China's 'Leftover Women' Every weekend since 2004, hundreds of parents gather at a Shanghai park in hopes of finding potential marriage partners for their children. I went to the Shanghai marriage market in March 2017 to better understand dating and marriage culture in China. The trip didn't go as planned.
Shanghai marriage market: More than just a cultural curiosity
It’s a rainy Saturday morning, but hundreds of people are gathered inside People’s Park with advertisements in hand. It’s easy to mistake the scene for a company’s marketing tactic to sell a good or service. However, the “vendors” are selling something much more precious than that — their children’s hand in marriage.
I pull out my camera and tripod, hoping to interview the parents who've come to the park to find a potential son- or daughter-in-law. I manage to record a minute of footage before getting surrounded by a dozen angry parents demanding that I leave the park immediately. To avoid causing another scene, I shot the rest of the footage surreptitiously.
“Last month, someone who was filming got beat up — you better get out of here,” a middle-aged woman in red said, furrowing her brow. An older woman next to her continued: “This is a big social issue in China... if our kids find out that we’re here, they’re going to be angry with us.”
Shanghai’s marriage market has been around since 2004 and attracts hundreds of parents every weekend from morning until late afternoon. Moms and dads craft resumes for their children that list basic information like age, occupation, monthly salary and education level. Details like personality and what their kids are looking for in a partner are considered frivolous and usually omitted.
Parents take different approaches. A man in tan slacks and a blazer three sizes too big for his slim frame simply walks up to others asking, “Son or daughter?” Other parents sit on small stools, relying on their children’s resumes to attract interest.
Although the marriage market has become a popular tourist destination, it's more than just a cultural curiosity. The social issue the market highlights is real and striking: People have trouble finding spouses in China. Due in part to China’s one-child policy — the country’s (now ended) attempt to curb overpopulation — China has 33 million more men than women. At the same time, women in China are becoming some of the most educated in the world. The growing gender imbalance and the rise in social status for females have created a group known as “leftover women” or 剩女, which the Chinese government describes as unmarried females over the age of 27.
As I wandered through the marriage market seeking to understand why my own parents came here years ago to find a husband for my “leftover” sister, I couldn’t help but wonder why there’s a need for the marriage market in the first place. So I dug deeper.
Video: Five Versions of the Modern Woman
Find out how the Shanghai marriage market impacts women in China and the U.S.
Experience a virtual tour of the Shanghai marriage market.
Aegean He, 35, Wenzhou
Modern Chinese women often feel stuck in between two worlds— Aegean He is no exception. She says she constantly feels the pressure from her parents to settle down and start a family. But at the same time, her free spirit and career as an education consultant pull her in another direction.
“Every time I go home during Chinese New Year my family says, ‘You’re the only one who’s not married now, ’ ” He said in Mandarin. “Although I’m the oldest out of all my cousins, I’m the only one single and childless, so I’m under a lot of pressure.”
While getting married and having kids aren’t important milestones to He, she’s not completely closed off to the idea of settling down either — she just hasn’t found the right person yet. The self-described idealist says she’s in search of a soulmate, not just someone to marry because he’s a nice person or has a good job and makes good money.
“I’m still searching. I haven’t found someone where I look at them and go, ‘Wah,’ I haven’t found that feeling yet,” He said with a giggle.
For the most part, He comes across as the embodiment of a modern Chinese woman: She’s well-spoken, charming and sure of what she wants out of life. But the tone in her voice changes noticeably when she starts to talk about her parents.
In the past two years, He has realized that her parents are actually under more pressure than she is. Seeing neighbors, old classmates and friends becoming grandparents can’t be an easy pill to swallow. She sometimes wonders whether she’s being too selfish.
“As I get older, I’ve thought about maybe just settling down to make them happy. They’re getting old and their hair is all white now,” He said.
So, while some children might be embarrassed to find out that their parents attend the marriage market, He would actually encourage them to attend.
“It’d be really cute if my parents put that much effort and energy to help me find someone,” she says. “I know it’s been difficult for them too.”
Sheila Ren, 29, Nantong
When you and Mr. Right have poor timing, is he Mr. Right after all? That’s a question Sheila Ren, Aegean He's colleague, has had to grapple with for years.
Ren and her first boyfriend are from a small town called Nantong, a few hours outside of Shanghai. They started dating toward the end of high school and were together for almost six years.
