There is a paradox in Chinese society which involves Chinese women that has only manifested itself recently. It is the “Shengnu” paradox. With China’s gender imbalance estimated to reach its tipping point very soon, the irony of the existence of the “Sheng nu,” or the so-called leftover women, has become a serious topic for debate in the news and in blogs everywhere.
The “Sheng nu” phenomenon is both a deliberate concoction of Chinese society and a natural consequence of China’s age-old marriage traditions conflicting with modern realities. The paradox that exists within this phenomenon is multi-faceted.
Firstly, the phenomenon deems clever and beautiful Chinese women not so clever and beautiful on account of the fact that they let themselves become leftovers. Secondly, the society’s stubbornly traditional attitude towards marriage and women,which gave birth to this phenomenon, actually undermines its intended purpose of ensuring the continuation of traditional marriage practices and only worsens the gender imbalance which it’s supposed to solve.
The “Sheng nu” phenomenon, understandably, exists largely in China’s big cities where Chinese women find themselves having to prioritize college/university education and careers and setting aside, for the meantime, traditional goals.
It is not that modern women of China have become ambitious and have chosen to turn their backs on marriage and family. It is just that they have to play new roles in order to adapt to the ever-changing economic climate in China and to become the filial child that their parents can depend on financially.
So these beautiful Chinese women become well-educated and independent, out of necessity, filial piety, and, eventually, simply for self-betterment. While fulfilling their new roles, however, they spend their marriageable years working hard instead of finding a suitable mate, getting married, and having children. By the time that they can finally make time for these traditional pursuits, they are no longer considered marriage-worthy.
So while their cleverness and independence, which should add to their overall beauty, enable them to effectively fulfill their new roles, these same traits actually also become their downfall. In the process of living up to modern expectations, they end up failing in their traditional roles and their society punishes them for it.
It does not matter that the surplus of Chinese bachelors is growing by the millions every year, tradition is tradition and women of a certain age and social status are simply no longer suitable as wives.
There is also the prevailing concept of “face.” Chinese men are supposed to be superior to women in age, education, and social and economic status; being with a woman of equal status may already cause them to lose face. Being with a woman of higher status is simply unacceptable. Being with a woman who is already in her late 20s or older and with very impressive credentials to boot is downright repugnant.
The idea of being with a highly-educated, highly-successful, and independent beautiful woman whose traditional desirability has “expired”is so abhorrent to most Chinese men that they would rather remain bachelors for the rest of their lives. And the unfortunate plight of these bachelors is the fault of these women who supposedly chose their personal ambitions over their societal obligations. They only have themselves to blame for becoming “leftovers.” Perhaps they’re not so clever after all; given their age and accomplishments, they are no longer beautiful.
The real tragedy is that these women do want marriage and a family. They set aside these desires because they chose to face the new challenges that their modern society presented them with. Now, not only are they being denied the chance to finally fulfill their traditional roles, they are also ridiculed for being more than what was expected of them.
But they refuse to accept the “unfortunate fate” that they supposedly brought upon themselves. Their society may see them as undesirable, but these women know better.
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