The issue of “leftover” women – those deemed by society to be past the ideal age for marriage – has continued to spark fierce debate among China’s netizens. Recent coverage has shifted somewhat, widening in scope to include – and sometimes highlight – China’s “bachelor crisis.”
Recently, Sohu, one of China’s largest online news websites, published an infographic entitled “Men and Women in Danger,” shedding more light on the predicament allegedly faced by middle-aged men and women who are unmarried. Compiling data from the 2010 national census and several recent news articles, the infographic offers an ominous outlook for China’s approximately 12 million bachelors and 6 million bachelorettes between the ages of 30 and 39.
Sohu noted, “Recently, media have revealed that the ‘bare branch’ [bachelor] crisis is greater than the ‘leftover women’ issue, as the former greatly increases the risk of social instability“光棍”危机大于“剩女”问题，大大增加社会不稳定风险。.” This problem has become especially acute in China due to the increasingly skewed gender ratio – in 2012, 117 males were born for every 100 females. Many Chinese men already report an inability to find a wife. By 2020, their ranks could increase to as many as 30 million.
The infographic points out what many netizens intuitively understand – that although “leftover” men and women share the same conundrum, they come from vastly different places in society. “Leftover” women tend to be highly educated professionals living in coastal cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, while their male counterparts are more often low-income wage earners from less-developed provinces.
The wide gap between the two groups may be attributed to traditional social conceptions regarding marriage, in which the husband is expected to hold more economic power than the wife. Under these norms, men tend to marry one step down the socio-economic ladder. Therefore, the most successful women and the least successful men are left behind.
In the comments section following the infographic, netizens bickered over the true culprit behind the problem. Some male netizens claimed that “leftover” women deserved to be alone due to their unrealistically high standards. Others lamented widening social inequality and materialism, citing the common expectation that grooms own an apartment and a car before marriage, a difficult goal to reach in most urban areas.
Despite their disagreements, netizens almost uniformly blamed China’s one-child policy for distorting the gender ratio. Sohu user 静轩水月5720273 commented: “The one-child policy has been in practice for over 30 years. Many rural people chose to have abortions every time they conceived a female child, and now their sons can’t find wives. This is what they get for killing babies!30多年的计划生育，很多农村人只要怀了女孩就打掉，现在儿子找不到老婆开心了吧！杀胎儿，是会遭报应！遭天谴”
Interestingly, although netizens were highly critical of the one child policy, few focused on the traditional gender norms that produced the preference for male children in the first place. In fact, almost none of the commenters questioned the male breadwinner family model that underlies the “leftover” issue.
On Sina Weibo, @牛奶咖啡的海角, a user who shared a similar Sohu infographic on the “leftover” population, remarked:
The truth isn’t that most “leftover women” are trying to find men who are of a higher status than they are, but rather that most men, due to their upbringing, are more willing to marry women of a lower status. Women, due to their disadvantaged position, are quicker to realize [this inequality]. The more educated a woman is, the deeper her desire for equality, and therefore it becomes harder for her to find a suitable mate有一点搞错了，也不知是谁的臆断，事实是大部分‘剩女’不是要找比自己高一级的男性，而是大部分男性从小受的熏陶是男人要处于主导地位，平等地位的好处从无机会体验，因此更愿意找比自己低的女士。而女性实际上一直处于弱势从而觉醒的比较早，因此越高端越有平等意识，因此很难找到和拍的男性.
China’s not-so-young bachelors and bachelorettes may have little in common in terms of socioeconomic status, but ultimately, they are both victims of gender inequality – “leftover” men find themselves without wives to marry because society preferred them to their sisters, while “leftover” women are deemed unsuitable for marriage because they successfully broke out of their traditional gender role.
While the acute demographic crisis facing China’s single men and social stigma facing its single women have not yet caused widespread questioning of traditional gender norms, increased coverage of China’s “bachelor crisis” alongside that of “leftover women” has the potential to reframe the issue, shifting blame at least partially away from women, and to an underlying societal preference for men.