SPEAKER 1: following is part of Cornell Contemporary China Initiative lecture series under the Cornell East Asia Program. The arguments and viewpoints of this talk belong solely to the speaker. We hope you enjoy.
SPEAKER 2: So this is the Cornell Contemporary Initiative lecture series, which is run by the East Asia Program. Tonight, we have a couple of cosponsors that I want to thank for helping us bring our speaker here. The Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department Program has helped out, as has the Society for Humanities. So thanks to both for helping make this possible.
Our speaker today is Leta Hong Fincher, who in 2014 published a book that has earned wide critical acclaim and gained lots of attention called Leftover Women-- the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. Usually, the thing after the colon is smaller, but in this case the colon is huge, right. It goes on and on.
And she finished her PhD in that same year at Tsinghua University in Sociology, after completing a bachelor's degree at Harvard and a master's degree at Stanford. And I think that that alone respects heroine. But then after completing that-- well, before competing, I think, already had been teaching in Hong Kong, where she has been based for the last three years. Currently, she is a visiting Mellon Professor at Columbia University. So we're lucky to get her up here while she's close by. So please join me in welcoming.
LETA HONG FINCHER: I'd like to thank the Cornell Contemporary China initiative and Professor Robin McNeal for inviting me here today. It's really an honor to be here. And it was great that I could just get on the campus bus from Columbia. I'm usually based in Hong Kong, so I'm really glad to be here in the US.
I want to just start by just pointing out that today in China is International Women's Day. And it's kind of interesting, I was just looking at the news this morning to note that the All-China Women's Federation is marking International Women's Day with a fashion show. So in the course of my talk today, I'll give you a bit of context about why it is that the State Feminist Agency in China would be really reinforcing these traditional feminine norms and arguing that the Chinese government as a whole is really pushing, particularly urban educated women, into getting married and having babies.
So first of all, I want to just define this term, leftover women, or sheng nu. The term sheng nu, or leftover women, was defined by the All-China Women's Federation in 2007 to mean an urban educated woman over the age of 27 who is still single. And that same year, China's Ministry of Education adopted the term as part of its official lexicon.
And ever since then, China's official state media, Xinhua News, People's Daily, all sorts of official media, have very aggressively pushed the term through news reports and commentaries, columns, and cartoons. And I'm going to show you some examples from this very aggressive media campaign.
And this is really quite directly linked as well to the end of the one-child policy, which some people argue is a real liberation for women because of course urban women, in particular, were confined to having one child. But I also argue that we could be seeing the beginning of-- and in fact, I've already seen the beginning of some somewhat ominous propaganda that's really pushing women, not only pushing them to get married and have a child early, but pushing them to marry and have two children very early.
But to begin with, I want to just start out by showing you some of the propaganda images that you saw in the early communist era. Now gender equality was a real rallying cry for the Communist Revolution. And of course, Mao Zedong said very famously that women hold up half the sky.
And so you see this philosophy really depicted in a lot of the propaganda images. This poster is from 1954. It shows a woman extremely robust. She's working in a position that would traditionally be seen as a man's job. And it says we're proud to participate in the founding of our country's industrialization.
So these images of very powerful women were propagated around the country in order to just enlist women into the revolutionary project. The state assigned women jobs. And so the urban labor force participation, in particular, was really among the highest in the world, if not the very highest in the world. And in the countryside, women were expected to go and work in the fields alongside men.
Now this image is a propaganda poster from 1971 during the Cultural Revolution with a very ideological slogan there-- the struggle against the landlord and capitalist classes. But what's really striking is how muscular and fierce that woman is, the central woman in this poster. And if you look at all the women in the background, they're very enthusiastic, waving Chairman Mao's Little Red Book in support.
So the final picture I want to show you from that early communist era is particularly relevant to the topic today, because the slogan here-- and this is from the early 1970s-- is late marriage is a revolutionary requirement. So in the early communist era, the Communist Party really tried to encourage women to delay marriage so that they could stay in the workforce for longer, contribute to building the country's economy, and delay having children.
Now there has been a remarkable shift since the market reform era starting in 1980, which of course also coincides with the implementation of the so-called one-child policy. And just as an aside, the one-child policy really just refers to cities. Because in the countryside, even throughout the 1980s when the family planning policies were at their most draconian, people were routinely having two children, or even more. So that's something that's important to bear in mind-- the importance of the urban population.
