China’s Leftover Women

Due to China’s One Child Policy (独生子女) and attempts to bolster the economy, the Chinese government and parents alike have recently favored men to women (独生子女). Men now outnumber women by a figure of thirty-four million. One in every three Chinese women in their late twenties are single. Many of these “leftover women” (剩女) are urban and over the age of 27. Some are seeking a Western education. However, these women are still discriminated at home and in work environments. Many companies will not hire a leftover woman, citing the lack of stability of the woman’s home life.

Traditional Chinese values have emphasized the importance of continuing family lines. Today, new economic phenomenons are breeding older singles who put their careers before prospects of marriage. Generational belief shifts have bred more independent women who place more importance on their careers than marriage. The younger generation of Chinese Millennials are now dating more freely on their own terms. Due to the lopsided gender gap that has resulted from the One Child Policy, Chinese men are consistently marrying down in both age and economic status.

The Shanghai marriage market, which translates to “the blind date corner”, is a market where parents of late-twenty to early-thirty year-old singles come to advertise their children’s physical, economic, and educational statuses, and mingle with like-minded parents. Oftentimes, the children have no knowledge that their parents are pawning them out until they are notified of a blind date. There is scarce data regarding the success rate of the marriage market, as no professionals have done adequate research. Freelance businessmen, known as matchmakers, claim to have high success rates for blind date creation, and charge parents $1-3 per meeting. Aside from the physical marriage market, online retailers have cropped up which offer boyfriend rentals to women intending to fool their parents about their relationship statuses. Tinder and other online dating services are also gaining ground in China.

Perhaps the new wave of online dating and a shift in generational norms will pave the way for organic relationships and a Western mindset regarding careers and marriage.

This entry was posted in Home. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to China’s Leftover Women

  1. Ryan Curto says:

    This is a very interesting demographic phenomenon. Its peculiar that employers would stray away from hiring single women pursuing more western educations. One would think that an unmarried single woman would posses qualities that would attract an employer, such as, fewer distractions, commitment to hard work, and decreased likelihood of pregnancy (diminishing the likelihood that the woman would take maternal leave). I can see, however, how familial pressures to find a partner could cause conflicts at home and psychological stressors on the female, that could impair a “Leftover” woman’s quality of work. Hopefully, this stigma will evolve towards a less polarized hiring market.

  2. Alden Schade says:

    I think one of the more unique aspects of the so-called “marriage market” is the level of involvement Chinese parents want to have in their children’s romantic lives. This is probably the clearest sign of a generational shift in values, with older parents conforming to more rigid social norms. Because of this, I think we will see a decrease in this type of formal arrangement and an increase in more organic gender relations as younger generations begin to assert their autonomy.

  3. sackettm18 says:

    I would like to see the statistics for China’s marriage or dating market compared with those for Japan. Japan is famous for the startlingly low fertility rate across the board. I have always found this phenomenon very curious and it would be interesting to see if it is a product of Japanese culture, Asian culture or something different. Will Eastern China experience similar population and demographic issues over the next couple of decades, if the economy in the region starts to look more like Japan’s?

    • the prof says:

      Go to for Japanese demographic data including nuptiality. In Japan men were never favored as in China, Korea and much of India; there is no excess supply of men.

      Low fertility in Japan is largely due to small families. In the last two decades however the number of unmarried career women has risen.

  4. gristt18 says:

    Interesting that you note Tinder is taking off in China. Many other blog posts have discussed companies which are based in China like Alibaba, Xiaomi, and Didi Chuxing which are competing with global industries for Chinese consumption. Does the same hold true with the matchmaking companies you’re talking about here? China’s population is huge, obviously, and one could see ample opportunity for many companies to establish websites which connect Chinese singles who are living in proximity to others.

  5. knapkes18 says:

    I am curious about how this will affect the other major Chinese demographic development: an aging population. If a significant percentage of Chinese women remain single for their entire life, who will help take care of them as they age? In addition, if a significant portion of the population does not produce any offspring, it will further exacerbate the issue of financially caring for a elderly, retired population that requires significant healthcare spending. How this development manifests itself down the road will be interesting to watch.

