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China’s “Leftover Women” and “Shake-and-Bake” Husbands

Single life in China, home to 1 of every 4 women in the world.

Roseann Lake’s new book, Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower, is a treasure trove of insights about what it means to be a single woman in China today. Here is a sampling of 16 of them.

  1. In 1982, in Chinese cities, less than 5 percent of women reached their late 20s without marrying. Now nearly 30 percent of urban Chinese women of the same age are single.
  2. Women who have not married by the expected age are called “leftover women.” That age could be as young as 25 in rural areas or closer to 30 in cities.
  3. The comparable term for single men is “bare branches.” Many of them stayed in rural areas to tend to the family farm while single women migrated into the cities to pursue jobs or an education.
  4. One implication of the disproportionate migration of women is that the women stigmatized as “leftovers” are often “well-educated urban women with ambition and promising careers.”
  5. That doesn’t save them from singlism, though: “Modern-day career women—no matter how impressive their educational and professional accomplishments—are still devalued if they haven’t married by a certain age.”
  6. Another term for some Chinese single women is “golden turtles.” They are the young women who moved to cities to work in factories. They “used their earnings to support their parents, to help pay for the weddings of their brothers or the educations of their younger sisters (in cases of families with more than one child), and to have a small taste of disposable income before returning home and dutifully getting married.” More recently, they are increasingly likely to pursue an education rather than a job in manufacturing.
  7. Young women who do not have advanced degrees and have not traveled to other countries often end up with men who are called “shake-and-bake” husbands: “the kind who, shortly after shaking his hand, you are married to and baking his children.”
  8. During the years of the one-child policy (1979 through 2015), parents greatly favored boy babies; China now has the most lopsided sex ratio in the world.
  9. Many Chinese men do not want to marry women who are their equals. The most highly educated Chinese single women—those with PhDs—are “commonly referred to as a "third sex," because very few men are willing to marry them—not even fellow academics.”
  10. In nearly every province in China, having a child as a single parent is illegal. Single mothers have to pay “social compensation fees” that can be “six to eight times their yearly salary.” The children of single mothers are targets of harsh discrimination. They cannot get a residence permit, and without that, they “can’t attend school, access basic social services, or even apply for an identity card.” There is a black market for fake residence permits.
  11. It is illegal for single women in China to freeze their eggs. Some get around this by traveling to the States if they can afford it.
  12. Most employers in China require job applicants to indicate their marital status on their CV.
  13. “Comrade wives” are straight women married to gay men. Most of them do not know that their partners are gay when they marry them. Until 2001, homosexuality was classified as a disease.
  14. In “cooperative marriages,” lesbian women marry gay men. Often, they each go about their separate lives, then get together to act like a couple when they visit relatives for holidays.
  15. During the decade of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), “romance was reviled as a bourgeois sentiment and a selfish, dishonorable reason to marry.” Marriage partners were instead supposed to share “revolutionary feelings.” The mothers of today’s single women married for financial security or “out of a sense of social duty.” The 21st century single women in China are more likely to want to marry someone they love.
  16. Today, China has its own over-the-top marriage proposals. One that was described by Roseann Lake included a bouquet of roses “the size of a small elephant” that cost the equivalent of $10,500.
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