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What China’s leftover women can teach us

Jemimah Steinfeld
A review of Leta Hong Fincher’s ‘Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China’ - the issues raised related to women everywhere.

Chinese people like titles. If you’re a male only child, you’re a “little emperor”. If you’re gay, you’re a “comrade”. And if you’re single, female and over the age of 27, you’re “leftover”. This is the focus of Leta Hong Fincher’s hotly anticipated book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.

The term first emerged around 2007. Since then, it has spread throughout Chinese society. State media newspapers, cartoons and TV shows all contain references to leftover women. China has traditionally placed a huge emphasis on women getting married, but there’s more to it than that.

Manipulated down the aisle

As a result of the One Child Policy the country now has 118 men to every 100 women. This means there’s a surplus of men of marital age who will struggle to find a bride. The government is concerned about how this will impact social stability and wants to limit their numbers. Another government objective – a desire to upgrade the ‘quality’ of the populace – also dovetails nicely with the campaign. China’s ‘high quality’ women, who are starting to enjoy their newfound freedoms and delay marriage, are therefore being manipulated back down the aisle.

The ramifications are far-reaching, starting with property. Most men (and their families) want their sole name on the property deed. Even when women contribute to the purchase, they face hostility if they ask for their name to be added. Hong Fincher cites a 2012 survey of thousands of home buyers in four major Chinese cities which found that women’s names were included on only 30% of marital home deeds. Fincher quotes a 25-year-old woman who has just put her life savings into a home that doesn’t have her name on it: “If all of this goes to him only, it’s OK.”

This places women in a very vulnerable position. In the most sobering chapter of the book, American Kim Lee recounts the stress of her high profile divorce from abusive husband Li Yang. She illustrates just how difficult it is for a Chinese woman to leave an unhappy marriage.

What we have in common

At its core this is a book about women in China, but there are similarities. The term “leftover” is strikingly similar to “on the shelf”, the reductionist title thrown at older, single females in the UK. Like the interviewees in Hong Fincher’s book, we all know people who compromise in their relationships for fear of being “on the shelf”, even if it’s not to the same extent as the author’s subjects.

You leave the book partly pleased for your lot, partly depressed for Chinese women’s and partly curious about how our two fates stack up. When, for example, did women acquire full property rights in the UK? Does the growing trend for pre-nuptial agreements compromise women in any way? How easy is it for British victims of domestic abuse to seek protection? These questions are just as important for British women as they are for Chinese.

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China by Leta Hong Fincher was published by Zed Books on 10th April 2014. Image credit: CC Sodanie Chea

Hong Fincher cites a 2012 survey of thousands of home buyers in four major Chinese cities which found that women’s names were included on only 30% of marital home deeds.



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