    • the prof says:

      With 30+ million excess men, there’s no particular reason why in the long run there will be an unusual number of single women. So I suspect this is not because women won’t marry but merely that they’re not marrying as early as in the past. Nevertheless, see the 2013 article I pasted in below. Among other things, it introduces some of the relevant jargon.

  6. bonesc18 says:

    May not economic per say, but I heard a speaker at VMI last night who discussed this in terms of military defense, which was very interesting. For one, as the population decreases due to a lack of women, you will have less males ready to serve in the army. Less soldiers means less production of military equipment which slows down the economy significantly for a country that spends greater than 2% of its GDP on defense. The long and short of it is, this speaker thought the Chinese military would eventually weaken on its own due to this imbalance in the population

    • the prof says:

      Generally military production is low in productivity and provides no direct consumption benefits. But with 1.4 billion people, a few million less men should not be a constraint on military recruitment.

  7. feldsteinp18 says:

    This is a really interesting development and it brings to questions whether China will see an exodus of these single ‘leftover’ citizens. If they are not able to get a partner and form a families, and in addition are looking to receive education in western countries, I wonder if this will result in a brain drain, or negative net outflow of human capital, for China. It is interesting to look at the implications that demographics have and that such a strong shift in the male/female balance could have a profound effect going forward.

    • the prof says:

      Do the arithmetic: 25,000 Chinese would be a lot of intl students from the US perspective; such numbers are insignificant from a Chinese perspective, given a base population of 1.4 billion. Emigration is not a feasible solution (and would make the number of forever single men greater, so would have side effects).

  8. choia18 says:

    Would it be possible that the “leftover” women actually have more social power in the future? They will clearly have some power when it comes to marrying, especially with the pressure of having grandchildren and continuing the family line in males. Perhaps not so much in the workforce due to the surplus of males, females can still find someway to garner power due to this shortage. I cannot cite a specific way as this phenomena is relatively new in this modern era. Now with dating apps like tinder becoming more prominent, will women have more freedom in the culture?

  9. the prof says:

    How do marriage markets clear? Is there an analog to price, such that men (and their parents) “bid up” what they are willing to pay to for a bride?

    For more search for “assortative marriage” – social status helps the market clear. By and large you all will marry a college graduate with a professional orientation, whereas a random matching model would have some significant fraction of you marrying college dropouts. We’ve already discussed the “virilocal” nature of marriage in which women “marry out” [typically into a neighboring village].


    Jul 14th 2013, 5:57 by S.C. | Hong Kong | The Economist: Free exchange blog

    ONE of my favourite places to eat in Hong Kong is The Monogamous Chinese. Offering an unusual mix of Beijing and Sichuanese cuisine, it is named after Hongzhi (弘治), the first Chinese emperor to remain faithful to one wife. At some point after the fall of the Qing dynasty, marital fidelity became the norm in China* as it was elsewhere. But China’s marriage patterns remain distinctive in other ways. I am still waiting for a rival restaurant to call itself The Hypergamous Chinese in reference to the widespread tendency of Chinese women to marry up.

    This habit of hypergamy (ie, marrying a person of higher social station) is documented in a recent Master’s thesis by Yue Qian, a PhD candidate at Ohio State University. Although most Chinese newlyweds, like couples everywhere else, are of similar age and education, it is quite common for Chinese women to marry men who are better educated than themselves. As a corollary, men often marry women who are less educated. According to Yue Qian’s calculations, 55% of university-educated Chinese men marry a less educated spouse, whereas only 32% of university-educated women do the same.

    One well-educated woman, quoted by Mary Kay Magistad on PRI, explains the equilibrium that results:

    “There is an opinion that A quality guys will find B quality women, B quality guys will find C quality women, and C quality men will find D quality women…The people left are A quality women and D quality men.”

