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Devils in Red Dress

Though males vastly outnumber females in China, shengnü—“leftover women”—haunt the country’s imagination

“As soon as a man has money, he turns bad;
as soon as a woman turns bad, she has money.”

August 13, 2013: on the steps of the subway station near where I have been living all summer, a hawker has appeared selling bouquets of miniature teddy bears. It is Qixi Festival, Chinese Valentine’s Day, and the state-programmed television screens in my train car report that 35,000 single people have showed up for a speed-dating event organized by a municipal committee. One male speed dater is shown grinning as he lifts his cell phone to take data from a barcode sticker affixed to a woman’s sleeve. She, in turn, bats a smile back.

Love seems to be in the air. But the Chinese BBC podcast that I listen to during my commute is focused on a grimmer subject: a demographic that the host warns is swarming Chinese cities. Shengnü, “leftover women.”TNI Vol. 21: Witches is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get it today.

The preoccupation with leftover women has been around for a while. In 2007, the feminist organization of the Communist Party issued a proclamation on the growing numbers of women delaying or foregoing marriage in favor of focusing on their education and careers. They coined a term, and the Ministry of Education added it to their official lexicon:

Leftover women are modern urban women, most of whom have high education, high income, and high IQ. They are nice-looking, but they are relatively demanding in choosing spouses, so they haven’t found ideal partners for marriage.

The Ministry further explains that “the majority of leftover women are not unwilling to marry; rather, they cannot marry. They have diligently perfected themselves, they have made every effort to improve, but in the end these efforts have turned into a golden collar, because they do not put [women] in an advantageous position on the marriage market.” The online dictionary of Xinhua, the state news agency, notes that leftover word here, sheng, is the same word used for spoiled food (shengcai), for the adjective superfluous (shengyu), and for the expression canshan-shengshui, which roughly translates as “damaged mountains, remnants of water” and describes lands ravaged by war.

By the first time I went to China, alone, in the spring of 2012, the shengnü had become a national obsession. Every other cabdriver with whom I struck up a halting conversation ribbed me that I was on the verge. One of my teachers at Tsinghua University, where I returned for a few months this past summer, reassured me that if you have a nice boyfriend, as I now do, you do not need to worry until 30. Their remarks send a quiver through my stomach. I felt silly for feeling it.

Xinhua says we spoil sooner. In 2010 the agency published a questionnaire called “See What Category of Leftover You Belong To.” The youngest category into which a girl might fall is 25 to 27 years old. The oldest, at 35, “has a luxury apartment, private car, and a company, so why did she become a leftover woman?” As a foreigner, what I want to know is, Why has she become such a fixation? And why has this proved such a compelling story to Americans?

***

It is not immediately obvious why, or how, anyone becomes a leftover woman in China. There are many more young men than young women, thanks to the family planning laws Deng Xiaoping’s government introduced in the late 1970s and the persistence of the traditional preference for sons, which has led to mass selective abortion and abandonment of female children. The 2010 national census suggested that there were 12 million bachelors between the ages 30 to 39, for only 6 million bachelorettes. In 2012, 118 boys were born for every 100 girls.

Women who move to China’s boom cities are taking advantage of unprecedented educational and career opportunities, which you’d think would make them more desirable than ever. Yet the traditional bias that women must “marry up in four ways”—height, age, education level, and income—has persisted. If the Chinese New Woman is not too old to be desired by the time she has earned her graduate degree, that degree and the earning potential that it gives her price her out of the market.

The shengnü has been exploited as a rich source of entertainment. In 2010, CCTV-8 created a sitcom about a family trying to marry off their 30-year-old. The title, Danü dang jia, could be translated either My Eldest Daughter Should Marry or Aging Women Should Marry. In 2012, the Taiwanese network GTV created a weekly show also broadcast on the mainland that puns on the character sheng, “leftover,” with another character sheng that sounds identical and means “victorious”: The Price of Being a Victorious (Leftover) Woman.

Clearly, the term sells. And something about it sticks, even when its speaker purports to be speaking up for this maligned group. Baihe, China’s largest dating website (which promises help at the same time that it stands to profit from their nerves) claims that there are more than 500,000 women who identify as “leftovers” in Beijing alone.

***

Before the CPC made shengnü shengnü, women who had gone bad were called baigujing, “white bone spirits,” after a demoness from the classic 16th century novel Journey to the West. When the hero, Monkey King, meets Baigujing on the road, she has assumed a youthful appearance. After he realizes that she is playing tricks, he knocks her out with a cudgel and she reverts to her true form:

 With temples white as withered snow…

Her face was like a withered leaf of cabbage…

Her face was like a pleated bag. 

