In China, if you are female, educated and unmarried by the age of 27, people might use a particular term – “sheng-nu” – to describe your social status. It translates simply as “leftover woman.”
The label was deliberately invented to curb the rising number of single women in a traditional society that sometimes views not marrying as a moral transgression. Some even consider it a threat to national security.
Indeed, portrayals of single women as lonely, desperate, overqualified and intimidating appear regularly in Chinese media. Research has shown that the “sheng-nu” stigma has pressured many women into marriage.
But others are fighting back.
Partly as a result of the expansion of mass education since the economic reform of the 1980s, women in China appear to be increasingly confident about their place in modern society.
The 7 million single women aged 25 to 34 in urban China are among the largest contributors to the country’s growth. Women now contribute some 41% to China’s gross domestic product, the largest proportion of any country in the world.
And our research reveals that single professional Chinese women are changing how others see them not through protest or activism, but through their economic power. They are using consumerism to counteract long-standing stigma over their single status.
One 33-year-old woman told us, “During family gatherings, my aunt just loves to tease my parents about why I’m still single. In her mind, I must lead a miserable life. I need to defend my parents [so] I constantly upgrade my own self-image by buying myself more and more expensive clothes to wear.”
She continued: “I want the best of everything in life. My sunglasses are from Burberry, my handbag is from Louis Vuitton, my laptop is from Apple.
“I show that I’m not miserable and I lead a great life. [My relatives] can then leave my parents alone.”
And a 30-year-old woman explained: “The more people want to laugh at you, the more glamorous you need to look in front of them. When you look glamorous, people become more tolerant of you [and your family].”
An information-technology developer aged 35 recalled: “When I bought my mother a golden ring, she was over the moon. My father was very poor when they got married, so she never received a ring from him. I wanted to show both of them that I can afford many, many things.”
The marketplace is also capitalizing on the rise of singlehood and its economic muscle. China’s “Singles’ Day,” invented in 2009 by the e-commerce giant Alibaba as a kind of anti-Valentine’s celebration for single people, has overtaken Black Friday, the day after the US Thanksgiving, to become the biggest annual shopping festival in the world.
Singles’ Day spending
Held on November 11 every year (the date was chosen because of the four ones in the date 11.11), 2021 has seen record levels of spending.
Of course, not all single women in China can afford to demonstrate this kind of spending power. But our study suggests that for those who can, a new sense of economic liberty helps to define themselves and their place in Chinese society.
The chance to spend money on themselves – and often on gifts for their parents – helps to redefine their single status as something to be proud of.
Through conspicuous consumption, they promote themselves as morally upright, economically independent, successful citizens. The women in our study are deploying the power of the market to counteract the “sheng-nu” stigma and its spread.
As another woman commented: “Single women really should go out more, especially when they are not bound by family life. Go out and see new scenery, experience a new life. You might realise there is another possibility to live.”
Despite its rise in contemporary China and Hong Kong, the act of protesting can lead to imprisonment and severe consequences. For stigmatized “sheng-nu” women, direct confrontation in the form of social activism could lead to serious professional or legal consequences.
Instead, consumption and economic power have become a way for these women to build legitimacy for an alternative lifestyle. Their struggle pits the modernizing and global power of the contemporary market against the traditional cultural authority and media power of China’s modern party state.
And in a surprising turn of events, it looks like the single women are winning.