Chinese new year, leftover women and the custom to rent-a-boyfriend

Published: February 14, 2014
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Shengu women (women who are single at the time of the Chinese New Year) are an abhorrence to parents and extended families in China. The same is the case in Pakistan, with slight variations. PHOTO: REUTERS

Shengu women (women who are single at the time of the Chinese New Year) are an abhorrence to parents and extended families in China. The same is the case in Pakistan, with slight variations. PHOTO: REUTERS Shengu women (women who are single at the time of the Chinese New Year) are an abhorrence to parents and extended families in China. The same is the case in Pakistan, with slight variations. PHOTO: REUTERS

Along with the dumplings and yee sang (raw fish salad deemed to bring about good luck; usually eaten on the seventh day of the festivities) the very coveted Chinese new year brings with itself the dilemmas of ‘shengnu’ – otherwise known as the ‘leftover women’ in china. Particularly, at this time of the year, being single is abhorrent for the shengnu’s parents as well as their extended family members.

As disparaging as the word ‘leftover women’ sounds (read: ‘leftover food’) the All China Women’s Federation website has taken lengths to define it. Officially, shengnu is a term used for educated, rich and professional females who are single at the age of 27.

Initially these celebrations were looked at by individuals working away from home as a refreshing prospect of catching up; however, in recent years it has become a painful ritual. Dreaded by most of Chinas shengnu population, it is the time for the annual trip back home for the New Year to attend large family gatherings (china has a very strong bonding amongst families).

China gives a lot of importance to marriage and there is a strong stigma attached to single women; unlike the west, China, irrespective of the growth and advancements in technology, retains its traditions and promotes marriages instead of living in relationships. It looks at marriage as an institution and dating in the Chinese culture has to lead to marriage and stability – love hardly holds much relevance.

Ni Lin*, host of a match-making television show in Shanghai, told Reuters,

“Chinese people often think males should be higher in every sense, including height, age, education and salary.”

Shengnu women are looked on as strong, independent individuals who are headstrong and have lost their feminine qualities. Hence, Chinese men, on average, marry females who are less educated or less financially stable and, in some way or the other, inferior to them.

Hence, the A-class man will marry the B-class female, the B-class man will end up marrying the C-class female and the C-class man will marry the D-Class female. This leaves out the A-class female and the D-Class man, who can say goodbye to any prospects of marriage as they are deemed ‘not good enough’. Thus, leaving the female insecure about her choice to pursue a career rather than surrender to marriage.

The prospect of being part of the new year celebrations and, at the same time, keeping the nagging relatives off ones back is so alluring that most females bring themselves to the point of renting boyfriends. It has become a business in itself where young men are ‘rented’ by females to take home to their parents. The rent-a-boyfriend business thrives at the time of weddings and especially at the time of the longest Chinese holiday, the New Year.

It has to be the neighbours curse, as Pakistan is also not very alien to this situation. As a very relatable issue among both the neighbouring countries, the age barrier for shengnu in Pakistan begins at the age of 23. Although the description provided by the All China Women’s Federation is not apt for Pakistani women. Here, shengnu are not considered educated, rich and professional; in Pakistan shengnu are females who are either of a shady character, very picky or are just plain unlucky in this department.

To my mind, there are striking parallels between China and Pakistan, with shengnu women still inspiring pity, suspicion and disdain. The key difference is the age limit and the different meanings given to the word shengnu.

Other than family pressures in the very similar neighbouring countries, another key point to note here is the social media pressures that have increased with Facebook becoming the holy grail of communication.

A close friend, who had gone on in life to become a banker commented saying,

“I dread logging into Facebook; seems like the entire world is either getting engaged, married or knocked up and that too while documenting each and every breathing moment on Facebook.”

To say the least, she was entirely right in her rationale.

However, shengnu’s in both the countries are taking a stand for their rights.

Women are now being vocal about attaining higher education and consider a successful career to be a necessity, rather than an option.

Hopefully, the situation will change soon. Women will be able to have it all and enjoy it as well, instead of compromising with their inferiorities and succumbing to societal pressures.

As 38-year-old Beijeinger, Chizu* puts it

“I had (sic) love to meet the right man, but I can’t sit around waiting for it. It will happen when it has to but for now… life is good.”

Till then, happy Year of the Horse!

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Sana Shah

Sana Shah

Lawyer by profession, a realist and farceur at heart who can debate endlessly on feminism and humanitarian issues. Loves travelling, dogs and museums. Permanently a victim to sartorial dilemmas. She tweets at @sanahshah (twitter.com/sanahshah)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.