Gender inequality in China

19282867Publication of Leta Hong Fincher, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.  Zed Books, 2014.1

Related links

BBC Video (April 17, 2014)

Impact presenter Lucy Hockings spoke to author Leta Hong Fincher about China’s “Leftover Women” – the state media campaign to label single women above the age of 27 as “leftover” and unwanted. Leta also spoke about the growing inequality gap between men and women in China, especially in property rights.


Interview with Letz Hong Fincher by Yang Shen on LSE Review of Books

(…) According to Fincher, the term ‘leftover woman’ in China ‘is widely used to describe an urban, professional female in her late twenties or older who is still single’ (p.2).

Chapter 1

Fincher examines the leftover women discourse mediated through ‘state media news reports, surveys, columns, cartoons and television shows’ (p.15), and argues that two reasons account for the state promoting the leftover women discourse: one is to maintain social stability in the context of the persisting sex ratio imbalance – China has 32million more men aged under 20 than women – that prevents a lot of men from finding wives; the other is to upgrade the ‘quality’ of the populace by urging well-educated women to marry. It is an insightful observation indeed that the state serves as a latent driver, disseminating this stigmatizing ‘leftover’ women discourse, which arguably has a profound impact on unmarried women over the age of 25.

Chapter 2

considers how Chinese women have been ‘shut out of arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history’ because the pressure they experience in trying to avoid becoming ‘leftover’ means that they often ‘give up too much bargaining power within the marriage’ (p.12). Chapter 3 further deals with how ‘many parents discriminate against their own daughters by buying expensive homes for their sons only’, leading to a gendered wealth gap in house buying.

Chapter 5 and 6

The book is written in an accessible style, allowing general readers access to the subject. It also adopts an inclusive approach in that it covers a wide range of issues in relation to women’s property rights, including the rights of LGBT groups in Chapter 3 and Chapter 6, and the relationship between domestic abuse and women’s lack of property rights in Chapter 5. These issues are rarely discussed together when considering gender inequality in China, so the author is to be congratulated for this effort.

However, I did find that in places the evidence provided is insufficient to support the arguments presented. For example, readers are introduced to a female informant who has a university degree but left her job because ‘she wanted to make herself a more attractive marriage candidate, less intimidating to suitors’. She is quoted as saying “my most important duty is to find a good man to marry” (p.39). The author analyses the case by noting that ‘the state media campaign regarding “leftover” women has prompted some highly educated women to quit their jobs even before they get married’ (p.39). Aside from questioning how rare this case is, I find a lack of coherence between the analysis and the quotes as the informant did not explicitly suggest that she was influenced by the ‘leftover’ discourse.

The imprecision in analysis can also be identified in Chapter 3. The author reveals that the informant Shang got married because she believed that she was getting older. The author links her anxiety with ‘the “leftover” women age threshold’ (p.107). Again, the informant did not specify the connection between her anxiety and the prescribed age of ‘leftover’ women advocated by the state media. By adopting the ‘leftover’ women discourse in a one-size-fits-all fashion, it can be argued that the author not only exaggerates the influence that the ‘leftover’ discourse imposes on women, but also ignores the intricate complexity of the reasons for their anxiety. It is not difficult to recognise that unmarried women’s anxiety around their increasing age existed before the emergence of the ‘leftover’ women discourse, and furthermore that it is seen in other countries where the ‘leftover’ women discourse does not exist.

The author cites a remarkable amount of online sources to support her argument, showing engagement with a variety of sources. However Fincher doesn’t acknowledge that they may not be completely trustworthy. In Chapter 2, the author cites the 2012 Horizon and Report, noting that women’s names were endorsed on only 30 per cent of marital home deals (p.46). First, there are perhaps questions as to the credibility of the report, as it did not suggest how many informants were involved, nor how the survey was conducted. Furthermore, it is a pity that the author did not mention the trend indicated by the report, of a 10.2% increase in the number of women’s names on home deeds compared to the time prior to 2006, which can be interpreted as women’s rising power in property rights. (…)

Read the full text of the review

Interview with Mei Fang on ChinaFile

The three-plus decades since the inception of the ‘one child’ policy have resulted in a huge female shortage in China. The country is now seriously unbalanced, with 18 million more boys than girls. By 2020, there will be some 30 million surplus men in China, a condition some demographers call—in all seriousness—a male bulge.

The laws of supply and demand, which armchair social scientists seem to apply to this situation with abandon, China’s women should have the upper hand.

Former journalist and sociologist Leta Hong Fincher disagrees.

“There’s very little evidence that urban women have turned their scarcity into economic gain,” she writes in Leftover Women, the result of three years voluminous research towards a Ph.D. at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, which will be released on May 1 in the United States by Zed Books.

Hong Fincher presents compelling evidence women’s rights in China have seriously regressed since Mao Zedong proclaimed, “Women hold up half the sky.”

Hong Fincher makes her claims based on two major factors: an insidious state-backed media campaign designed to hurry single urban women to the altar, and a combination of legal restrictions and cultural norms that keep all but a few women from being listed on property ownership deeds.

Citing a 2012 survey by research group Horizon China, Hong Fincher notes only 30% of marital home deeds in China’s top cities include women’s names, even though more than 70% of women contribute to purchases. This, of course, leaves women in a vulnerable position in cases of divorce and the division of marital property.

In 2011, the issue became more contentious when China’s Supreme Court issued a new interpretation of the country’s Marriage Law, specifying that unless legally contested, marital property belongs to the person listed on the property deed—which, Hong Fincher notes, is almost always the husband.

As a result, Hong Fincher contends, Chinese women have missed out on China’s huge property boom that began within the last decade, “arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history,” worth U.S.$27 trillion, she estimates.

Read the text of the interview of  Hong Fincher by Mei Fong

  1. See also Leta Hong Fisher, China’s ‘Leftover’ Women October 11, 2012 New York Times []

Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

More Posts - Website

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Jacqueline Nivard (April 27, 2014). Gender inequality in China. URBACHINA. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.