Tracy You on: The stigma of being single in Shanghai

Tracy You on: The stigma of being single in Shanghai

Despite what you may have heard, not every "leftover woman" in Shanghai is a high maintenance gold digger
Click "Tell Me About It" above to see more opinions from Shanghai as well as CNNGo other cities.

Tell Me About It - CNNGoNothing is more talked about or controversial in Shanghai at the moment than two little words: leftover woman (剩女).

Any woman who remains single past the age of 25 becomes fearful of the "剩女" tag, which, although not negative in itself, has become associated with money-worshipping and often high-maintenance women. 

However, I feel like the real 剩女 are often more talked about than talked to. Now, social groups of these women are forming, determined to show this "taboo" for what it really is: normality. 


It’s all hype

The term "leftover women" (剩女) has only been around for a few years.

Nobody seems to be sure of its origin. Many credit the show “New Era of Marriage,” a Chinese TV series ("新结婚时代") starring Taiwanese actress Rene Liu

In the show Gu Xiaoxi (Rene Liu's character), a married woman but discontented with her husband, famously says, "有车有房, 父母双亡," or "The best guys to marry are those who have a car and an apartment, but no parents."

The supposed origins of the term go well with how Michelle Sun, a 27-year-old single marketing supervisor, sees the stereotype applied; it is mainly used by those who are actually not single at all.

“Those [non-single] people use their own criteria to judge single women. They prioritize marriage above all, including career and our happiness,” says Sun. 

Twenty-seven-year-old single Luna Zhu agrees with Sun. Zhu considers media propaganda as a major reason for people’s misunderstanding of Shanghai's single women.

“In my opinion, leftover woman is a neutral word. Admittedly, it’s turning very negative now,” says Luna Zhu. “I blame the media for this result. They are tremendously hyping this normal social phenomena.”

It takes all kinds to make a world. Same for single women, you will find all kinds in Shanghai. In Singles Club, we’d laugh at the social bias against us. It’s no biggie.-- Sandra Bao, founder of Singles Club

Zhu also admits that she’s not happy while watching reality TV dating shows, which are notoriously full of single women on the prowl for rich men.

“They try to tag single women negatively and exaggerate their characteristics in order to get publicity and eyeballs," says Zhu.

“Not all women care about cars and apartments, and don’t want their future husband to have parents. Many of us are very normal people, the only difference is that that we’re single,” she says.

Twenty-nine-year-old Jacquie Jin, who is married and has a successful career, was invited to moderate a recent singles’ event attended by both Sun and Zhu. 

Though she claims never to have experienced the “leftover woman” stage, she understands their plight.

“People become mature at different ages," says Jin. "A lot of Shanghainese only come to understand dating and getting married quite late. 

“People never talk about leftover men less because man are still dominant here. Older men can have very young girlfriends. However, women are bound by their physiological conditions [to give birth]. That’s why they are in the spotlight.” 

Singles Club

To prove these normal, single women do exist, I went to check out Singles Club, one of the biggest online single women’s communities in China. With the motto, “Love yourself, then love the others,” this club brings together single women in Shanghai and around the country to share their thoughts online and offline.

Started this past February, Singles Club has more than 850 members.

(Article continues below image)

Singles club - leftover women (剩女)In Shanghai, single women have a similar lifestyle as the other women, except they hang out with their female friends instead of boyfriends.“It’s true that there are a large number of single women in Shanghai. It’s also true that Shanghai's single women are picky. However, these facts don’t stop us from having fun and enjoying life,” explains Sandra Bao, Singles Club’s founder and the editor of a Shanghai lifestyle publication.

When I asked about the impact of media propaganda on leftover women, Bao said that most Shanghai women have collective personalities and always follow the trend.

Once they’re singled out from their married or dating friends, they will be at a loss for what to do.

I blame the media for this result. They are tremendously hyping  this normal social phenomena.-- Luna Zhu, 27, trading officer

“In Singles Club, single women can meet each other and stop feeling isolated and frustrated. Together, we discover the fun of being single,” says Bao.

Bao is also concerned that the media, and in some part society as a whole, is tagging the opinions of a small fragment of single women on all of them.

“It takes all kinds of people to make a world. Same for single women, you will find all kinds in Shanghai,” says Bao. “In Singles Club, we laugh at the social bias against us.”

To make herself more convincing, Bao proves to me that it’s the men who are truly leftover.

“Most leftover women are decent. However, if a guy is still single in his late twenties, he’s really left over,” says Bao. “You can classify men and women into four levels. Class D women would go for class C men, class C women go after class B men and class B women go after class A men. What’s left is class A women and class D men, which are not compatible. So who’s really leftover?”

Zhu agrees.

“Single women are just ordinary people. We also need to live, eat and have fun,” she says, but also confesses that she wouldn’t mind paying off her mortgage together with a future husband.

However, Zhu also tells me that the biggest pressure of all for being single is from family. 

Family (pressure) above all

Zhu’s view is echoed by many women at the Single's Club meeting -- their lives would be far more exciting and carefree if it wasn’t for the must-get-married attitude from their families. 

Celebrities - leftover women (剩女)L-R: Pace Wu, Zhang Ziyi and Gillian Chung are three female celebrities considered to represent single women in China.The most glaring example of this pressure is the weekly marriage market in People’s Park, where middle-aged parents exchange their children’s CVs to find them the best match. Rarely are children present.

It is always the parents and grandparents wheeling and dealing -- some with their children's permission, some without it.

Date on Saturday,” a 12-year-old Shanghai-based TV dating show, has recently spun off a new series called “Mom and Dad Match-Making Group,” which encourages parents to step out and find their child's better half, proving that parents -- not the single people themselves -- are indeed the group to target in Shanghai's current dating market.

“My daughter is now hanging out only with her female friends. She doesn’t want to talk about her relationship with us, and asks us not to keep asking. Sigh…” says 54-year-old Mrs. Zhang, who has a 26-year-old daughter who is single after breaking up with her last boyfriend. 

The only thing I don’t like about the leftover women concept is no matter how successful your career or how valuable you believe you are, staying single means your life is a failure.-- Michelle Sun, 27, marketing supervisor

“Make sure your daughter doesn’t follow her single friends too closely, otherwise there is no hope for dating or marrying,” interrupts Mrs. Li, showing the bias many families have against single women in the city.

More importantly, marriage is still considered a sign of success for women among middle-aged people in Shanghai. Concepts like unmarried daughters or having fun with single friends are likely to be called "unsuccessful" pursuits by parents. 

The single Sun explains to methat she can stand a lot of the negative impressions leftover women have to put up with, except this concept of success -- or lack of. “The only thing I don’t like about the leftover women concept is no matter how successful your career is or how valuable you believe you are, staying single means your life is a failure.”

“The society doesn’t only have leftover women. There are leftover men as well,” says 30-year-old Jack Lee. “Other people cannot take care of your life. Learn to be independent and there won’t be so many problems. ”

It seem clear to me that the term “leftover women” (剩女) is not only becoming a commercialized,  exaggerated concept, but is also and regrettably a representation of the generation gap between parents and children in Shanghai society.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Tracy You.

Tracy You is a bilingual journalist based in Shanghai and has worked for several publications including as Editor for CNN Travel. She's a fan of history, British TV and Wii Guitar Hero.

Read more about Tracy You