Rethinking China’s “Marriage Crisis”

By Quin Rich                                                                      

China is currently home to an unforeseen gender phenomenon: as the number of eligible bachelors in the nation grows, there are less women opting for marriage. This occurs because male children are more valued by Chinese parents, and due to the Chinese government’s long-standing “one-child policy” designed to curb population growth, many families engage in sex-selective abortion.  According to an article on the Pulitzer Center Website, by 2020, China is expected to have 24 million more men than women.  At the same time, Chinese women are expected to practice “hypergamy,” or marrying up the social ladder.  As these women become more educated, independent, and economically successful, this tradition dictates that they will seek out wealthier men.  As a result, the nation’s poorest men will be left out of the marriage game altogether; their numbers are estimated to be somewhere between 40 to 50 million. Even with this surplus of marriageable men, many well-educated Chinese women are choosing not to marry.

Hysteria over sheng nu spills over into pop culture.  This TV show is called "The Price of Being a Sheng Nu."

Hysteria over sheng nu spills over into pop culture. This TV show is called “The Price of Being a Sheng Nu.”

The solution to this problem seems simple: those women are just being too picky.  Sheng nus, defined by China’s state-run Women’s Federation as “unmarried women over the age of 27,” are lambasted by that agency for having standards which are “too high” and are thus “not deserv[ing of] our sympathy.”  Instead of holding out for the best deal, China’s sheng nu should just settle for the best they can get.  The numbers, though still grossly unequal, will be a lot less dire, and in a few years, the gender ratio should balance out, especially in light of efforts to that end.  

However, the reality is not so simple. There’s another possibility to consider: what if China’s sheng nu population isn’t really “leftover” at all? Maybe these women are choosing to remain single.  Sheng nus are overwhelmingly well-educated and successful at work.  Many are economically independent, and enjoy the freedom that comes with their unique status.    The truth of the matter is that the sheng nu “crisis” (and its male counterpart, the guan gun effect) are not the result of overly picky women refusing to settle, but rather a severe gender imbalance and new freedoms and opportunities for Chinese women. 

This becomes even clearer in juxtaposition to the suggested solution to China’s demographic imbalances, which is that sheng nu need to learn to settle.  Beyond the fact that Professor Yuan Xin, of Nankai University’s Population and Development Institute, estimates that it will take at least 10 or 20 years of unbiased childbearing to correct China’s unbalanced sex ratio (a prediction many think is extremely optimistic), the very basis for this argument is flawed.  The assumption is that women, by virtue of their relative scarcity, have been awarded the power of spouse choice in China’s marriage market, but the opposite seems to be the case.  Traditional gender roles are certainly in force for many prospective husbands, and the trope of the “intimidating successful woman” might well be a factor in these converging crises: a Chinese government survey claims that “More than 90 percent of men surveyed said women should marry before 27 to avoid becoming unwanted.”  Additionally, Chinese women have made significant economic concessions in order to secure a spouse, casting doubt on the simplicity of the hypergamy argument.

Furthermore, sheng nu aren’t endemic to China.  Yong Cai, a University of North Carolina demographer who studies China’s gender imbalance, claims that this is merely a replication of a global phenomenon.  As women gain more educational and economic opportunities, the pressure to marry for material or social reasons decreases, and many opt to embrace their newfound independence.  This trend can even be seen in the United States, where a recent moral panic about the “marriage market” has obscured the fact that, contrary to a collapse of the social fabric, declining marriage rates are representative of women no longer being forced into marriages of convenience for reasons other than love, a factor which Amanda Marcotte notes is too often forgotten.  Slate’s Matthew Yglesias points out that US women, when asked whether they would prefer a marriage with traditional gender roles, or to divorce and remain economically independent, choose the latter by a wide margin.

 Though China’s son preference and one child policy are both enormously problematic, they are symptomatic of a larger worldwide patriarchal culture that aims to control women’s reproductive freedom and to reassert male dominance.   The discourse surrounding the sheng nu debate, and the contemporaneous marriage crisis in the United States, is not expressive of serious concerns about demographics or morality, but reactionary handwringing about shifting gender norms.  While it will obviously necessitate the breakdown of outmoded paradigms (such as marriage by economic coercion), this is a reason to celebrate the increasing emancipation of women, not to shame them into a return to traditional norms.





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