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China Daily Global / 2020-07 / 31 / Page016

'Leftover Women' a stunning portrayal of marital pressure in China

By Jamal Branford | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-07-31 00:00

Ever since I arrived in Beijing more than a year ago, I have made many efforts to learn about the language and the culture of the people. I have made wonderful Chinese friends and have visited historical sites including the Great Wall, the Palace Museum, the Summer Palace and others.

Though I have enjoyed each of these sites for their historical value, I had yet to see any real films depicting facets of traditional Chinese culture until recently.

I watched a documentary on the internet called Shengnu, or Leftover Women, that was released by PBS earlier this year. The film follows three Chinese women who are all dealing with problems related to the immense social pressure placed upon them by their families, and Chinese society as a whole, to get married.

The term "leftover women" refers to those who don't get married by a certain age and are therefore ostracized as spinsters. Though the unmarried women in the film were professionally successful, they feared being deemed as worthless by society if they were unable to find a mate.

I was particularly shocked by the harsh criticism endured by the woman featured most prominently in the film, a Beijing lawyer named Qiu Huamei. Qiu, 34, was interested in finding a companion, but not marrying. Despite her success, her apparently lower social class (her hometown is a rural village in Shandong province) coupled with the fact that she was "not beautiful" and "too old", as one relationship expert callously told her, conspired to prevent her from finding a suitable partner. As if that weren't bad enough, her family, particularly her father and sister, were infuriated by her decision not to tie the knot, suggesting that she is dumb, selfish and abnormal for not wanting to start a family. Her parents said they constantly worry about her being alone as she gets older with no husband or children to look after her, and that they endure sleepless nights and taunts from neighbors because of her bachelorette status.

As a Westerner, I was absolutely shocked at the way Qiu was treated. Admittedly, similar beliefs prevailed in the United States for decades, but in modern times, marriage is not the huge deal that it was decades ago. The ire expressed by her family, which clearly cut her deeply, seemed overly dramatic. I just don't understand it.

The other women featured in the film were Xu Min and Gai Qi, also professional women living in Beijing. Xu, 28, has dated successfully, but is unable to go any further because her mother dislikes every man she goes out with. Gai, meanwhile, winds up marrying a man younger than her, which appears to be a major faux pas in Chinese society.

It was quite eye-opening for me to see just how tremendously important marriage is deemed to be in China and the enormous pressure that younger people face, especially women, to wed. I've come to understand that Chinese society is filial and that children, no matter how old they may be, are expected to obey their parents' wishes. The struggle for these women to live their lives the way they want to while also trying to please their parents both disturbed me and fascinated me at the same time.

I won't give away the ending of the film, but I will say that I really enjoyed it and I highly recommend it. It was quite an educational experience that gave me a shocking glimpse of one of many interesting aspects of Chinese culture.


Jamal Branford



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