“After graduating from college, both of our parents expected us to get married,” Ren said. “His parents even said, ‘As long as you marry into our family, we’ll prepare everything for you. We’ll even find you a job.’ ”
But at that point, she had just graduated and the world was ripe to explore. She wanted to get married, just not right away.
“We broke up because he was a more traditional Chinese person in that he wanted to get married a year or two after graduation —most people in small cities do,” Ren said.
Ren’s decision was difficult for her mom to understand, but it was precisely this initial difference in opinion that encouraged discussion and helped the mother-daughter duo understand each other in a way that was impossible before.
“My mom pressured me because her social circle was pressuring her,” Ren said. “She felt ashamed that her family was different because in China, being different from others is a bad thing.”
In the past year, her mom has had a change of heart.
“She now realizes that I’m learning and getting things out of life that I may not get from being married,” Ren said. “At first, my parents weren’t accepting of the fact that I’m dating a foreigner, but now, they’ve started to accept that too.”
She doesn’t oppose marriage and would welcome it when the time is right, but she’s not going to force herself to in the meantime. For someone who has always done things her way, nothing seems more certain.
Chuli Duan, 27, Nanjing
A common rule in Chinese households, unspoken or not, is to avoid dating while still in school so there aren’t any distractions. For Chuli Duan and many other women, the transition from not being allowed to date to suddenly being pressured to settle down happens abruptly.
Duan grew up in Nanjing but moved to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in 2013. After graduating in 2015, she moved back to China as a business consultant and made Shanghai her new home.
“Once I came to Shanghai, my family immediately started saying things like, ‘You’re 25 now, so you should start thinking about settling down,’ ” Duan said. “I was transitioning into my first job and had just moved back to China, and now all of a sudden I’m supposed to be thinking about marriage?”
Although she feels the pressure to get married from her extended family, her mom, a successful career woman, actually tells her to not worry and take her time.
“I’m actually pretty proud that I’m not tied down and can experience a lot of new things,” Duan said.
To her, it all comes down to how you view yourself.
“If you feel bad for yourself and spend your days watching dramas, wondering why men in real life are all so ugly.... If you don’t spend the time to better yourself, when society labels you as a ‘leftover woman,’ you’re going to believe it,” Duan said. “But if you’re constantly improving yourself, you’re not a ‘leftover woman’ even if you don’t get married.”
She's been on a few dates her parents orchestrated and believes that going out with someone her parents have already screened is a win-win.
Patty Xu, 31, Shanghai
Societal or parental pressure might cause some women to rush into marriage, ignoring compatibility. But Patty Xu, the student involvement manager at New York University Shanghai, isn’t going to settle. It helps that her parents are on her side.
“After I turned 30, my parents better understood what I was looking for and they respect me, so I don’t really feel burdened,” Xu said.
However, she does understand the cultural significance of marriage in China.
“Chinese parents like stability — if you haven’t settled down yet or if you move abroad, to them, you’re not living a stable life,” Xu said. “The way they see it, your life isn’t complete until you get married.”
Xu doesn’t care if she’s labeled a “leftover woman,” but she also wants people to understand that she’s putting in the effort to meet men. She has gone on two blind dates her relatives set up but left each date feeling that sparks were missing.
“I think it’s easy to find someone you really like, but finding someone you can spend the rest of your life with, that’s pretty hard,” Xu said.
Although the stigma of divorce is slowly fading in China, Xu says she wants to approach a union with utmost responsibility to avoid future heartbreak.
“It’d be devastating if I choose the wrong guy and need to get a divorce,” she said. “So, I’d rather take my time and get it right the first time around.”
"Leftover women" or 剩女 isn't a slang term
Although the origin of the phrase is still debated, in 2007, China’s Ministry of Education officially defined “leftover women” as unmarried women over the age of 27. Since then, the phrase has become the theme of many wildly successful movies, TV shows and books.
Government-sponsored matchmaking service
Tucked away in the middle of Shanghai’s old downtown district is an unassuming seven-story building dedicated entirely to women. The first floor provides free legal services, the third floor is a job agency that caters only to females, and the sixth floor is home to China’s first government-sponsored matchmaking service — helping the country’s unmarried population, particularly older women, find their “happily ever after.”
The entranceway to Jin Guo Yuan's matchmaking service is lined with colorful balloon arches. Squeezed between the yellow and orange balloons is the word “love,” a symbol of hope for the clients who walk under the arches and into a brightly lit office.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon, the office would be silent if not for Mrs. Zhong’s impassioned phone conversation with her co-worker.
