China's 'Leftover Women' Fight Bullshit With Humor

As evidenced by the Yale SWUG fiasco, reclaiming negative patriarchal terms can be a clumsy negotiation. There's often a fine line between re-appropriation and simply recirculating ideologies meant to keep women in their place, especially since the public perception of women who fail to fit into social norms isn't easy to control or change. Women in China, however, are doing it very well, redefining the term "shengnu," a punitive label applied to single Chinese women in their mid- to late-20s. Since a woman who is unmarried and approaching her thirties is almost exactly the same thing as the soggy meat sandwich sitting in my fridge, "shengnu" originally meant "leftover woman." Sigh.

A bit of background: according to the BBC, the state-run media began to use the term in 2007; not coincidentally, that was also the year that the government warned that nation's gender imbalance was becoming a serious problem. Currently, there are about 20 million more men under 30 than women under 30 — mostly a result of sex-selective abortions. But it's totally cool to blame educated and career-oriented women for this issue, because why not? According to Leta Hong-Fincher, an American getting her PhD in sociology in Beijing:

Ever since 2007, the state media have aggressively disseminated this term in surveys, and news reports, and columns, and cartoons and pictures, basically stigmatising educated women over the age of 27 or 30 who are still single.

One would think that the gaping gender imbalance would create a huge pool of eligible bachelors for all single women. That's not the case, though, because traditional attitudes dictate that men should want to "marry down," both in terms of education and income. Thus, #SHENGNUnation lives on.

However, according to a recent article in The New York Times, some women are beginning to push back against the term, and they're doing so in a really clever way. In Chinese, shèng has different meanings depending on the written character: while 剩 (shèng) means leftover, 胜 (also pronounced shèng) means victorious. Thus, unmarried Chinese women are agreeing that they're "shengnu," but they're disagreeing on the term's actual meaning. They're not "leftover women" — they're "victorious women." Wordplay!

The re-definintion of the term has begun to spread to the media. It's already resulted in a television series entitled "The Price of Being a Victorious Woman" that explores the romantic life of a fictitious unmarried career woman. A summary of the series on iQiyi.com, as quoted in the New York Times, reads:

In the series, the perfect metamorphosis of Lin Xiaojie from a ‘leftover woman’ to a ‘victorious woman’ shows you that in the working world too, it’s better to be strong and in charge of your destiny than to let other people control your future.

The state-run media has begun to tentatively echo that sentiment, albeit in a manner that reinforces the onus of eventual marriage:

Leftover women, don’t be tragic. There are 20 million more men under 30 than women in China. So how can there be so many ‘leftover women?... Isn’t it because they’re not ‘leftover’ but ‘victorious’, and their requirements for partners are very high?”

They’re free, and can stand on their own feet. As China modernizes fast, ‘leftover women’ may turn into a positive term.

But to women who are already leading the "victorious woman" life, it doesn't seem that radical. In the words of Li Yue, who works at a nongovermental organization in Beijing, “I think it’s a very positive word. But it’s also kind of odd because I never thought of this as a victory or some kind of a struggle.”

"Rejecting the 'Leftover Woman' Label" [The New York Times]

Image via Stuart Jenner/Shutterstock.