A cultural delusion: There are no ‘leftover women’ in China

The cultural phenomenon of leftover women in China is objectively a fallacy. How and why is it so pervasive and widespread?

chinese woman

The term ‘leftover women’ (sheng nu) is used to describe Chinese women over the age of 27 who are unmarried.

Parents fear their daughters will cross the line into this socially embarrassing category. Young women approaching or past their 27th birthday are put under tremendous shame and pressure to settle down and get married.

VICE Asia published a short documentary about this cultural phenomenon. Markets where Chinese parents hope to pair their daughters with suitors have popped up around the country. Professional matchmakers assist in pairing people off.

“Is it difficult for a woman this age [35-years-old] to find a suitor?” a VICE reporter asks a matchmaker at one of these events.

“Very difficult,” he responds. “Doesn’t matter how gorgeous she looks. Boys are looking for someone young, never married, and good-looking.”

Perhaps those men wouldn’t be so picky were it not for a false narrative pushed by Chinese news and media outlets that is distorting reality.

Because objectively, mathematically, there are no leftover women in China.

That’s especially true for the Chinese cohort ages 7-43. Not only are there effectively zero leftover women in China now, but there won’t be a single one for at least another 10 years.

A historical and mathematical reality check on ‘leftover women’

In 1980, the Chinese government infamously implemented the One-Child Policy, a policy that stayed in effect until 2015.

Repercussions for violating the one-child policy included hefty fines and limitations to economic opportunities including job prospects. In more extreme cases, couples who had a second or third child in violation of the policy were forced into aborting pregnancies and even sterilized against their will.

Just a few years after the policy was put into effect, reports of spikes in infanticide of girls became so widespread, the CCP adjusted its policy. In 1984, the One-Child Policy was amended to add that if a family’s first child was a girl, they could have a second to try for a boy. The goal was to curtail the gender-selective abortions and infanticide nationwide that strongly favored sons over daughters.

It didn’t help. For more than 20 years, infanticide of girls became increasingly widespread, reflected in the countries male-to-females born ratio. The ratio’s disparity hit its peak around 2005, a year in which there were nearly 20% more males born than females.

UNICEF graph of male-to-female birth ratios
Data by UNICEF

While people in their 40s today experienced the deficit of women in the Chinese dating pool, those turning 18 in 2023 will face a dating pool born from the peak of the imbalance.

The gender imbalance in China’s marriage age adults

By the time the policy was ended in 2015, two generations of Chinese had accumulated nearly 34 million more males than females.

The cold, hard mathematical truth is: In China, there are over 34 million leftover men.

Most interestingly, most of the older generations have first-hand memory of the One-Child policy. Many are aware of the gender-based selections that were occurring during its enforcement. Still, as though suffering through a collective Mandela effect, they participate in the cultural shaming of women who are in shorter supply than men.

After all, if every single Chinese woman paired off with a Chinese man, 34 million Chinese men would find themselves bachelor’s with no options.

There are only leftover men in China.

A cultural delusion

Many of the women who fall into the crosshairs of the ‘leftover women’ shaming live in China’s big cities. They are educated and have more economic power than previous generations. Despite being aware of China’s One-Child Policy and of their numerical advantage in dating and marriage, the harassment is so pervasive and consistent, they still struggle not to internalize the stigma.

They are frequently pressured by family members and even by Chinese state-run media to prioritize finding a husband and starting a family. But rather than positioning the benefits of marriage and family to these women, the strategy adopted is shame and manipulation.

The rise of the ‘leftover women’ in China is testament to the human’s psyche malleability to repetition. When heard enough times, lies can override personal experiences and statistical realities.

Facing reality: There are no leftover women

Chinese women getting down on themselves about not finding marriage by 27 should remember that no matter what the media or their parents say, they are the limited variable in the dating pool.

If Chinese men of marriage age start seeking younger women to marry, dipping into the still-skewed dating pool of the those coming of age behind them, the situation will only get worse in the future.

If Chinese men of marriage age want a family, they will be up against a statistical disadvantage no matter what the cultural narrative is. They will have to admit to themselves an uncomfortable reality that China as a whole doesn’t seem ready to face: It is on men to be more attractive suitors. If they fail, they could become one of millions of leftover men. Because there are no leftover women in China — not even one.

This cold numerical reality is likely to draw increasing backlash toward Chinese women who have opted out of marriage to pursue education, careers, or a life of their own. But Chinese women are at a historical position of leverage. If they can transcend the cultural gaslighting and shaming, they may have an opportunity to increase equity both in marriage and in the Chinese economy.

Women around the world should take note of the types of cultural forces that bend reality, statistics, and history in an effort to deny the vital role women play within society.

If Chinese women can effectively call the bluff of the leftover women delusion, they could improve the condition of women globally.

It won’t be easy.


  • Tanja Fijalkowski

    Tanja Fijalkowski is an award-winning writer, editor, and designer. A North Bay Area native, she has written for various financial, business, history, and science publications. She's a deep-dive researcher with a strong command of data analysis and simplifying complex concepts.

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