'Bare Branches' and 'Leftover Women': Love and Marriage in Modern China


Li Yu, a 50-year-old divorcee, no longer needs to click through the miscellaneous pages on Jiayuan.com – the largest online dating website in China – to search for the right man. This is because she purchased VIP membership for 20,000 yuan (approximately $3,080). Included in the package is match-making help from experts followed by various meetings with different men in her hometown, Shenzhen. Within two months, Yu found her current boyfriend. Since both of them are semi-retired, they travel often – having just returned from a honeymoon trip to New York and Canada – while plans to purchase a house together in Shenzhen are already in the making.

Yu’s story is illustrative of a recent phenomenon in China, where there used to be huge stigmas attached to divorce and online dating, especially for women – not to mention older women. Yet when Yu’s three-decade-long marriage broke up because of her husband’s infidelity and new fatherhood, she was the one who initiated the divorce.

“I no longer think women can just stay at home and so-called ‘take care of the family,’” she said. “And many of my friends are divorced. The lack of a job is one of the main reasons. I think we women should change. And I believe many of us have already changed.”

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The change in attitudes among Chinese women toward dating, marriage, and divorce have come as a result of the severe gender imbalance in the country, where census data placed the ratio in 2010 at 118 males to 100 females. By 2020, an estimated 24 million Chinese men will be “leftover” – a derogatory term, usually reserved for Chinese women who have failed to marry by the age of 30 despite higher income and educational background. With the increase of “leftover” men in China, the tides seem to have turned, empowering Chinese women who seek marriage partners.

However, this sense of empowerment is only reserved for those with greater socioeconomic status, and even then only to a certain extent. Eventually, Chinese women are expected to make compromises and accept the destiny of a married life.

“It is now okay to marry someone divorced or widowed. Attitudes are changing,” said Yong Cai, a sociologist and population expert at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Cai also said that it has become acceptable to marry someone whose earnings are less than your own. “These are the kinds of compromises women are making. Pressure is still on women to marry, but expectations of quality are lowering,” he added.

Alice Wong, a 32-year-old housewife and mother from Hunan province, thinks that it is not difficult at all for women to get married these days given the gender imbalance. “To find a husband is easy, but to find a husband you really love is not,” said Wong. “I see that many girls marry not because they love their men, but simply because they are expected and required by family to be married.”

The same is true with Chinese men who have been labeled as “bare branches” to emphasize their single status. Ben Han, a 30-year-old freelance journalist who writes about conservation biology and environmental impact assessment, jokes that he has more chances to see wildlife than single women. As a single man looking for a partner online, Han admits that “women may have higher expectations for men’s economic incomes and physical appearance, and vice versa, so both sides do not match.”

Women can’t find the men they want, nor can men – a predicament derived from traditional Chinese views regarding marriage and spouses, which dictate that people should marry within their social class.

According to Sandy To, a sociology professor at the University of Hong Kong, “leftover” men and women are by no means single by choice. Instead, they are single because they cannot find suitable partners. In the case of women, “many are discriminated against by patriarchal men who prefer less educated or accomplished women,” said To. “It will be harder for men to find very lowly educated women in the future because women’s educational levels are rising, hence they will gradually have to accept highly accomplished women as partners.”

The root of the problem, as many emerging Chinese feminists would say, lies in the government’s lack of concern for women’s rights. Zeron Don, a 33-year-old single woman from Zhejiang Province, laments that even in her developed coastal hometown, ingrained traditional demands for marriageable women persist.

“I know it sounds crazy, but in China, despite having more than 37 million [single] men, we can’t get married. Girls are still being discriminated against very much by the age,” wrote Don in a passionate e-mail response. “Because in Chinese tradition, the wife should be younger than the husband.”

“In the Far East – not just China – marriage is more than your personal matter,” she added. “It’s the combination of two families, not just two people. So the standard of the spouse’s family becomes the most important factor in a marriage, instead of the affection.”

In Don’s view, the recent adoption of the two-child policy will only add more hurdles to women getting married. Married women who still pursue their careers now face the threat of companies with biased hiring practices, such as refusing to hire women who plan to start a family or have a second child.

Faced with the various ways the gender imbalance continues to affect marriage and family structures in China, perhaps a true sense of empowerment comes from both men and women willing to demand their rights.

In the case of Don, she vehemently rejected at the government’s recent policy to “let the women go back to the families.”

“Frankly speaking,” Don wrote, “I don’t think Kim Jong-un [the North Korean leader] would say something more malicious towards women than this.”

Vicky Ge Huang is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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