Whether or not she is a baigujing, the New Chinese Woman also seems to shape-shift. Blink and the naive striver who went bad while she was too busy getting her doctorate to notice turns into another kind of bad girl, who is apparently just as ubiquitous: the gold digger. Shortly after the shengnü campaign, the CPC began a push to reform her too.

It started with a real woman named Ma Nuo. In April 2010, Ma, then in her early 20s and working as a model for a few regional ­magazines, appeared on a reality dating show on Jiangsu Satellite TV called If You Are the One. Featuring one man and 24 women whom he tries to win over, the show was one of the most popular of the about two dozen of its kind.

When a contestant asked Ma on a date riding his bicycle she quipped that she would “rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle,” and flipped on her No thanks switch. The comment went viral on Weibo, and Ma became infamous. The Shanghai edition of the official party newspaper, People’s Daily, reported in June:

 There’s a popular saying among young Chinese women who are seeking Mr. Right: “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.”

These words also swirl about on the Internet, show up on T-shirts and on TV dating shows where they stir controversy about today’s grasping, material girls.

After describing the Ma brouhaha, Shanghai Daily notes that “netizens were generally enraged, heaping scorn on her, labeling her the ‘BMW Lady,’ and saying she shamed the post-1980s generation. Ma quit the show in discomfort. But,” it continues acidly, “that’s all okay. Now she’s a star. Her modeling career took off and she’s a hot item on TV talk shows and entertainment programs. On a Star TV talk show, Ma repeated her requirements for a man and also talked openly about her first sexual encounter.”

The BMW Lady became shorthand for the selfishness and loose morals of the generation that has grown up since Tiananmen—with no memory of either Maoism or the heroic struggles of the 1980s, depending on who’s doing the criticizing. So, troubled by her apparent influence, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, the department of the Ministry of Propaganda that oversees those media, resolved to cut the BMW ladies off from their platform. SARFT enacted one of the most dramatic media crackdowns in decades, halving the number of “entertainment shows” on the air and taking stricter control over their content. The agency also mandated that each satellite network in China develop at least one show that specifically promotes “socialist values” and that women appearing on all programs wear at least knee-length skirts.

Around the same time, official media conducted and began aggressively publicizing a study. The results proclaimed that materialistic women made too high demands on their potential partners: supposedly, 70 percent of Chinese women surveyed would not consider dating a man who did not own his own car and apartment. In 2012, a second study on the subject claimed that the real figure was 75 percent.

The Chinese Supreme Court made a ruling ostensibly targeted at such gold diggers. The new law stated that after a divorce, the person whose name is on the deed to the family home owns it solely. In China, that is almost always the man. The BMW—or at least, the garage that it stood in—would henceforth be safe from scrabbling hands.

***

In Beijing, I keep hearing urban legends about BMW Ladies—mostly repeated by male expats set on dating Chinese women, or female ones who profess frustration that none of the foreign men they meet have any interest in dating them.

A former Navy officer tells me about an Ivy League graduate with a Master’s degree who disappeared from their dinner date to take a call from work. When she returned, she said her boss needed her back in the office. But when she asked him to pass her her Céline bag, it fell open, spilling lingerie and a copy of her résumé onto their table.

An affable thirtyish year old in bedraggled plaid shorts who studies at Tsinghua shows me the text messages from another student whom he took out for two cuddly tea dates. A contact saved as Misty Plum indeed is joking-not-joking over WeChat about when she will get her green card.

A female friend of a friend reports that the large American corporation that she works at makes married male employees sign contracts when they relocate to Beijing, promising that if they abandon their families for a Chinese colleague, they will not hold the company financially responsible for moving their wives and children back to the U.S.: It has paid too much already packing such victims of Asian femmes fatales back home.

A soft-spoken consultant recalls how a girl with whom he thought he was having a one-off hookup showed up at his front door the next day, suitcase in hand, and screamed until he let her move in, rent-free.

A banker guffaws. The girls at his favorite club are “dry cleaners: just looking to pick up suits!”

Such anecdotes resonate with legends about cunning Oriental women at least as old as Cleopatra. But what starts to sound suspicious is how so many Chinese women could conform to two archetypes that so directly contradict each other. Where the shengnü is hapless, the BMW Lady is ruthless. Where the pitiable shengnü fails to adapt to the new realities of capitalist China (recall: “gold collared leftovers” fail to recognize that their attainments “have no value on the marriage market”), her wicked stepsister the gold digger must be restrained from leveraging her sexual capital too well.

***

There may or may not have ever been an actual example of either one of these women. What both reflect, as cultural types, is the unevenness of China’s development. People talking about them seek to explain and, insofar as the terms may sway real women, manage contradictions that threaten the Chinese experiment in maintaining the fastest growing markets in history without undergoing significant political liberalization.

