Photo: Jonathan Kos-Read

After an almost ‘pressure-free’ five years in Hong Kong, I moved back to Shanghai earlier this month. It was a hard decision. I have friends and a relationship in Hong Kong, but my career and my family are in Shanghai. And something else kept me from staying in Shanghai: I know what I would face as a single Chinese woman who has passed 28 years old.

Chinese social norms ‘require’ women to marry young. It’s an outdated tradition but it still exists and prevails here, in this country with the second biggest economy in the world. So why with all that pressure, is there still an increasing population of single women in China, our so-called “Leftover Women”?

The reasons, or conflicts, are rooted in three layers.

China’s macro environment

As Michael Spencer mentioned in his article, China is facing a severe gender imbalance due to selective abortion. By the end of 2014, our male to female ratio was 105:100, unmarried men to unmarried women was 2:1 back in the ‘70s.

Women are gifted with the ability to reproduce, but Chinese society defines this as a responsibility and claims China’s social instability is partially caused by men fighting over this scarce female ‘resource.’ This might explain why the Chinese government and mainstream media continues to silently promote the concept of ‘marriage proves a woman’s value.’ They don’t want us to be independent because they know it’s up to us to have the next generation. Men don’t have that privilege.

The influence of family

Most Chinese parents with millennial children were born within the ’60s and ’70s when China began to open up. For these parents, it’s far easier to adopt advanced technology than ideology. One moment you are amazed to see your grey-haired parents spend more time on their smartphone than you do, the next moment you want to run away because they’re nagging you for being 28 and unmarried.

Individual value

Women are well educated in China, 48 percent of college students are female. However, there’s a notion here that ‘women should marry up, while men should marry down’ and it hasn’t changed much in our male-dominated country. Smart and accomplished Chinese women have limited ‘eligible’ men to choose from when it comes to picking a partner. These men need to possess stronger financial capability or a higher career position.

The marriage struggles of millennial Chinese women are complex. It will take both the society and us as individuals to turn the tide.

How can we make this change?

We need to redefine marriage in China.

It shouldn’t be a mission and it shouldn’t have a deadline. Choosing a partner should be a natural decision, which is made when we’ve learned the meaning of it and understand the responsibility.

We should be given the rights to make our decisions.

We should be respected by society whether we decide to be a nurturing mom or a happy single lady.

Family should become a shared responsibility.

If a woman starts a family, her male partner needs to recognize that taking care of a family and raising kids is a mutual responsibility. Chinese society should tolerate and provide the necessary policies and infrastructure for men to take an increasing family role. In that case, women will no longer need to pair with more ‘socially capable’ men.

Any fight against rooted tradition is a time-consuming journey. I’m frustrated with China’s current situation but remain optimistic as I see more and more Chinese women awakening, along with many people around the world promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Amongst these supporters, there’s a common question that I’d like to try to answer.

You are a well-educated and independent woman with international exposure, why can’t you just live the life that you want?

The quick answer is that we can, but it’s hard. We’re determined as individuals and that’s powerful, but there are still so many social components contributing to our struggle. It’s like wanting to see in the darkness without lights or candles, or driving in a city without roads or gas stations. Can you build your own torch or own your own infrastructure? Probably, yes. But wouldn’t it be easier if you did it as part of a collective society?

And if you want to see some of the struggles of China’s Leftover Women, watch the video below.

An earlier version of this essay was previously published on Medium. It is republished here with permission.

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