Leftover Women – Being a Single Woman in China

Imagine if you went to a matchmaker and she said, “You’re not beautiful, you’re not young, and you can’t choose not to have children.”  This may sound outrageous, but it’s happening all over China these days, especially to professional women who are over the age of 27 and still not married. In Chinese, they are known as sheng nu. In English, that translates to Leftover Women.

Right now, nearly a third of urban Chinese women are single, which is a huge stigma for both them and their families.  And it’s a problem for the government as well. Because of their one-child policy (1979-2015) which favored boys over girls, there are now 30 million more men than women in the country, giving the country the most lopsided sex ratio in the world. So, the government is pushing young women to get married and have kids asap. They are looking to increase the birthrate and improve the “gene pool.” 

In this 83-minute documentary of the same name, filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia explore this complicated issue with grace, humor, and empathy. Along the way, they attempt to answer the question, how do modern Chinese women balance what’s expected of them with what they want for themselves?  We get a clear picture of the struggle through the eyes of three young woman – Qui Hua Mei (34, and a successful lawyer), Xu Min (28, and a public radio station worker), and Gai Qi (36, and an Assistant Professor at Normal University). 

In one of the films more comic moments, we’re introduced to the rituals of government-sponsored events for singles – sort of like a giant 100-person game show – where the winner is always a man. Then it’s on to social events, bar hopping, and even weekly marriage markets, where singles’ height and college credentials are on display. And we also see intimate exchanges with the women’s families.  

Xu Min Talking with Her Parents

But rather than showing us just a carefully crafted snapshot of the problem, the filmmakers let the camera linger over small but significant moments like when Xu Min talks with a “relationship expert” and slowly realizes that she has always been afraid of her mother and that her mother has been emotionally abusive to her since she was young. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

Another touching scene is when Hua Mei meets a young man from a nearby village. At first all is well. He seems to be intelligent and forward thinking.  But as the conversation progresses, we begin to hear what he expects from a wife; and it’s not what Hua Mei wants or can even stomach. We literally see the delight drain from her eyes. Then, as the sound dips, we realize that she has stopped listening altogether. It’s a great moment, milked to perfection.

For me, the most striking sequence occurs near the end of the film when Professor Gai Qi is giving a lecture and talks about the difference between her single life, which she described as fun and exciting, and her current married life complete with child. She calls it boring … but then admits that she’s ultimately happy. It actually made me cringe.

There is no “Happy Ending” in this film; just a series of moves, countermoves, and compromises, as these young women struggle to stay true to themselves and survive in modern-day China.  

Top photo: Gai Qi before her wedding

About Paula M. Levine (26 Articles)
Paula is an award-winning writer, producer, and storyteller who has spent over twenty years producing news, feature stories, documentaries, and web content. Since 2014, she has also taught Writing and Media Relations at NYU in their Masters Program in PR and Corporate Communication. In her "copious spare time", she runs, bikes, and swims; and has completed 7 NYC Marathons.