really don’t like tough girls in China. Sometimes, it’ll come as like unfair, but we are quite okay about it. We are still living in the way that we like, we don’t care too much about what other people think. Yeah, we’re like, leftover ladies, oh my gosh! Can we do the one that tells you your age? Oh, oh yeah, yeah ,yeah! Wait, analyzing. Ahh! I’m even older than you! (laughter) That’s, that’s good right? Yeah, right. That’s a good age. It’s a good age! Being in your thirties is like being in your twenties all over again. Oh, oh okay. Look at all these leftover ladies. This one is pretty cute.. You know what’s ironic to me? Uhum. In China, the real issue is the leftover men because there’s so many more men than women. Yeah, why is it not “more leftover men” ? But they don’t label the men leftover. Yeah, right. Is there any sort of hope or expectation your family got your age, say you should be sort of having your own family or anything like that? Yeah, like always, right. Like, always, this is like a big issue for me as 26 years old uh.. girl. Yeah.. The other day, I just celebrated my own birthday. I called my grandpa and he just uh.. said something like you know, cliché again like, “Hey, you are getting old.” Yeah, I was like, seriously? I’m only 26. And then, he said, “Come on, go find a valiable boyfriend.” Oh, you’re not you know, you don’t have to set your bar too high, because you’re not that good enough. (short “seriously?” laugh) And yeah, he’s just using this strategy, he wants me to live a good life, ok, but, I feel like what’s the difference is that I feel like finding boyfriends is not the only issue in my life. It felt strange to me that someone as young as Nicole, should feel pressure to get married. But she’s lucky, as her family still relatively understand. But we’ve heard of cases where girls have been shunned by their families, for refusing to tie the knot. This mentality is so ingrained in today’s China, that the wedding and dating industry is thriving, and predicted to soon surpass $300 million dollars a year. We tried out another one of one of China’s many increasingly popular match finding options. Today is Chinese Valentine’s Day, and we’re at an amusement park, where there’s going to be a speed dating event taking place, and I’m going to find out what the details are for registry. But it seems like people have to wear paper bags. The speed dating event was organized by a match-making agency, infamous for TV ads in that so called “leftover women”. Which has sparked public outcry on Chinese social media. Okay, see like all the girls are told to stand on one side. And then the boys on the other. Had a hard time believing that I could find Mr. Right. Wearing a paper bag in an octopus-themed amusement park. Oh, thank you, xiè xiè. Hi, I’m Milene. Oh you’re from Panama, Mongolia! Yes, yes. I really want to go to Mongolia! Girls in China have a lot of pressure to get married before they’re 27. Do you feel that pressure on you as well, being a guy? What are girls usually looking for in a guy? Can we go horse-riding in Mongolia? I was brought up on stage, blind folded, and asked to pick a man. He’s cute! So I’m looking for somebody who will make me laugh, and who’s intelligent, and who reads a lot of books. They clearly didn’t get my criteria for what I was looking for in a partner. Having witnessed the gender norms in modern China, It was hard to imagine the days where strong working women were idolized. Back in the days, China’s 1960’s and 70’s cultural revolution, Wang Zheng was a movie star of the era’s revolutionary heroine films. So she has personal insight on ambitious women’s drastic shifts from being celebrated as iron girls, to being denounced as leftover women. In 1980’s, was China’s reform period. During which former leader Deng Xiaoping opened up China to foreign investment. Despite this social pressure to marry young, and women’s pursuit of a career often frowned upon, more and more Chinese women refuse to buy into that social stigma. Cities like Bejing and Shanghai are full of unmarried, successful career women. We’re going to go meet some of them from a group called Lean In Bejing. To see how they feel about this whole concept about the leftover women. Lean In Bejing was founded in 2012. Inspired by Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same name. They already have thousands of members across China. Nicole is one of them. Please come in. Great, thank you! I think the role of this organization is to allow or to encourage, you know, Chinese women to define what success is and what their own goals and dreams are on their own terms. There is life after 30. I think many Chinese people are terrified of turning 30. and that, you know, should they choose to pursue a career and even if society says she is leftover, you know, they can still live full and happy lives. I feel like there are time we’re too focused on the time on edge, right, and that I love, I love the leftover ladies, this disconcept. I feel like it’s comminent. You are brave to be a leftover lady, standing, we’re still waiting for any good relationships, we still have hope for love, for our dreams, out careers. My experience with love relationships that is pretty much the most unreliable thing, but you can try, if you’re drunk. And the most reliable thing surely is having a career, so that you can support yourself and you’re children no matter what happens. What kind of issues have you all faced in your professional life that you bring here and talk about together? After the meeting, Nicole invited us for a night talk. So did you get your nails done often? Um.. yeah. Do you think it’s confusing for people that you do your nails you like all these girly things, but then, you and all the other Lean In girls ae quite like strong and tough? Yeah. Is that something that confuses people? I feel like this is like conservative, you know, stereotype. We’re not supposed to be really capable or aggressive in the public place or workplace, but I know things that weren’t changed. You know, China in the old days is much better than before more advanced. Would you call yourself a feminist? I don’t think so. Yeah, I’m not a feminist. I mean, it’s like always just put yourself on the opposite side of the men. Like always fight with each other. I don’t think that’s a good saying, I mean, I, I think it’s too strong. The word feminist seems to have negative connotation in China. Even women who tick all the boxes for what a feminist is, like, Nicole, will avoid this label. The feminism does still exist in China. Being politically active feminist in China is risky and can get you detained. But there’s still people who do it. We’re on our way to meet a feminist collective called BECOME. Her currently rehearsing a Chinese version of the vagina monologues. The Va-China monologue. What does it say on your shirt? This is what feminism looks like in Chinese. Is feminism big in China? That’s insane, China has about a fifth of the world’s women and you have a thousand feminist. That’s kind of scary.. You’ve had friends who’s been arrested by the police for doing feminist activities. Are you ever scared? In the lead up to the International Women’s Day in 2015, the arrest of China’s feminists five made world news. The five women’s rights activists in China have been held for a month on suspicion of picking quarrels, and provoking trouble. Actually meeting one of the feminist five, who are now all on probation, would be too risky for everyone involved. Instead, we got one of their activist, Ting Ting, to film herself answering our questions. According to the UN, more than 50% of Chinese men abuse their partners. And marital rate is not a crime in China. And in national estimate, the half million people are currently in punitive detention, without charge or trial in China. And that surveillance, house arrests, imprisonment of activists is on the increase.