Well, actually, the term leftover women was first defined in 2007. But then the media campaign was really ramped up in 2010 with a nationwide survey on attitudes to love and marriage. And in 2010, the People's Daily ran a story with a headline-- "Which Category of Leftover do you Belong to." And not only did they begin to stigmatize women who were over 27 and still single, as you can see here, they actually started their categories with women age 25. And they gave names to these subcategories of so-called leftover women.
So the first subcategory you see here is women aged 25 to 27 who were called sheng doushi, or I translate that as leftover fighters. "These women still have the courage to fight for a partner," that's a quote from the People's Daily. So if you look at the image here, you see these kinds of themes picked up over and over again. The woman depicted here has a mortar board, indicating that she has graduated from university, perhaps she even has a master's degree or maybe even a PhD.
She's wearing these very thick rimmed glasses. And that suggests that she's really being a bookworm, she has been focused very much on her studies. And so she hasn't had any time to think about finding the ideal marriage partner.
So now there she is, wearing a white wedding gown. But note that underneath the wedding gown, she's got these very sloppy jeans and sneakers and she's running frantically, trying to chase the winged Cupid before time runs out for her.
So here are a couple more images. I'd draw your attention to the one on the right, in particular. This woman here is celebrating her 27th birthday. She's got the candle for 27. And the candles are already melting on her cake. She's all by herself, there's nobody celebrating with her, suggesting that she's very lonely. And in fact cobwebs are growing around her. And these objects are flying chaotically around her.
Again, she has got the very thick rimmed glasses on, so she has been very focused on her studies. And so the snow is gathering on top of her roof. And this motif of being frozen appears quite often, as well, as these women are being frozen out of love. They're not going to find any love in their life because they've left it till too late.
And for those of you who know Chinese, if you look at the smoke coming out of the chimney, it forms the character [SPEAKING CHINESE], which means extremely frustrated or depressed. And then the caption up there actually says, I"I barely feel as though I've grown up, I wasn't paying attention. But all of a sudden, I've become conspicuously left over."
So this is the second subcategory of so-called leftover women that was pushed in this People's Daily article and keeps circulating a lot through other official media reports-- and the second subcategory of women is called [SPEAKING CHINESE], or the ones who must triumph. And it's also a play on the term for Pizza Hut, which is a popular chain throughout China, as it is here, maybe even more popular in China.
So this refers to women age 28 to 30. And the quote I used was "their careers leave them no time for the hunt." So it's pretty obvious the message that this is sending. The woman again is wearing the white wedding gown. And she has a mortar board on her head, so she's educated. She wants to get married, but there's no groom in the groom's suit.
Over and over again, a lot of the news reports that you see send the message that these so-called left over women have only themselves to blame for their lack of a marriage partner. And it's a really very judgmental derogatory tone, basically telling these women, you shouldn't be so picky in choosing your marriage partner. You should hurry up and find somebody to marry.
So this picture here shows a woman with a long line of very handsome eligible bachelors, all lining up to propose marriage to her. But she's standing there very stubbornly with her arms crossed. And she says, I want to find the perfect man.
So these depictions of women are that their standards are just too high. And if they would simply lower their standards, then they would be able to find a marriage partner.
Now this was a column that was actually originally published in 2011 by Xinhua news. And then it was reposted on the website of the All-China Women's Federation. And it has the headline, "Do Leftover Women Really Deserve our Sympathy." And this is really worth reading in full just to see the kind of vocabulary that they use.
"Pretty girls don't need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family. But girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult. These kinds of girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is they don't realize that as women age, they're worth less and less. So by the time they get their MA or a PhD, they are already old, like yellowed pearls."
So clearly, the message is to try to dissuade women from being too serious about their educations. Because by the time they graduate, there will be no men left who want to marry them.
Now this is the third subcategory of so-called leftover women, women aged 31 to 35, [SPEAKING CHINESE], or Buddha of Victorious Battles. And that is really a play on the ancient legend of the Monkey King. And the quote for this category of women is "High-level leftover women battled to survive in the cruel workplace, but are still single."
So if you take a look at the image here, this kind of layout is also very common, where the women, the so-called leftover women, are placed high above the men. So they are on this pedestal and they all have these binoculars, looking for their ideal marriage partner. And the woman in the middle is even looking way up above her.
