Christina Larson is a Beijing-based contributing editor for Foreign Policy. Kevin Chou provided research assistance.
The Spicy Love Doctor was running late. A well-heeled crowd one recent Sunday afternoon had packed into the second-floor lounge of Beijing's Trends Building — home to the publishing offices of several glossy magazines, including the Chinese editions of Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Harper's Bazaar — to hear Wu Di, a contributor to China's Cosmopolitan and author of an alluring new book, I Know Why You're Left. The poised, professional crowd, outfitted in black blazers, leather boots, and trendy thick-framed glasses, was composed mostly of women in their mid-20s to mid-30s — primeCosmo readers and all there waiting patiently to hear Wu, who typically charges $160 an hour for "private romance counseling," explain their surprising plight: being single women in a country with a startling excess of men.
When at last she sauntered to the front of the room, microphone in hand, Wu, a pert, married 43-year-old who resembles a brunette Suze Orman (and whose chief advertised credential, it turns out, is an MBA from the University of Houston), surveyed her audience. Then she broke out into a practiced grin and, in the relentlessly chipper staccato common to Chinese public speakers, launched into her talk: a mix of sisterly homily, lovemaking tips, and economics lecture. It's unrealistic to expect that you will be madly in love with one person forever, she warned, or even that passion can be the right guide to marriage. Her authority? No less than the wandering eye of Bill Clinton, which, she told her solemnly attentive audience, "proves that there is no method to sustain feverish lust between long-married couples."
The majority of her talk was devoted not to such timeless aphorisms, but to describing a new conundrum in China: the plight of its sheng nu, or "leftover ladies." In popular parlance, sheng nu refers to women above a certain age — some say 27, others 30 — who are unmarried and presumably "left over," too old to be desirable. Increasingly, sheng nu are a topic of alternating humor and alarm for Chinese newspaper columnists, TV sitcoms, reality dating shows, and studies by government bodies like the All-China Women's Federation; according to its 2010 survey, more than 90 percentof male respondents agreed that women should marry before age 27 or risk being forever undesired.
What's most startling about this national obsession with China's Bridget Joneses is that sheer numbers would seem to say it couldn't possibly be so. China has far too few women, not too many. This is a country where 118 boys were born for every 100 girls in 2010, and by 2020 the number of men unable to find partners is expected to reach 24 million. So how could any women possibly be left over?
As science journalist Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection, and numerous scholars have documented, a confluence of factors has led to this deeply male-skewed national sex ratio. For centuries, Chinese families preferred male children because girls were obliged to leave home eventually and move into their husband's household rather than stay and take care of their parents; the advent of the one-child policy in 1980 only increased the stakes. Over the next decade and a half, the newly widespread availability of ultrasound scans led to a dramatic uptick in sex-selective abortions — banned since 1995 but still easy enough to arrange. The upshot is that by the 2020s, an estimated 15 to 20 percent of Chinese men of marriageable age will lack potential brides, according to Jiang Quanbao of Xi'an Jiaotong University. You might think this would create a sense of entitled ease among China's single ladies, but the reality is rather more complicated, as the attentive supplicants to the Spicy Love Doctor attest.
"Why do sheng nu happen now in China?" Wu asked. After a dramatic pause, she answered her own question: "It is a result of high GDP growth." At this point, several women in the audience fidgeted, wary of an economics sermon, but Wu continued. "In the past, there was no such word as sheng nu. But today women have more wealth and education — they have better jobs, and higher requirements for men." She reflected: "Now you want to find a man you have deep feelings for who also has a house and a car. You won't all find that."
She wasn't telling the women they should want less, exactly. What she was really pointing out was just how much better today's Chinese women have it. Thirty years ago, a marriage certificate was a passport into adulthood. "Until you married, there were no basic human rights. No right to have sex before marriage. No house allocated by your danwei [government work unit] before marriage." Today those barriers have crumbled, with rising sexual freedom and a booming private real estate market. Why marry unless you find someone just right? "The future is different," Wu predicted, waving her arms for emphasis. China's big cities will be filled with sheng nu. "Those who can bear the shortcomings and sufferings of men will get married," she concluded. "Those not, single."