“The next event is full, but there are a lot more men than women who have signed up — we have to figure out a way to make the ratio more even,” Zhong said in Mandarin before hanging up. She turns to me before continuing, “This is a common problem at our events.”
Zhong, a middle-aged woman with fiery red hair, is the senior coordinator of China’s first government-sponsored matchmaking service. She's willing to help me understand what her role is but prefers not to give her full name.
She shares that the organization was established in 2002 and has since helped countless people from all walks of life find their life partners.
“We throw at least one event a month and try to create the most natural dating environments so our clients feel comfortable talking to each other,” Zhong said.
These “natural dating environments” come in the form of elaborate cooking classes, dance parties, park meetups and whatever else the staff dreams up. The more intimate events are held at the office, where 40 people can comfortably mingle. Bigger events boast attendance of over 300. Since the Chinese government funds the organization, events are generally free for clients. Most people are charged a membership fee of 5,000 yuan, roughly $700, for the entire matchmaking process — from the time they fill out a registration form until they find a match.
“A lot of people have trouble finding spouses.… It has become a huge social issue in China so the government started to take notice in the early 2000s,” Zhong said. “A lot of big corporations and even the Chinese army partner with us because they think if their employees are married and have a stable home life, they’ll be better workers.”
Like companies, parents are also worried. That’s why the staff estimates that a third of the people who walk through the doors are parents. In fact, she notes, 15 percent of her clients are successfully matched through events held for parents of single people.
“In China, a marriage isn’t between two people, it’s between two families,” Zhong said. “Parents here are picky themselves about whom they let into the family.”
She suddenly stands up and motions for me to follow her. This impromptu office tour hammers home the service-oriented mission of the matchmaking service. The entire left wall is full of pictures documenting the various events the office has put on over the years — events specifically for those with disabilities, for the elderly, for China’s diverse single population.
“We’re different than the marriage market in People’s Square because our events are curated,” Zhong said. “Anyone can just go to the marriage market, but we actually take the time to sort through a lot of data.”
Zhong thinks of herself as a gatekeeper and enjoys the work she does because of the positive impact she has on her clients’ lives. She opens up her drawer and pulls out a bag of chocolate gold coins to show me: “Several of my clients send me candy, or 喜糖, when they get married or when their kids turn 1 month old.”
As if on cue, a woman who looks to be in her late 20s walks into the office inquiring about the matchmaking process. Zhong rushes over to the potential client, hands her a form to fill out and then brings her to the seating area near the back to talk.
“I’m looking for someone… ,” the woman says, taking a long pause before continuing: “I’m looking for someone who wouldn’t mind that I’ve been married before.”
"So, mommy went to the marriage market ..."
My mom and dad, who’ve lived in the U.S. for almost three decades, aren’t the most traditional Chinese parents. That’s why it was so shocking to learn that they visited the Shanghai marriage market in 2012 to find a husband for my sister, Louisa. At the time, she was pushing 30 and had never had a boyfriend.
“One night, I got a call from mom — and it was a very strange call,” my sister said, trying to stifle a laugh. “She told me not to be surprised if some guy from Chicago calls me and I had no idea what she was talking about.”
My mom visited the marriage market that morning and met the father of a man who lives in Chicago. They exchanged information and pictures of their kids. Knowing how optimistic my mom is, she definitely held out hope that she had just handpicked her future son-in-law. When pressed why she chose that man for my sister, she shared: “Well, he lives in the U.S. and he’s two years older than your sister — that’s a good age difference.”
My sister never got a call from a man in Chicago.
My dad took things a step further. After an unsuccessful visit to the marriage market himself, he went to the government-sponsored matchmaking office and even took notes about what documents he needed to bring in for next time.
While the whole situation is amusing now, that’s not to downplay how worried my parents were back then. All their friends’ children were settling down, and my mom wasn’t subtle about her desire for grandchildren. Like Sheila Ren’s mom, mine also came home with a bunch of baby clothes one day.
But our family remained a unit of four, until it didn’t.
Less than a year after my parents visited the marriage market, my sister started to date her now-husband. As much energy and effort my parents had put into helping my sister find someone, she ultimately met “the one” herself — on her own terms and in her own timing, and at a wedding to top it off. If that doesn’t make you believe in the power of serendipity, nothing will.