The Communist Party has good reasons to worry about the love lives of its people. In the decades since they introduced the “one family, one child” law, shifts in the age and gender of the Chinese population has created what the Health and Population Ministry calls “unprecedented pressures.” Birth rates in the richest cities have declined to Western European levels. At the same time, improved nutrition and health care have increased life expectancy. Developed countries may be able to bear this kind of “graying.” But it threatens to devastate an emerging economy that still depends largely on its inexpensive labor force to drive growth—and on young family members to provide social services to the grandparents who now outnumber them four to one.

Then there are the leftover men. While one in three Chinese women from the ages of 25 to  40 is unmarried, one in two of her male counterparts is; in the countryside, these numbers are higher. Census projections suggest that by 2020, 20 percent of Chinese men will not be able to find a spouse. The rise of a large class of sexually frustrated and humiliated young men—an increasing number of whom cannot find work, or work commensurate with their levels of education—would worry any government. It particularly worries a party mindful that rural rebellions by masses of young men brought down every previous Chinese regime from the Ming Dynasty to the KMT.

In a series of articles for the New York Times, Dissent, and Ms. Magazine, the American sociologist Leta Hong Fincher has distilled brilliantly what the party’s shengnü campaign is about: terrorizing educated, upwardly mobile women into helping solve this bundle of problems by settling down. At the same time, the specter of the BMW Lady has served as a pretext to roll back equal property rights granted to married women during the Mao era.

It stands to reason that if a country needs to improve what the Family Planning Bureau calls its “population quality” (renkou suzhi)—to make sure that the right kind of people have the right number of kids at the right time—convincing rich women that they need to hurry up and breed is a good tactic. Threatening to leave a bad wife without anywhere to live in cities with skyrocketing real estate prices offers further insurance against her defecting if she becomes unhappy. She might. A recent international study by the PR firm Fleishman and Hillard suggests that Chinese wives are the least contented in the world: only 37 percent of the 600 women surveyed agreed with the statement “I am fortunate to have my spouse/partner in my life.”

The campaigns against both kinds of bad women both share one purpose, then. Both aim to manipulate women into sacrificing their interests in order to preserve the stability of a society that first Communism and then economic liberalization shattered—and to do their part to make sure that the growth on which party rule depends continues. The question of what would happen if enough Chinese women truly went bad and had money is one that the Communist Party cannot afford to countenance. A good woman’s work is to ensure that the existing order can reproduce itself.

***

In recent years, the American press has extensively, even obsessively, covered both the shengnü and the gold digger. Starting around 2010, a stream of articles in English reiterated official statistics and stereotypes about greedy Chinese women.

In November, the New York Times reported that “In China, Money Often Can Buy Love.” “Money really can buy you love in China,” it opens. “Or at least that seems to be a common belief in this increasingly materialistic country. Many personal stories seem to confirm that the ideal mate is the one who can deliver a home and a car, among other things; sentiment is secondary.”

Several months later, a follow-up piece reported that “For Many Chinese Men, No Deed Means No Date.” It opens with a vignette of a sympathetic young man:

 In the realm of eligible bachelors, Wang Lin has a lot to recommend him. A 28-year-old college-educated insurance salesman, Mr. Wang has a flawless set of white teeth, a tolerable karaoke voice, and a three-year-old Nissan with furry blue seat covers.

“My friends tell me I’m quite handsome,” he said in confident English one recent evening, fingering his car keys as if they were a talisman.

But by the exacting standards of single Chinese women, it seems, Mr. Wang lacks that bankable attribute known as real property.

“China’s New Wealth Spurs a Market for Mistresses.” “Dating in China is Largely a Commercial Transaction.” “The Price of Marriage in China.” This is just the New York Times. Stories in Time, Foreign Affairs, NPR, the Economist, the Telegraph, extensively poached from and reblogged, ensconced the BMW Lady as fact. They offer the same half-prurient, half-moralizing thrill as the urban legends of girls leaving nice dates to screw their supervisors. (Like them, they also tend to lean heavily on hard-to-verify anecdotes and conversations carried out in English.)

Though somewhat more slowly, the shengnü also started showing up in American publications. Googling, now, I find that just in August the Los Angeles Times has reported that “China’s shengnü, or ‘leftover women,’ face intense pressure to marry,” Reuters concurs that “China’s Leftover Women Face Tough Choices Looking for Love.” CNN’s “On ­China” show has talked about leftover women for a whole week. “Chinese Women Caught in ‘Epic Clash.’” “Chinese Women Fight to Shake Off the Leftover Label.” “Chinese Women Choosing to Stay Single.”

In general, American coverage has tended to be less misogynistic than the Communist Party propaganda. In April, the New York Times published Leta Hong Fincher’s article, “Rejecting the Leftover Women Label,” the facts of which Jezebel reprised with a funnier headline, “Chinese ‘Leftover’ Women Fight Bullshit With Humor.” In the same month, Joy Chen, a Chinese American, published a bilingual self-help manifesto, Do Not Marry Until You Are Thirty, and it quickly became a best seller.

