Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

Huiping Xian (Management School, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 13 April 2015



Huiping Xian (2015), "Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China", Gender in Management, Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 179-182. https://doi.org/10.1108/GM-12-2014-0119



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Leta Hong Fincher’s book addresses gender inequality in China from a non-traditional angle – the phenomenon of “leftover woman” or shengnü, which is a term developed in recent years in the Chinese language to describe an urban, professional female in her late twenties or older, who remains single. While educated women in other industrialised countries who pursue their careers are also reported to marry late or stay single, what makes Fincher’s study unique is that it takes into consideration the gender gap in real-estate wealth and gender imbalance in the Chinese society. The book is based on a large amount of empirical data that the author has collected as part of her doctoral study, as well as the content of news reports, editorials, online discussion forums and images circulated on the Internet in China.

This book’s point of departure is the discussion of the State and media discourse about “leftover women” in Chapter 1. This discourse sees educated and white-collar women often blamed for excessively pursuing perfect partners: men who are highly educated, occupy senior positions in their organisations and receive high compensations. As a result of this discourse, single women at different age groups have been subject to sexist jokes and negative comments about their personal lives, with State media news reports, surveys, columns and television programmes directly and indirectly advising women to lower their career ambitions and stop being picky about their partners. This is illustrated by the following comment from a Xinhua News column:

The main reason many girls become “leftover women” is that their standards for a partner are too high […] As long as girls are not too picky, finding a partner should be as easy as blowing away a speck of dust.

The author attributed this negative portrait of “leftover women” to the government’s attempts to tackle two social issues. The first is the State’s need for promoting marriage as a means of social stability, so as to alleviate a sex-ratio imbalance after the introduction of the one-child policy. The second is the government’s plan to enhance the “quality” of the population by encouraging educated and “high-quality” women to marry and have a child to support the common good.

Chapter 2 explores the acquisition of real-estate property and China’s increasing gender wealth gap. The author argues that many Chinese women have not been benefited from the booming real-estate market. In China, most of the properties (the biggest source of wealth in cities) are registered solely under men’s names, even though the majority of Chinese women contribute to the deposit and repayment of mortgages. This situation was exacerbated by a ruling by the Supreme People’s Court in 2011 that established that if both parties are unable to reach an agreement upon divorce, each party is entitled to keep whatever property is registered in his or her own name.

However, Fincher notes that the women in her study accepted this practice as “men are expected to be head of the household and the official homeowner” (p. 59). Although some women participants in Fincher’s study expressed concerns, they were unwilling to challenge this arrangement. In particular, for those leftover women who often had a successful career, letting their less successful partners claim sole ownership was a compensatory practice aimed at maintaining their partners’ masculinity and pride. However, this created a sense of insecurity for the women who gave up their careers to look after the family, hence becoming financially dependent on their husbands because Chinese couples do not share bank accounts. The author observes that “the Chinese regulatory system effectively reinforces the patriarchal norm of the man as household head” (p. 72), thus what appears to be a gender-neutral regulation can produce gender-specific outcomes.

Chapter 3 further examines how home-owning contributes to gender inequality in wealth from both cultural and economic perspectives. Culturally, the Chinese family system prioritizes the needs of male members. Parents’ resources are largely invested into the son or even male cousins when their only child is a daughter. Young women’s strong sense of filial piety means that they are often obliged to give up the opportunity of buying a home to financially help their male relatives instead. As property prices in major cities have risen sharply over the past two decades, the author suggests that:

[…] whereas the men by and large wind up owning valuable real-estate wealth (as long as they have parents, girlfriends, wives or other relatives to help them with the purchase), the pressure on women to buy a home often ends up with them paying hefty sums of money to finance it, but forfeiting their right to ownership (p. 86).

Therefore, this kind of intra-family assets transfer allows Chinese men to accumulate much more wealth and power both within marriage and in the event of a divorce than Chinese women.

Chapter 4 traces the historical changes to women’s rights to property ownership from the eleventh century onwards. By reviewing literature and historical documents, Fincher suggests that women briefly enjoyed substantial expansion of property rights in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in which they were allowed to keep their properties, including after divorce or widowhood. However, women’s property rights deteriorated in subsequent dynasties, because under the patriarchal principles of Confucianism, Chinese citizens were expected to pass the land to male heirs to continue the patrilineality in imperial China. In the past century, although the Communist regime abolished many exploitative practices and promoted women’s equal rights at work and in social life, the practice that “the land must be held by the male household head” was never challenged. The author notes that even the economic reform failed to bring a significant change, and “women could only have access to land through their relationship to men as wife or daughter” (p. 130).

In Chapter 5, the issue of domestic violence is explored, using women’s narratives from the present study and reports from the media. In particular, the author cites a high-profile divorce case (successful businessman Li Yang versus his ex-wife Kim Lee) to show that in the absence of specific law, women in China are subject to in-marriage abuse and women’s weak property rights often prevent them from claiming legitimate shares of real-estate wealth. The author ascribes this to weak State protection and the traditional family collectivism in which revealing family conflict is seen as bringing shame to the whole family.

However, the author argues that Chinese women are not completely powerless. In Chapter 6, entitled “Fighting Back”, Fincher shows how feminist activists in China have engaged in various public campaigns to promote anti-discrimination and lobby for greater legal protection. In this final chapter of the book, the theme of “leftover women” is re-visited. The author acknowledges that some single, educated, urban women in the study demonstrated a high level of independence and autonomy; for example, in some large cities such as Shanghai, there may be “a long-term move away from the traditional model of universal marriage” (p. 188).

Methodologically, this study used an unusual approach to sampling; that is, participants were self-selected through following Fincher’s account on Sina Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter). While this sample may not be representative of everyday Chinese women, this method seems to have helped the author to generate a large amount of valuable data that are difficult to access otherwise. Specifically, data were collected at two stages. At the first stage, a short survey was conducted with a sample of 283 account followers, covering questions about the participant’s identity, home-buying aspirations and how financial contributions were divided. At the second stage, 60 in-depth interviews were conducted with both men and women from three cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an. Although the study used a mixed-method approach for data collection, it seems the majority of the findings were drawn from its qualitative research.

The strength of the book rests in its large amount of empirical data and the author’s extensive online research. Fincher’s personal background, a bilingual speaker who has an American father and a Chinese mother, gives her the benefits of both worlds – a personal understanding of the Chinese culture and critiques from a liberal feminist perspective. Thus, this book offers a comprehensive overview of the pressure and frustration that many Chinese women experience before and after getting married. However, while all the chapters are committed to a central theme of gender inequality in China, the book lacks a holistic argument that could take the reader through the book. In addition, the title “Leftover Women” failed to capture all the themes that emerged from the findings. Finally, it could be argued that more analysis and criticality could have been achieved by adopting greater theoretical depth throughout. With a background in journalism, the author has an enjoyable story-telling style. However, as references are only provided in the end and not directly linked to the arguments in chapters, it leaves the impression that some claims are unsubstantiated.

Nevertheless, the book provides valuable insights into the causes of many issues linked to gender inequality, issues which have often been brushed aside within the discussions of China’s economic achievement over the past three decades. While the picture depicted here may not be very encouraging, the author has given a voice to a group of Chinese women who had not been heard by a global audience. For readers of Gender in Management: An International Journal, this book offers an understanding about how gender and culture are inextricably linked in a masculine society and how perpetual teaching and discourse continue to legitimate discriminative practices against women.

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