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

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.

  • hammad ahmad

    very well written. good luck :)Recommend

  • Nandita.

    This chinese tradition and culture is so different from the culture I’ve grown up in. In Maharashtra ( esp the Brahmin community ) a girl who is not well educated or does not hold a good job will find it very difficult to find a mate in the Brahmin community. ( there are exceptions but this is true in most cases ) In cities like Mumbai or Pune, a large number of Maharshtrian women hold jobs. The men in my community prefer working women- women who are their equals, women who have the same degrees they do and who earn as much as they do. I have friends from certain other states ( I want to name those states but m scared of being pounced upon. ) whose husbands/families/community at large dont expect or want them to work.
    Whereas women from my state of Maharshtra will be looked down upon if they chose to sit at home.Maharshtrian women are expected to work to supplement the family income and more importantly,
    Prove their mettle in the corporate world.In my community the only way to earn respect is to get some degrees and a good job. If you can’t achieve that – you
    Will be an outcast.
    In junior college I had a classmate from another indian state who had condescendingly mocked me ” in my state we know how to pamper our women. We buy them jewellery worth lakhs and diamonds etc. Maharashtrian men , in my observation are very different”
    To which I had replied, ” Most maharashtrian women dont plead with their parents or husbands to buy them luxuries. We’re independent, we earn our own money so we don’t need money from our families. And we enjoy the freedom to live our life on our terms which other women can only dream of.”
    I’ve lost count of the number of times people i know from other states have criticized the Maharashtrian way of living. I agree that a women should be the one to decide whether she wants to work or not ( a lot of women in my state end up working because thats what is expected of them) so its a bit unfair but the upside is that we enjoy a lot of freedom that is denied to women in certain other states so I m not complaining.Recommend

  • Nida Aly

    Good job! Very well written.Recommend

  • Kaneeze’

    Women – nothing in life can come easy … No matter what culture .. Race .. Country … Religion !! Recommend

  • Hussain

    Good Job !

    Where are these a-class women :p Recommend

  • Lalit

    @Nandita
    what a sweeping statement…what a generalization…Recommend

  • abhi

    @Nandita

    way to go, sare jahan se achha Maharshtra hamara,Recommend

  • http://@net Hunza wala

    @Nandita.:
    Excellent analysis, Nandita. Can’t fault it.
    Very true, in this day and age, cultural
    norms have changed. And women, can take
    charge of their own lives., if they want to.Recommend

  • Parvez

    @Nandita.: ………. I would call that being progressive.Recommend

  • http://@net Hunza wala

    The author has done a great job of enlightening.
    It brings forth the point that women can do whatever
    they chose. With the help of education. And, perhaps
    a support system, if available.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    @Lalit:
    Nahi.. no sweeping statement.. am talking about 1 community (brahmins) which form like 4% of maharshtrians. Usme bhi many families are like what I stated , not all.. there are exceptions. In other maharashtrian communities also the percentage of women working is relatively higher than other states. Ofcourse , there are exceptions and i have mentioned that in my comment. See, What I am saying is the truth.People from other states who live in Maharashtra have observed this about maharashtrians as well…u know there are “ladies special” trains in mumbai every evening just for women. The percentage of women working is high and the normal compartments in regular trains arent enough so these ladies have separate trains to take them home from work..and there’s no doubt that women in Maharashtra definitely enjoy more freedom.I can and have driven by bike around mumbai at 2 or 3 am without fear.. I can name some places in india where a woman cannot do that.. Recommend

  • Nandita.

    @Lalit: if u dont believe me, get in touch with maharashtrian marriage agencies/ marriage bureau and ask them ‘ is it easy for a non working maharashtrian girl to get a good match.’ Or ask them ” is it easy for a marathi girl without a good degree to find a match” and they will tell u it is extremely tough. Go on and find out for yourself. My first comment on this blog describes the true scenario in Maharashtra.Recommend

  • Muhammad Abbas

    A very good article. I really encourage women who standup for their rights and fight for them. No one should stop women to aspire career.

