The marry-by date outlives its usefulness

Updated: 2012-11-30 06:46

By He Feng (China Daily)

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The marry-by date outlives its usefulness

Parents may regard their single daughter as having been left on the shelf, but for others she represents progress and a turning point in society

On weekends, Shijingshan Park in Beijing is the venue for a strange ritual: in one corner of the park, hundreds of people gather. Almost all of them are older than 50, and they hold large pictures of young people, overwhelmingly young, professional-looking women. The pictures are often glamor shots, accompanied by scribbled personal data such as height, educational background, employment and income.

This has become a familiar sight in many of China's big cities. Those holding the photos are the anxious parents of young people who are well past the traditionally accepted marrying age - 25 for women and 30 for men - but who remain single.

In China the growing trend is to marry later, and so-called sheng nu (leftover girls) have become a national obsession, giving rise to popular match-making TV shows such as If You Are the One and a slew of dating websites.

If the public match-making adds an entertaining angle to this national affair, those concerned are anything but amused. Increasingly it has become a source of family friction, with disappointed parents and defiant daughters. At the center of it is a dated way of life, irreversibly losing ground but still dearly held by the previous generation.

The term sheng nu has less of a derogatory sting than its English translation, and the women concerned use it themselves in self-mockery. But it is a misnomer. The sheng nu are often well educated (many have studied overseas) with good jobs. They are more like the cream of their generation. It is precisely because of their privileged socioeconomic status that they get caught in the spotlight and have become the topic of society-wide after-dinner chatter.

Most of those preoccupied by the fate of sheng nu could not be more well-meaning in their concern. Predictably, many worry that the rise of singlehood will wreck traditional family values. Confucius' famous saying still rings loudly in Chinese ears: not having children is the worst form of sin. No marriage means no children, and that is a problem that must be dealt with.

Not all voices are negative though. One theory has it that single women are driving consumer demand, and subsequently GDP. Unburdened by children and other expenses from keeping a family clothed and fed, the sheng nu, often already in a high-income bracket, spend a greater proportion of their earnings as disposable income. If this theory is true, we can only imagine the moral dilemma it presents to the country's leaders, who will have to strike a delicate balance between preserving traditional values and GDP growth.

Putting things in perspective though, China is simply experiencing what its more advanced neighbors have gone through in recent decades. The former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew once famously, and controversially, expressed concern in his memoir, From Third World to First, that many well-educated Singaporean women did not marry and have children.

The resourceful and action-oriented Singapore government even set up a dating service for busy young professionals. But despite its relentless efforts, singlehood is becoming accepted as an alternative way of life.

As happened in Singapore, China's sheng nu, while causing much anxiety to commentators, are more a sign of social progress than a fundamental problem. Going back even just a couple of decades, there were no sheng nu because, quite simply, it was not an available option. The absence of single women spoke of the limited opportunities to lead an independent life and widespread intolerance. The rise of the sheng nu, if not a cause for celebration, is at least a welcome sign of how far China has come.

Yet if China's situation is nothing new, its scale is unprecedented. It is further exacerbated by the fact that the country has an alarmingly imbalanced sex ratio to begin with. A recent population survey estimated that China has 30 million more men than women. If more women are holding out on married life, how are these men going to find wives? What will this say of China's harmonious society, the building of which is high on Chinese leaders' priority list?

While China does not have a Singapore-style government-run dating service, there is considerable grassroots mobilization that is determined to resolve the sheng nu issue. One popular preoccupation for sheng nu and their families is xiang qin, blind dates arranged by family members, with the unfortunate Chinese characteristic that it often involves two unwilling, even resentful participants.

Blind dates are awkward anywhere, but in China young people go through the motions mostly to appease their anxiety-ridden, overbearing parents, hoping that their parents will finally leave them alone. Needless to say, few xiang qin produce the desired result. Internet forums are full of people sharing awful xiang qin stories and forming support groups to exchange tips on dealing with parents.

The worst time is Chinese New Year, a dreaded occasion when the single young professionals are expected to take time off from their busy jobs in big cities and visit their parents and relatives who live in socially conservative small towns. Their parents will not neglect to remind them that many of their less-achieving classmates have stayed in their hometowns and are married.

The irony is that despite the parental obsession, the sheng nu profess to be happy with their lot. Their being single is a matter of choice. With the shortage of women, finding men is not a problem. But the sheng nu are either raising their standards or giving priorities to other pursuits such as career and advanced education in lieu of an early marriage.

In other words, the perceived endemic of singlehood is but a natural result of women having financial independence and more choices, along with society having progressed to a stage where the phenomenon of unmarried women is accepted, if reluctantly so. Chinese women are putting off marriage because, given the choices available, this is what makes them most happy.

The only problem is the cultural divide between the young women and their parents. Thirty years of rapid economic growth and opening-up has produced a generation of Chinese who are more independent and attuned with their Western peers. This generation is now starting families, but they are going to do it on their own terms, and this will lead to confrontation with their parents - and Chinese parents are notoriously poor at respecting boundaries between them and their children's private lives. From what to study at university to what job to take, and now when and whom to marry, Chinese parents eagerly want to have a say in, if not downright dictate, the lives of their children.

Interestingly, the sheng nu phenomenon is nothing like the feminist movement in the West, in which women consciously demanded equal rights in jobs and strived for independence. In China the change has been much more subtle, with even the participants unaware of making a statement that, perhaps decades later, will be viewed as symbolic of China's social progress and a turning point for the role of women in its society.

The author is co-founder of, a crowd funding website. Contact the writer at The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 11/30/2012 page9)