What It’s Like to Be a Leftover Woman

From China’s “leftover women” to Israel’s “baby machines,” society still dictates female lives.

Closeup of Gai Qi, one of the women in the documentary, wearing a red dress against a pink backdrop.
Closeup of Gai Qi, one of the women featured in the documentary, Leftover Women, on her wedding day. (Leftover Women Film)

“I was happy when I was single,” Qiu Hua Mei told me. “I had friends, I went to bars, I went to the theater. I went to language school to learn English and French. I enjoyed my life very much. But when I went home to visit my parents, they would bother me about marriage.”

Her parents were not the only ones. Until recently, Qiu was one of China’s sheng nu, or “leftover women,” a derogatory term popularized by the Chinese government to describe unmarried women in their late 20s and 30s. Hers is the standout story in the new documentary Leftover Women, showing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London on March 13 and 14, and available in the United States now on PBS. It shows the relentless pressure faced by educated, single Chinese women to find a husband.

In China, women are still expected to marry “up.” But traditional views of gender roles—one prospective husband tells Qiu he expects to be “dominant” in a relationship—sit uneasily alongside the country’s success in educating younger women, who want careers as well as, or instead of, families and domestic responsibilities. At a “marriage market” in Beijing, where parents solicit dates for their children, one mother shies away from Qiu after learning that she’s a lawyer, claiming Qiu might sue a potential husband’s family. When you have a degree, Qiu said, people think, “This woman must be very tough, not obedient. Maybe very bossy. Maybe she wouldn’t follow the orders of a husband.”

China is not alone in grappling with the tension between women’s increased life opportunities and anxieties over the resulting fall in birth rates: Around the world, as women gain access to education and employment, they marry later and have fewer children. Even now that China’s one-child policy has been relaxed—because of fears that the population is aging and there will not be enough workers to look after the elderly—the film’s lead director, Shosh Shlam, found that many women were reluctant to have multiple children. “It’s very expensive,” Shlam told me. “And they are used to single children.” Because state support for parenthood is inadequate, Qiu added, “mothers have to stay at home to look after the kids; your career will have to be sacrificed.”

The role of the government in dictating women’s fertility is highly contested globally. Populists of all persuasions point to falling birth rates as a sign of national decline. “Every woman should have six children for the good of the country,” the left-wing Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, said in a speech on March 4. (About 13 percent of Venezuelan children are malnourished.) Last year, the right-wing Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, promised tax breaks to mothers of more than four children. “We do not need numbers,” he said, referring to immigrants. “We need Hungarian children.” Poland, Lithuania, and Serbia all offer financial incentives for larger families.

The existence of pro- and anti-natalist policies bolsters one of the cornerstones of feminist analysis: Throughout history, and across cultures, women’s bodies have been treated as a communal resource for creating the citizens of the future—and therefore states try to control women’s lives to influence their reproductive capacity. Formerly, that control largely took the form of restricting women’s access to education, or banning them from certain jobs. Today, it manifests more subtly as social pressure suggesting that “fulfillment” comes only from marriage and children.

Leftover Women begins with Qiu visiting a Beijing dating agency. She has high standards for a man, she tells a matchmaker there. He must be highly educated, willing to share the housework, and respectful of women. In mathematical terms, husband-hunting in China ought to be a buyer’s market: Far more men than women are looking for love. But that is not Qiu’s experience. “Sorry if I’m being too straightforward,” the matchmaker replies, “but you’re not beautiful in the traditional sense … Also, you’re old.” This is the first of many startling examples of the harsh judgments Qiu faces.

The Chinese government’s one-child policy, in place from 1980 to 2016, combined with the widespread belief that a male child is more valuable, led to sex-selective abortions. The country now has an estimated 30 million “extra” men—many of whom will never find a partner. The state sees this as a threat to national stability. “The Chinese government is very paranoid of any group that might be a threat to them,” Shlam told me. Qiu says that the sex imbalance “makes men desperate,” contributing to violence against women who reject potential boyfriends. Shlam pointed out that it has led to an abundance of sex tourism to nearby countries such as Myanmar and Laos.

In addition to producing cartoons urging women to marry, the Chinese government organizes speed-dating events. And—as its promotion of the concept of sheng nu demonstrates—it also encourages Chinese citizens to see unmarried women as unhappy and unfulfilled. But that wasn’t how Qiu felt. “The so-called leftover women are mostly those with higher education who have a good income,” she told me. “They don’t follow the social order. So society has to fight them. To make them surrender.”

Watching the film as a 30-something British woman, I was struck by how subversive Qiu’s ambivalence about marriage appears to those around her. When Shlam visited Qiu’s law firm, she noticed that married and unmarried female lawyers worked in separate rooms. “You really feel second-best,” Shlam said. “The pressure is everywhere.”

Two other women feature in the film: a broadcaster named Xu Min, 28, who wants to get married but struggles to find a man who meets her mother’s exacting standards; and an assistant college professor named Gai Qi, 36, who marries a younger man from a less wealthy family and has a child soon afterward. But the most memorable scenes belong to Qiu, because of her constant battle to live her life the way she pleases. When she returns to her parents’ village, they tell her that their neighbors mock them because she is childless; Qiu’s sister flatly tells her that she cannot be happy without getting married.

Shlam was drawn to the story after hearing about the Chinese feminists arrested in 2015 for protesting sexual assaults on public transport. In Leftover Women, Qiu has short hair, which she told me she cut to protest the fact that several universities have lower entrance requirements for men in some subjects than for women, because the state fears that men are falling behind.

Shlam lives in Israel, where the ultra-orthodox Jewish community has extremely high birth rates. Her 2005 film, Be Fruitful and Multiply, followed ultra-orthodox women in Brooklyn and Jerusalem who were expected to be, as she put it, “baby machines.” She saw parallels between China and Israel, as conservative societies “where the woman’s role is very obvious.” When she showed Be Fruitful and Multiply at universities in Beijing, Shlam said, the Chinese viewers “were shocked: How can you have 17 children?” But then an audience member said, “We and the ultra-orthodox women are in the same situation. She’s forced to have as many children as she can. I’m forced to have only one.”

In one scene in Leftover Women, Qiu is told that she cannot freeze her eggs in China, so she must travel abroad to do so (although the government permits the existence of sperm banks). By contrast, Silicon Valley companies encourage female employees to freeze their eggs. These are all attempts to get around the fact that for many women, the fertile years coincide with the most crucial time in a career. Chinese women are pressured not to delay childbearing, because of their state’s natalist outlooks. Americans are encouraged to do the opposite, because it would disrupt their working lives. Family-friendly policies, such as paid maternity leave, extra training for returning workers, and protections for those who take time off, are not part of the discussion.

Leftover Women makes a strong case that most of us would not be as resolute as Qiu. “If all your girlfriends get married and you don’t want to, you feel abnormal,” Shlam said. “In the editing room, more than once, I cried.” Qiu said she wanted to participate in the film to help others in the same situation feel less alone.

The film ends with the 34-year-old leaving China to study in France. The farewell scene with her family reveals the complexity of China’s evolving views on women’s roles: Qiu’s sister, who scolded her for being single, now offers her money; her father, who is illiterate because his schooling was interrupted by famine, tells her that he is honored to have an educated daughter.

“I think he’s proud of me,” Qiu told me. After studying in France, she moved to Germany and is now married to a German man. They do not have children. When she watched the film, it made her reconsider the battles with her family. The filmmakers “captured some beautiful moments,” she said. “Even the fights. After them, I thought I was the loser. But from that movie, I saw that I was powerful.”