    In Pakistan, NGOs are doing superb job to help these leftover women to work and survive, just a push and a bit of motivation is all that is required for them to live in our male-dominant culture.Recommend

  • Amit

    Nandita ji you mean north indiaRecommend

  • Vish

    @Nandita, Not sure how much freedom one enjoys in a job in today’s corporate world in Mumbai. Most of which is just wage slavery, with people slogging to improve their company’s profits. Real freedom is owning your own business, however small, which sadly Maharastrians are not very good at, especially Maharashtrian Brahmins. Before you pounce, I’m a proud Mumbaikar myself.Recommend

  • abhi

    @Nandita

    Do you think Maharashtra is only Mumbai? Many victims of MNS will not agree with what you are claiming about even Mumbai.
    Most of the cities in India have ladies seats in buses, I don’t know what is so special about having a ladies train in Mumbai? Most of the metropolitans (NY, London etc.) don’t have a separate ladies train, does it mean that they are less progressive society? Actually having a separate ladies special itself means that females are not comfortable in travelling by general trains.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    @abhi:

    Haha. You obviously have very little knowledge about Mumbai.Women do not have any problem in travelling in the general, normal.trains .. its just that the general trains cannot accomodate all the women ( since the percentage of working women is so high) and its difficult to even board a train during peak rush hours. Hence the need for separate trains.The general trains have loads of women travelling in them too.
    I did not claim that places like new york are not progressive.I am saying Maharashtra definitely is.
    @Vish: You are right!Most Maharashtrians are not businessmen.You may prefer owning a business. WE have a different outlook. And no, we dont look at a corporate job as slavery.Soch apni apni.
    Also, let me point out that these certain business communities in India do exceedingly well in business. These communities are also among the wealthiest people in India but their women are still expected to observe ghungat and pardah.Money does not buy you a open/progressive mind.It may buy you diamonds and a Mercedes Benz but what’s the point if a woman is still bound by regressive; ancient and outdated customs. So no thanks. I’d choose the Maharashtrian way of life anyday. I may not belong to a wealthy business family rolling in money but my community and my state of Maharashtra has given me the freedom and strength to BE MYSELF AND EXPRESS MY INDIVIDUALITY. And I’m grateful for that.Recommend

  • abhi

    @Nandita

    Are you serious? I have been in mumbai for significant amount of time and in Pune as well, I agree that they are more safe for women than many other cities in India, but what you are claiming is flight of imagination. Ladies special is not there because there are so many women that they cannot be accomodated in the general trains, by this logic there should be gents special train in Delhi because there are more male working population in Delhi!
    Rapes and other crime agains women do happen in Mumbai and if you see statistics the number is actually above national average.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    @abhi:
    Dude, just because delhi follows a separate system doesnt mean Mumbai should follow that system. I guess the women in mumbai have special priviledges in the form of the special ladies trains.Men in delhi may nkt have such privileges : too bad for them!This is common knowledge in mumbai. You can keep denying it all you want- that doesnt change facts. The ladies special trains are there because the number of women travelling is high and the normal trains cannot accomodate them. As mentioned earlier,the normal trains accomodate lots of women too but the womens compartments are less in number in the normal trains as compared to the general compartments hence to accomodate the large number of women there are separate ladies trains. This is a known fact. Anyways, end the conversation here because I will never agree with anything u have to say in this regard. And yes, rapes do happen in mumbai but there is absolutely no comparision between delhi and mumbai … mumbai is way more safer.delhi is in the news everyday for one rape or the other. JUST recently a lady was murdered right outside karol bagh metro station.such lawlessness is not a regular ocurrence in mumbai. This has been a topic of discussion on some other blogs on Et and most commenters had the same thing to say: west n south india is a a zillion times better than delhi as far as womens safety is concerned. Lets agree to disagree n end the conversation.Recommend