And if you notice at the bottom, if the women were just to lower their gaze or their standards a little bit, they would find these masses of men waiting to marry them. And that pictorial representation of the masses of men is really a reference to China's extreme sex ratio imbalance. So you're probably aware that, as a result of the strong cultural preference for sons, combined with draconian family planning policies and all sorts of other reasons and ultrasound technology, China now has one of the worst sex ratio imbalances in the world.
It's somewhat lower this year, according to government statistics. It's about 114 boys born for every 100 girls. But the latest figure from Xinhua News is that there are over 33 million more men than women in China. And so this has been identified by the Chinese government as a serious threat to social stability. Who is going to marry all of these millions of men?
And if you look at the captions on this pedestal here, the first one on the top says, high income-- and that's referring to these women, the so-called leftover women-- high professional position. So these women tend to be rather successful, high earners. And the last criterion there is high education. They've all gone to, at the very least, college. And so they're very highly educated.
If you look at the image on the left there, it's a variation of the woman presented very high above the man, or the men. And this woman is in this tower. And she's got the dark, the thick rimmed glasses. Again, she's been very buried in her books her whole life. And she says, the caption reads, 'Why has my Prince Charming not yet appeared. If I continue to wait, this Snow White will turn into an old witch."
So emblazoned on this castle of hers are again those three criteria for this so-called leftover women-- high education, high professional position, and high income. And if you look at the very bottom there, you'll just be able to make out the shadowy heads of masses of men in China. Again, an illusion to China's extreme sex ratio imbalance.
And that image on the right is just another representation of the typical woman who's very successful. She's university educated, she's made piles of money, she has some kind of senior professional position, and she looks pretty smug.
So this is the final subcategory of so-called leftover women-- women 35 and older. And they are called [SPEAKING CHINESE], or Great Sage Equal of Heaven, which is also taken from the ancient legend of the Monkey King, when the Monkey King attains the status of Buddhahood. And of these women, they say she has, quote, "a luxury apartment, private car, and a company. So why did she become a leftover woman?"
As you can see, this picture is also a variation of sorts, with the woman placed high above the men. But the woman, in this case, has actually brutally slayed all of these men who lie dead and bloodied at her feet. And if you look at her sword, it's got fresh blood still dripping off it. It's a very macabre image. So she's so brutally ambitious in her climb to the top of the career ladder that she has just slayed all these men, not considering love and romance in any way.
And so she has this paper-like crown on top of her head, which says sheng nu. But the character for sheng that they use-- so sheng, sheng nu, usually would be sheng for leftover women. But in this case, the character sheng means saintly or holy. So she's depicted as being kind of like a virgin or a holy saint who doesn't get any sex and will certainly not find a husband.
And then over her chest, she has the banner of [SPEAKING CHINESE], which is the highest category of the so-called leftover women. And if you can see, the three layers on her pedestal there, each have the names of the other subcategories of the so-called leftover women that I outlined previously that were defined by the People's Daily.
So that quote at the top is just something that I took from one of the Xinhua News reports referring to these women and how foolish they are in focusing so much on their educations and their careers and not putting their attention where it should be, which is trying to find a good man to marry. Quote, "It is only when they have lost their youth and are kicked out by the man that they decide to look for a life partner."
I'll walk over here. If you look at this image on the left, the woman has just graduated. She's clutching her diploma. But she, rather than looking really happy about that, she has this rather terrified or frozen expression on her face and her eyes are bulging. And you see she's being battered by this snow, the blizzard blowing around her.
So that theme of the snow and being frozen out of love reappears here. And the snow is gathering on the pedestal that she's standing on. And the caption here on her pedestal says, "Urban leftover women, or woman, seeks marriage."
But it's interesting to see, at her feet are two men. And the men, in contrast to her, are very warmly dressed. They've got these coats on and hats and gloves. And in fact, they're so warm and cozy, that their cheeks are glowing.
And the man on the left says, "she's too highly educated." And the man on the right says, "she's too capable." So they just out of hand reject her as a potential marriage partner. So she will, it's implied, never be able to find a husband. And that image on the right is just a stereotypical image of a very successful woman who has made it to the position of boss, who's just yelling at her underlings, who happened to be men, and are just cowering there.
So these are just a very small, tiny sample of the kinds of very derogatory, really insulting, images of women that are pushed extremely aggressively through the official media. And I chose cartoons for the talk just because it's more entertaining to see that. But in fact, most of the media, the stigmatization of these women really comes in the form of commentaries in language in news reports.
