Single women at the Shanghai Matchmaking Expo in Loretta Xu Liang, who is under immense pressure to tie the knot.
Singletons attend a speed-dating event in the mainland. Parents of 'shengnu' assess available men at a matchmaking event in Shanghai. Loretta Xu Liang unzips her pink Juicy Couture jumper and sinks into her sofa. It's 10pm and Xu has just returned from work to her immaculate apartment in a central district of Shanghai.
She's one of 12 urban, middle-class women I am interviewing for a documentary on "leftover women" or " shengnu" , and I'm starting to notice a trend. On the face of it, she represents the essence of a modern Chinese woman; better educated and more accomplished than ever before. But like most single women her age, she's under intense pressure to tie the knot, both from her family and from state media. Parents take it upon themselves to act as matchmakers in the marriage markets and large-scale speed-dating events that are popping up across almost every Chinese city.
The China Youth Daily newspaper recently published a survey that suggests 89 per cent of young singletons are forced to go on dates during the Lunar New Year holiday, 61 per cent of whom are aged between 25 and 30 years old. While pressure to marry is by no means exclusive to women, they've arguably been left with a raw deal. With unprecedented population concerns characterised by the highest sex-ratio imbalance in the world and a fast ageing population, mainland media have intentionally popularised the term "leftover women", defined as a woman over the age of 29 who has "failed" to find a husband.
Countless surveys, articles, cartoons and television shows depict excessively fussy women who selfishly turn up their noses at potential suitors. The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. On the contrary, the rhetoric is, 'women, return to the home, stop being so ambitious and get married'. A recent study by Hong Kong-based sociologist Sandy To Sin-chi shows that these women struggle to find a lasting relationship in what is a conservative, patriarchal society.
Men continue to "undermarry" in terms of education, accomplishments and age, leaving the most successful women on the shelf. To describes how this is mostly due to a culture that disparages men who aren't in breadwinning roles. Kevin Du Kang, a marketing consultant in Shanghai concurs. I would lose my confidence and male status," he admits. Responsible for attracting more than 25, singletons to the city's annual Matchmaking Expo, Zhou accuses women of demanding too much - reminding them that the chances of finding an Andy Lau lookalike who owns his own house and car, shares all their interests and loves them unconditionally are slim.
However, some flaws are hard to overlook, my female subjects seem to suggest. Their most common grievances are close-mindedness, insecurity and "backwards" mindsets in the men they meet. One woman says she was warned by the man she was dating that she'd only be able to spend time with her girlfriends twice a year should they marry while several others confide that the male need for status affirmation and control even finds its way into the bedroom. A study published in Science magazine last year found that people born after the introduction of the one-child policy, in , are more risk averse, less trusting and trustworthy, more pessimistic and less competitive than those born before.
According to Lata Gangadharan, professor of economics at Monash University, Australia, the study suggests the effects are more marked for men. Whatever the reason for the mainland's apparent shortage of good men, it is proving a real struggle for women who feel trapped between the societal importance of marriage and a fear of settling for someone they have little in common with.
Consequently, many women are starting to look more seriously elsewhere, dating outside their ethnicity in order to increase the chances of finding a partner. To studied 50 leftover women and found them increasingly likely to choose Western men, "who are generally believed to be more open-minded and egalitarian in terms of gender roles".
Zhang Yalin, who has been a professional matchmaker for 18 years, says that she's recently noticed a trend in women hoping to find their spouses abroad, with about 30 per cent of her female clients now deciding that foreigners are the best solution. The programme is aimed at women over 30, divorcees and leftover women, who founder Liang Yali believes stand better chances of marriage with men from countries where age and accomplishments are viewed in a more forgiving light. Claiming a 60 per cent success rate, Liang says women are taught crucial skills, such as how to build confidence and gain greater self-understanding.
Interracial relationships are nothing new in China. Since the first batch of expatriate opportunists started trickling into the country in the s, "yellow fever" has been a common condition among foreign men. The number of Chinese including men marrying foreigners swelled from an official zero in to 53, in , according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Although only a handful of the women I speak to seem terribly excited about the prospect of marrying a foreigner, all are at pains to differentiate between expatriates and men living in their home countries.
A survey led by Gregory Mavrides, an American mental-health professional who taught at Guangzhou's Jinan University between and , showed that 49 per cent of the young, female respondents indicated a preference for Chinese husbands. Richard Burger, author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, points to another reason why women may tread carefully with foreigners.
As the Chinese population becomes increasingly mobile, more than , citizens on average are leaving the country every year. While the reasons cited include everything from escaping choking pollution to seeking new experiences and trying to further careers, women also see emigration as an opportunity to escape family and societal pressures. Living with her parents as just over half of my subjects still are, and the majority of mainland women do until they get married , Yang describes in heartbreaking detail how distant she feels from her mother and the rest of her family, who constantly grill her about her single status.
More and more Chinese women are rejecting the government's call to abandon further education and settle down, and are instead flocking to sit their GMATs, the examination that typically secures entry to global management schools according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, in , 37, tests - 65 per cent of the total - were taken by women in China, up 47 per cent from and 98 per cent from As women strive to better themselves and extend their horizons, the opportunities to marry outside their culture are growing.
Of course, it doesn't always end with a white man and a Chinese woman skipping hand-in-hand into the sunset. I suffered a lot because they all seemed so cold and uncommitted.
Deng, who moved to Australia last year after breaking up with a Chinese boyfriend of five years, says, "I thought a relationship should be built first and sex comes after, but casual sex is very normal here. Having to contend with racial stereotypes can also prove problematic.
As Zhou says, "Some of the men I meet expect all Asian women to behave in a certain way, to be subservient and gentle and dependent.
I think they're disappointed when they realise I'm not. In , popular dating website hongniang. Predictably, mainland media were quick to jump on the disillusionment involved in wedding a foreigner, widely publicising the results and speculating over the cultural and social barriers behind them. Such reports don't fall on deaf ears. Women both inside and outside of China are acutely aware of the challenges involved in sharing the most intimate parts of your life with someone culturally different, and for many it's not worth it.
But as the campaign to get women to settle for the surplus of supposedly suitable men right on their doorsteps continues, some of China's smartest and most successful women are being driven to the edge of society.
With mounting pressure and dwindling hopes of fulfilling both career and personal ambitions at home, for women such as Xu the urge to pack up and leave only grows stronger with time. Without women such as her, though, the mainland will be left with not only a weaker economy, but an even greater pool of frustrated leftover men.