    Hypergamy is one social habit that skews China’s marriage market. Misogyny is another. Men famously outnumber women in China, thanks largely to sex-selective abortion. The skewed sex ratio should work in women’s favour, raising their bargaining power in the marriage market. In this week’s issue of The Economistwe discuss some of the lengths that Chinese men will go to in order to attract a bride.

    Buying property is one popular way for a man to distinguish himself. A man’s ability to provide a home is something that three-quarters of potential brides consider before taking his hand, according to a 2012 survey of young people in some of China’s big cities by Horizon Research & Consultancy group, a market-research firm. As a result, the skewed marriage market may also be skewing China’s property market. According to awidely-citedstudyby Shang-Jin Wei of Columbia University, Xiaobo Zhang of IFPRI and Yin Liu of Tsinghua University, the increase in China’s sex ratio, and thus the heightened competition for brides, can explain up to 48% of the rise in urban home prices from 2003 to 2009.
    [can’t paste: first_marriage_rate_by_age_small.png]

    But although numbers are on Chinese women’s side, time is not. Women’s marriage rates drop steeply after they turn 30 (see the chart below adapted from Yue Qian’s thesis), something that is much less true for men. One explanation for this is hypergamy of a different kind: older husbands often take younger wives, but older women rarely marry younger men. The odds of a man marrying a younger spouse are almost 50 times as high as the odds of a woman doing so, according to Yue Qian. This “age hypergamy” has uneven effects on women’s marital prospects. It improves the chances of younger women even further: they have plenty of men their own age to go around and they can also marry older men as well. But it hurts the chances of older women, who must compete with younger rivals for men their own age.

    The upshot is that first marriage rates for young women are much higher than for young men. But unmarried women in their thirties are less likely to marry than thirty-something men, despite being outnumbered by them (see chart). Women, especially “A-quality” women, who do not marry early often do not marry at all. Indeed, women over 30 who boast a university education have even lower marriages rates than poorly educated, similarly aged men who lack a high-school education.

    This “marriage squeeze” impels women to try to marry before they turn 27. The pressure to do so is far greater than the pressure men feel to provide a home, argues Leta Hong Fincher, a PhD student at Tsinghua University. Eventually, the compulsion to marry early outweighs the wish to marry well.

    This is some consolation for bachelors struggling in China’s unforgiving property market. Ms Hong Fincher once heard someone offer the following piece of candid, albeit cold, advice to young men under pressure from their girlfriend’s mother to buy her a home.

    “As soon as the daughter turns 26, she enters a time of crisis. By the time the daughter turns 28, this feeling turns to fear and dread. So all you have to do is put off the marriage until your girlfriend reaches age 27 or 28, then your zhàng mǔ niáng [丈母娘 mother-in-law] won’t be worried anymore.”

  10. masonw17 says:

    This is pretty fascinating. I wonder if increasing average education and career focus for women, who are now on average better educated than men in China, will lead to changing workplace dynamics. Certainly, the incentive to start a family remains much stronger for both Chinese men and women than for Americans, but increasing urban culture and the introduction of casual dating may well see this change in the not too distant future.

  11. zhengm18 says:

    TanTan is actually the most popular Chinese tinder like social media, and believe me it has a massive presence especially in the urban areas. Tinder is actually banned in China, but the usage of VPN makes it a very popular application in cities with Western presence such as Shanghai and Beijing. What worries me more than the demographic imbalance is more the 4-2-1 family structure, where the effects of the one child policy means that an entire generation of single children has to support their grandparents and parents. This could potentially be a major detonator to China’s economy, as its overall social infrastructure is already weakly implemented by lack of health care coverage and Hukou discriminations.

  12. bonesc18 says:

    It’s funny to come back and read this with the marriage post that was put up more recently. At first glance these problems seem to contradict each other a bit, however they both point to massive inconsistency in demographics. Because of the one child policy, migration, economic advancement, aging, etc. When you put all these pieces together, its clear China has a much bigger demographic problem than I imagined at first. It’ll be interesting to see the effects in total 10, 20 years down the line.

Leave a Reply for Students & Prof