Xi Liya, 27, is a hard-working woman with a promising career path. For a woman in her situation, single marital status is increasingly common in modern China.

Even if her parents think otherwise.

Unshakeable conventional wisdom demands that women must marry before the age of 30 or they will become “too old to wed.” At 27, Xi has already reached the age at which society would designate her as a shengnü, or “leftover woman.” The term carries a stigma and deep ramifications for one’s social and family life, as well as work.

“A woman must do what she is supposed to do at her age. If she doesn’t get married before she turns 30, she will be passed over and marriage will remain a big problem for the rest of her life,” Xi’s mother said.

In search of a solution to stave off marital pressure, Xi chose the ultimate deception: hiring a handsome man to pose as her boyfriend when it was time to visit her family and friends.

“My parents want me to get married by 30,” Xi said. “Bringing a ‘boyfriend’ home will mean I get less hassle from my relatives and my parents will stop worrying about my romantic life,” she said.

“Although there’s always a risk they will find out, I just want to get my marital status off their mind,” Xi said.

Marriage rates are on the decline across China.

In the past, marriages were arranged by coworkers or family members. But this phenomenon has vanished with China’s widening birth rate imbalance and and highly educated female workforce. In the big cities, more women are choosing to postpone marriage.

Higher social status makes many Chinese women born after 1980 more eager to establish their own career and gain economic independence. The importance of “getting married” has become less important than finding a good match.

Nevertheless, Chinese parents continue to push their children to marry early. Many have taken to arranging blind dates for their children or matchmaking parties – sources of increasing family conflict.

Hu Xingdou, a social commentator at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said the trend of leftover women pushing back against family pressures by hiring boyfriends shows the strong clash between old and new ideas.

Increasing materialism and the pressures of modern life make it harder for young people to find a partner, even as parents still expect their children to marry young, he said.

But it may also reflect another enduring Chinese belief: the importance of being filial. Many people are reluctant to upset their parents by confronting them and would rather feign conformance.

But for women like Xi, what they want most is freedom to break free from the expectations of the society and stave off marital pressures.

“Getting married is not an essential thing I am eager to do in my life. If I don’t feel like it’s the right person and the right time, I would rather stay single,” Xi said.

“But the biggest problem is that I don’t know what to do now. It seems impossible to convince my parents that my generation has a different attitude towards this matter. All I can do is work hard and be a better person. Maybe that can comfort them and make them proud of me,” she said.

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  1. What a ridiculous, insulting, and demeaning title for any lady to call her ‘Leftover’!

    The word ‘leftover’ has two uses in the English language –
    1. To refer to food that has not been eaten after a meal.
    2. To describe an amount of something that remains after the rest of it has been used or eaten.

    Therefore to describe any lady as a ‘leftover’ is extremely rude!

    In my many years in China I have heard ladies described as ‘leftovers’ all too often, but no ladies object.

    Come on ladies – complain, and tell the world you are not ‘leftovers’ but that you are the special and intelligent ladies who have not allowed yourselves to be rushed or pressurised into marriage. You are the ladies who show that you use your brains to plan your lives – intelligently and responsibly.

    The ‘leftover’ description is a ‘leftover’ from a bygone age. It dates back to when ladies mostly did not work. When ladies did not go to university or build careers. Our world has changed, especially China. It is therefore particularly sad to see such an article as this published. Both the writer and the publisher should feel considerable shame for such a senseless, demeaning, and sexist article.

    Men and women marry at any age – even in their nineties or older. Marriage is not about age! It is about finding the right partner to share life with! One only needs to look at divorce figures to see how stupid – Yes! So very stupid and irresponsible it is for parents and grandparents to cajole their daughter or granddaughter into marriage! – Indeed, it can be highly irresponsible to marry simply because of age. Parents, and particularly grandparents, are surely old enough to know better, as they have the experience of life. So, why don’t parents and grandparents start to use their own commonsense experience of life, instead of blaming it on a completely out-of-date cultural thing?

    A girl only really becomes a woman when she reaches her late twenties, and a boy really only becomes a man when he reaches forty.

    So lets all behave courteously and responsibly; write and speak respectfully of ladies, and stop insulting and demeaning ladies by calling them ‘leftovers’.

    Joe / Reply
    • Hey, if you read the article it argues for the respect and freedom that advocated in your post. The leftover term is a direct translation. It’s a fine title that dramatizes the issue, the use of the phase simply hightens the absurdity of the chinese notion of ‘leftover ladies’. It accomplishes the criticism well, and then the author goes on to argue why they are not leftovers. Read the article.

      Jan / Reply (in reply to Joe)
    • Diao Jiayi

      Dear Joe,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Beijing Today only gathers the public voices and shows people’s idea in the city to the world.

      It is not our concept of “leftover” women. Again, Beijing Today only conveys the information that such idea exists.

      We would also like to say that we are not ashamed to publish this article since it raises people’s attention on the issue.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Diao Jiayi / Reply (in reply to Joe)

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