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Leftover women or an unappreciated feast?

Updated: 2013-09-28 01:55
By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily)

In China, single women in their 30s have become the target of attention for the wrong reason, not for their professional achievements but for their perceived undesirable marital status. This is the result of applying outdated yardsticks to a significant new social phenomenon.

The biggest news story gripping China for the past two weeks is a trivial one. It involves only two people — Faye Wong and Li Yapeng — who announced on Sept 13 that they had just divorced.

Leftover women or an unappreciated feast?

Li Feng /China Daily

Wong is a superstar singer whose every move is covered by reporters or paparazzi. Li is an actor with a lower profile, a second-tier star, you could say.

They were married in 2005. For the first couple of years of their marriage, few bet that it would last. Apart from the chasm in professional achievements, there was also the age gap. Wong is two years older — although she used to date Nicolas Tse, a singer-actor 11 years her junior.

But the Wong-Li divorce shocked many because they seemed to have overcome the seven-year itch, so to speak.

Now I'm not in a position to comment on their marriage and the ultimate separation. What little I gathered about them was from their micro blog postings, such as Li's remark: "I wanted a family, but you're destined to be a legend."

Wong does not have a busy career, it seems. She commands such exorbitant fees that she once retired for five years before returning to the concert stage.

In other words, Wong is not the best representative of a group of women so successful that few men are qualified to be their match.

But in urban China, a demographic of young career women has emerged. These are white-collar professional women, often in management positions, and with great looks to boot. But they are considered dangerously close to "being beyond marriageable age".

They are called the "leftover women" in China.

One has to remember that China has a surplus of men, which, according to some surveys, will reach 30 million by the year 2020. How can a woman be too old to find a spouse in such a gender-skewed society?

Yet, the "leftover women" phenomenon has its own twisted logic. Chinese tradition has it that people marry their social peers, or in old parlance, "the houses and doors should match between the two sides". When a disparity in social rank exists, men tend to marry downwards while women do the opposite.

For example, a woman from a poor family would usually want to marry someone from a slightly richer family, or into a richer village, as a means of ridding herself, and maybe even her whole family, of the stigma associated with her social status. A man, on the other hand, when failing to find someone from his own social circle, can go a step lower.

I'm not ruling out such factors as romantic love and personality. China is a very class-conscious society. Whether in the old days, when matchmaking nannies were active, or in the current age of so-called "free love", people are acutely aware of even the smallest difference in social ranking or wealth. That's why literary classics in China invariably portray a rich girl falling for a poor boy and walking down the aisle only after he attains officialdom and the prosperity that comes with it. Otherwise it would end in tragedy, as in The Butterfly Lovers.

This class reshuffling results in more single males than females on the lowest rung of the social ladder and, at the top, the reverse, but on a lesser scale. The latter has caught more attention simply because it is happening in the nation's gleaming office towers and posh apartments.

Traditionally, women in China suffered all kinds of discrimination. Even now, a century after binding feet was outlawed, many parents still prefer sons over daughters. The continually leveling playing field, though, has provided Chinese women with more and more opportunities. One cannot say we have reached absolute equality, but clearly women are winning in many fields. There are more of them in colleges. In workplaces they are beating men, not only in professions where women traditionally excel, but in those that have been dominated by men.

I've heard of employers who would lower their standards drastically for male prospects. We don't have an equivalent for "affirmative action", but de facto measures of protection exist in many areas for men because they are the weak ones and would not have a chance of survival in an environment of fair competition.

And don't accuse men of this bias. The employers and recruiters who engage in such practices — I mean the ones I personally know — are all women. In a way, they are trying to rectify the gender imbalance by employing less competent men.

No wonder then that women who have come out ahead have difficulty finding suitable men. Most men would not have the guts to ask them out in the first place. And men who are equally successful tend to already have spouses or want to date someone younger — often much younger.

Adding to the dilemma is the poison of demonization. Career-oriented women are often portrayed as tough and mean to everyone around them. A recent movie by Barbara Wong, The Stolen Years, depicts a happily married young woman who gets a big promotion and turns "bitchy", alienating every friend and colleague, even her husband. They divorce. Then she has a traffic accident, which wipes the past five years from her memory. She regains her wonderful old self. Talk about stereotyping.

The term "leftover women" has taken on a sardonic connotation. In my opinion, it is blown out of proportion. Women who are 35 are desirable in every way. It's just that they are out of reach of those who secretly desire them. They may choose to be single or they may have a steady relationship. Not tying the knot does not really mean much in this day and age.

However, we have to admit there are those who are unable to find dates because of their excellence. For them, the remedy seems to be one of two choices: either you take a step down or you bend down to reach someone lower. Lowering oneself in career and income potential does not seem reasonable, but dating and marrying someone younger and less wealthy requires removing psychological barriers only.

Another recent romantic comedy starring the stunner Fan Bingbing has her simultaneously pursuing her boss and being pursued by a younger man she supervises. She doesn't take the latter seriously because she hates the prospect of being called his mother when they walk into their sunset years. Eventually she relents and accepts his love.

It's certainly unconventional to some Chinese, but then dating someone before marriage was also unconventional 100 years ago.

The female stars of China, including Faye Wong, could be blazing a trail in areas other than their arts. When Fan Bingbing was asked about "marrying into a household of great affluence" as female stars are supposed to, she replied: "I don't need to use marriage to obtain wealth. I AM the house of great affluence."

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