How a growing number of Chinese women are shunning societal pressures to marry – and the labels attached to them.
Katrina Yu | 29 Oct 2015 16:38 GMT | Human Rights, Women, China
Zhang Lin has been living in Beijing for 11 years. But her father has never visited her in that time. He says that as she doesn’t have a husband and child, there’s no point. [Katrina Yu/Al Jazeera]
BEIJING – Zhang Lin waits in a noisy restaurant outside the university where she has taught for more than 10 years.
“I’m sorry I’ve started already; I haven’t had a chance to eat all day,” she says.
Surrounded by noisy groups of older men and rowdy students she sits alone in a flowing white dress, her wavy air tumbling over her shoulders as she eats. She is 38, but could pass for a student.
Between bites, she explains that she’s from the country’s south, and although she has lived in Beijing for 11 years her father has never visited her.
“Among their four children, I’m the only one who’s not married. He says because I don’t have a family he has no reason to come here,” she says, her tone momentarily subdued.
“My mother came once, three years ago. But it was a disaster, a complete disaster,” she adds.
Zhang was raised in a small city in what she describes as a very traditional family.
“My mother especially, she’s always worrying about me being single. My parent’s generation are always on stand-by to sacrifice themselves for their children. One day she called me and said she would visit for the summer to help me find a husband.”
Zhang’s mother had read an article about Beijing’s ‘marriage markets,’ where parents of single children would gather at the city’s Zhongshan Park, in the hope of matching their child with the offspring of another desperate parent.
In a Beijing park, the parents of unmarried women and men gather in the hope of finding a spouse for their offspring. [Katrina Yu/Al Jazeera]
Twice a week groups of about 30 to 60 parents meet in the same spot, each carrying pieces of paper containing information about their child – their job, level of education and salary, as well as their physical attributes.
“When the markets started it was just for parents. But these days, you see more and more single children are dragged along with them. It’s like a fair for parents and their ‘leftovers,’ mostly women,” sighs Zhang, who admits to having helped start the trend.
Out of duty, she reluctantly accompanied her mother to the market twice a week, standing silently beside her for more than an hour at a time. “I felt I couldn’t refuse, but doing it made me feel everything bad you could possibly feel; humiliated, depressed, furious. I felt like such a loser, standing there to sell myself.”
The term ‘Leftover Woman’ was first coined in a report by the Chinese Women’s Federation in 2007 to describe young females in their late 20s who had not yet married.
The phrase quickly gained momentum, finding its place among popular colloquial terms such as ‘Gaofushuai’ (a rich, tall and handsome male) and ‘Baifumei’ (a pale-skinned, wealthy young woman).
But while the label is relatively new, its message isn’t.
China’s foremost ancient thinker, Confucius, wrote “the Chinese girl was brought up, then as now, with matrimony in view as her goal” and “the woman follows the man. In her youth she follows her father and elder brother; when married, she follows her husband; when her husband is dead, she follows her son.”
According to these tenets, marriage in China had less to do with romantic love, and more with filial duty and societal stability.
Hundreds of years later, China has modernised, and women, according to Mao, “hold up half the sky”, but most still face harsh judgments for remaining unmarried past a certain age.
“There’s a sense of failure. People would just assume that there must be a problem with you. That it’s your fault,” says Zhang.