So why would the Chinese government want to do something like this? Why would they want to officially define this term and propagate it so heavily? Well, when I looked into the origins of the term, I discovered that, first of all, it was officially defined in 2007 by the All-China Women's Federation in the spring of 2007.
But just a couple of months before that, I discovered that the Chinese State Council issued a really important population decision or a family planning announcement. And it said that the country needed to address, quote, "unprecedented population pressures." And what were these kinds of pressures?
I'm quoting from the State Council announcement in 2007. "China," it said, "has a low quality of the general population." Low quality in Chinese is [SPEAKING CHINESE]. So this idea that people inherently have a certain quality is really a kind of strain of eugenics that has long been a part of China's population planning policy. And it went on to say that the low quality of the population, quote, "makes it hard to meet the requirements of fierce competition for national strength."
So the government has long identified this, quote, "low quality of the population" that tends to be in the countryside, people who don't have good education. That low quality worker is then going to make it very difficult for China to compete in the global marketplace.
And so the State Council went on to say that a key goal for the country was to, quote, "upgrade population quality," or [SPEAKING CHINESE]. And by that, it didn't specify exactly how the country was going to upgrade population quality.
But I argue that, really, one of the ways in which it was going to do that was through this propaganda campaign, creating this false category of leftover women who are really not leftover at all, but creating a sense of a national crisis over all these unmarried educated women in the cities who are not getting married and not able to find a husband.
And one of the features of the reporting was also that they said that 90% of Chinese men say that a woman over the age of 27 will not be able to find a husband. So there are all these pseudo-scientific facts being thrown into this effort to stigmatize single, educated women and pressure them to get married.
Now this is really linked with what has been recently, over the last decade and a half, a tremendous accomplishment in Chinese women, which is that today, in terms of education, you have record numbers of Chinese women getting a university degree. So Chinese women today are better educated than ever before in history.
You have more Chinese women enrolled at the bachelor's and master's degree level than men. And according to official Chinese government statistics, these women are actually outperforming men. And so there is a real backlash against the success of these Chinese women. And in fact, you see a lot of them at American universities here.
And actually, just the other day, a few weeks ago, I'm teaching at Columbia University, one of my students who is from the mainland came to my office hours and she said she was really enjoying the course. She's 20 years old. And she said she wanted to seek my advice because she would love to stay on and pursue a graduate degree.
But she came from a very large Chinese city. But her mother said, she can't do that, she has to go back as soon as she gets her bachelor's degree and get married. Otherwise, she's going to become a leftover woman. So the problem appears to be not just confined to mainland Chinese women, but even women who come abroad.
So what are some of the other ways in which the government is really trying to urge or push these women into getting married and having a baby? Well, the All-China Women's Federation and the Ministry of Civil Affairs in several large cities, including Shanghai, are organizing mass matchmaking festivals. And these mass matchmaking festivals are really targeted at people who have university degrees. So the vast majority of them already have at least a bachelor's degree.
And there's also a lot of propaganda warning that women who don't have a baby before they turn 30 are going to have birth defects, that their baby will be handicapped. And so this is one of the big concerns as well. It's not just that women are being pressured into marrying in their 20s, but they're also very concerned about missing out on their so-called best childbearing years, which, according to a lot of Chinese doctors and even professors, and certainly in the media, the best childbearing years are in your 20s. And you're supposed to have your baby before you turn 30.
So these kinds of messages-- well, they started to be propagated very heavily in 2007. And here we are, nine years later. And the propaganda is very much evolving along with society. And so I've noticed that, rather than targeting the young women in particular, it tends to be targeting more the parents of the women.
Because the most of the direct pressure on these women to get married really comes from their parents. And so as long as the parents are watching CCTV, state television, or reading some of these state media reports, then the parents are the ones who will be exerting pressure on their daughters or on their nieces. And even parents who aren't putting the pressure on their daughters will come under pressure from other relatives who will tell them, why are you letting your daughter run around. She's already-- however old-- 27 or 26. And she really needs to get serious about getting married.
And so there are all these different means of social engineering and tools at the disposal of the Communist Party to be all mobilized, with the goal of pushing these urban educated women into marrying and having children.