But even as they offer affirmation, it is hard for feminists to avoid playing to the same fears that the Communist Party propaganda mongers. When ABC invited Joy Chen on Good Morning America to speak about her campaign to empower Chinese women, they ran the story with the headline china’s ‘leftover women’ desperate to find ‘mr. right.’ As it happens, reporting on this Chinese problem is compatible with one of the most time-tested methods of selling things in America: Tell women that something they did not know was wrong with them is wrong with them, then tell them that for a small price, they can know the cure.

***

Every article that I have read in English treats the leftovers and gold diggers as peculiarly Chinese phenomena, characterizing China roughly as Chinese propaganda characterizes women: as either hapless or ruthless. The “marriage markets” that have sprung up across the country seem like proof of native backwardness. Parents and children frankly considering material questions before marriage appear old fashioned, signs of a lag in the march toward modernity that economic liberalization started. At the same time, extreme cases like the BMW Lady evoke a frighteningly liberated future, where the last protocols tying sex to permanent commitment, via romance, have disappeared along with the last soft-hearted protections against inequality, environmental crisis, food contamination, etc.

In fact, Chinese women fascinate American editors and readers not because they are foreign, but because their story sounds familiar. For New York Times readers, the only sexier click-bait than sex may be the idea that everything is measurable, a market, and China is the biggest of all. Few stories seem more most-emailable, therefore, than those about the peculiar mating habits of newly rich Chinese.

Dozens of high-end matchmaking ­services have sprung up in China in the last five years, charging big fees to find and to vet prospective spouses for wealthy clients. Their methods can turn into gaudy spectacle. One firm transported 200 would-be trophy wives to a resort town in southwestern China for the perusal of one powerful magnate. Another organized a caravan of BMWs for rich businessmen to find young wives in Sichuan Province. Diamond Love, among the largest love-hunting services, sponsored a matchmaking event in 2009 where 21 men each paid a $15,000 entrance fee.

Such prose allows the Western reader vicariously to enjoy the thrills of rising Asian wealth while also continuing to feel morally superior to its owners. Although any reader must respect China as an economic might (its “high end,” “big fees,” “caravan of BMWs,” etc.), vacuous diction makes it sound soulless. Chinese love looks like love only inasmuch as Baidu looks like Google. Chinese feelings are knock-off Chanel.

Bad Chinese women provide a way to turn statistics about the Chinese market into a narrative. I recall a long New York magazine article about the growth of Chinese retail that opened with an anecdote about a mistress whisking her boyfriend into the Louis Vuitton flagship in Beijing Sanlitun three minutes before closing to snap up handbags. Kevin Kwan’s recent novel, Crazy Rich Asians, extends this conceit for 400 pages.

It has an appealing premise. A wholesome Chinese-American professor innocently accompanies her boyfriend, whom she did not realize was “crazy rich,” home to Singapore, only to find herself besieged by status-­obsessed aunties and bitches determined to steal her man. (One leaves a gutted fish in the heroine’s private hut at a Malaysian resort where they have flown for the weekend in a private jet outfitted with a heated-floor yoga studio.) Kwan’s set pieces are as addictive as an old-school society rag. Every few pages burst out another litany of luxury brand names. Yet, he keeps up an arch tone that lets the reader have it both ways. In the end, we are glad that the nice girl wins and that marriage will make her, too, a crazy rich Asian.

What the dazzle of such stories deflects is the vague apprehension that rising Asia is outdoing us at practices that we pioneered. Mass consumerism is nothing new. Are the aims of Chinese mass matchmaking markets so different from those of OkCupid? Chinese reality shows like the one that Ma Nuo, BMW Lady, appeared on frankly copy the format of American successes like The Bachelor. The American stories on shengnü take up forms of sexism that are all too familiar to educated women here and dress them up in a red pantsuit.TNI Vol. 21: Witches is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get it today.

In China, American readers see what they fear about themselves made strange. The problems that the shengnü and the BMW Lady are used to highlight are extreme. Everything in China is. China is a country of extremes that all point to the final superlative: its scale.

The mirroring and misapprehension that make the shengnü and BMW Lady seem exotic are typical of how the two 21st century superpowers misperceive each other. In Beijing, I often hear people talk about the zhongguomeng, or “Chinese dream.” The word, which entered the official lexicon after Xi Jinping used it in his inauguration speech last November, simply substitutes “Chinese” for “American” to conjure a future of limitless personal and national progress whose time has come. For Americans anxious to maintain their global supremacy, and nervous that the rival whose exploited labor has allowed them to live so flush so long will soon call in our debts, the ultimate bad woman may be China herself.

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