So how does this relate to the very recent ending of China's one-child policy? Well, of course, the family planning policy was never intended to last forever. So we had reached the point at which it really should be removed. But it's not really removed, it's actually the beginning of an official two-child policy. So there are still very strict rules about who can get married, who can have a child. And this is another tool.
It's still very firmly pushing family planning. And it's not dropping the family planning restrictions in any way. For example, single women are excluded from the two-child policy, by and large. So it's extremely difficult for a single woman in China to have a child. Also, the whole LGBTQ community is completely barred from having children.
And so, I want to just show you, because the policy announcement was really just made, I haven't done a very thorough search of all the propaganda messages. But I did a little bit and I found some interesting and somewhat troubling things.
For example, this is the image that they used. That image itself is very troubling. But this was on the front page of the People's Daily. And I found it on the website, that I discovered that it was actually reproduced in a lot of other state media reports with the same image. And this is from December, so that was just a few months ago. It was actually right after China ended the one-child policy and announced its official new two-child policy.
And the headline for this story was that "Female University Students with Babies Face Brighter Job Prospects." And the subheading was, "Student Moms are on the Rise." And then I read the report and it talked about how there is a lot of gender discrimination in the job market. This is something that, while certainly a lot of women who are students or fresh graduates are aware of, that it's very difficult to compete with men for the same kind of job.
So the People's Daily article was taking this fact about widespread gender discrimination and saying, well, the best way to get around this is to recognize that you're going to be discriminated against. The first question employers are going to ask you is, when are you getting married, when are you having a child.
So how do you get around that question? Well, it's easy. Have your two children while you're still in school. And then it gives some examples at interviews, some women who have had a child in school and other women commenting about those women who have children, saying, oh, so and so, she had a child already. I noticed she got an interview and I didn't.
But what is really interesting about this image is that, to me at least, it's really reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, if anybody has read that or seen the cover of the book. The Handmaid's Tale is this dystopian science fiction novel which really depicts a universe in which women are reduced to their reproductive functions. And these women, all they do is exist to breed, to produce babies. And they wear these austere uniforms.
And I saw this image-- well, that is supposed to be a mortar board showing that this woman has graduated from the university. But it's really very ominous the way that they've just covered her completely and she's carrying the baby. So it leads me to wonder if the person designing that actually was subtly trying to protest the policy or if I'm reading too much into it. But anyway, it's interesting to note the parallels.
So these are some other examples. I have some other media reports that I found that are widely circulated in the state media on the internet. And this is one of the headlines that's very common. Post-90 refers to the generation of Chinese who are born after 1990. So they're very young, they're in college.
And "Post-90 female student has second child." That's actually referring to this woman here. And that's her second baby in college. So she had her second baby when she was still a junior. And there was this long feature of this woman, who happens to be very beautiful. So she's a really great role model or attractive woman.
And then the subheading is, "Should women get pregnant in college?" And then there is a long discussion, again, of, oh, her or her story of how happy she is having not just one, but two children while she's still an undergraduate.
So the picture on the left is actually from a different story that talks about graduate student moms on the rise. So that woman should be getting her master's degree. But as you can see, her first child is already a toddler. And she's cradling her pregnant belly, so she's going to have a second child.
So this is one of the concerns that a lot of people have, myself included, that this era of the two-child policy is really going to generate another form of intense pressure in many ways for women who are educated or urban and professional and really creating new pressure on them to marry and have not just one child, but two children.
And of course, that demographic of women actually very naturally wants to delay marriage. So we're just starting to see statistics showing up in large cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, showing that university-educated women in general are delaying marriage or significantly delaying marriage for the first time ever in China.
And these kinds of patterns of educated women delaying marriage or not marrying at all have-- how am I doing on time? I'll just wrap this up quickly. But you see these trends happening all through East Asia and South Korea and Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Women have long been rejecting marriage, or at least really seriously delaying it. And you see that the average age at first marriage is much, much higher than it was 10 years ago.
But now we're at a real turning point in China where you're starting to see the beginning of that trend, of women wanting to delay marriage and even reject marriage. And so over the next year or several years, I think we're going to see a huge clash between what women want to do and the government trying to repress that natural desire.
So why don't I just leave it there and open it up to questions. Thank you.
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Leta Hong Fincher, Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University, critiques the vulgar representations of highly educated, urban single women in China within state media and its effects on gender roles and discrimination. Recorded March 7, 2016 as part of the East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative Lecture Series. Co-sponsored by the Society for the Humanities and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.