An ad by cosmetics company SK-II recently went viral in China. The ad tackles the topic of “leftover women,” women in China who are not married by age 25. Watch the ad below.
The ad has had millions of views and has sparked debate and discussion around the country. Some people believe the ad is empowering. Some think it is pandering. Personally, I think the ad is daring not only because it empowers women, but because it directly undermines the Chinese government.
The derogatory term “leftover women” (剩女; shèngnǚ;) was coined over a decade ago by the All-China Women’s Association, an organization that was founded in 1949 as the leader of the women’s rights movement but has become little more than a Party mouthpiece to help keep women in their place. The term refers to women over 25 (it was 27, but apparently the age has been lowered in recent years) who are not yet married and thus unlikely to get married. Even though these women are typically not married because they have been furthering their education and careers, they are considered a drain on society because they are not getting married and giving birth to the next generation. Even though China’s explosive rate of leftover men is a much larger problem, shengnan (剩男) are not similarly criticized and the term doesn’t hold the same meaning. Men can get married at any time in their lives and are expected to get married later as they pursue their careers. Since there are at least 20 million more men in China than women, it is unavoidable that many of these men will never marry.
Leftover men are viewed victims who don’t have a choice but to remain single; leftover women are viewed selfish for choosing to remain single.
The Chinese government has been behind this calculated attack on urban, educated women from the beginning. China has been hurtling toward a demographic disaster since the inception of the one-child policy in 1979, but China has only been taking steps to correct this course in recent years. By focusing on “leftover women,” the Chinese government was able to shift the blame the countries lack of employees to women who are getting jobs instead of getting husbands and pivot away from blame on the one-child policy. “Yes, we are in a bad situation, but it wouldn’t be this bad if those women were hunting for husbands as hard as they are hunting for jobs,” the government seems to say. By not taking one of the millions of leftover men into her bed and giving birth to the next generation of Chinese workers, unmarried women in China are not doing their duty for the Chinese State.
I’m surprised that the SK-II ad was approved by Chinese censors and it hasn’t been removed. The message that women don’t need to get married or have kids is totally contrary to the message the Chinese government has been sending women for over a decade.
And that is why this ad is so subversive. This ad glorifies the leftover woman. It empowers them. It calms their parents’ fears. It tells women that they can be good Chinese daughters on their own. And that’s pretty awesome.
I am a big fan of Xinran’s books. It is still difficult to find female Chinese writers writing about women’s issues in China in English. While more Chinese women are taking up the pen regarding these issues, Xinran was one of the first. She was in China collecting women’s stories when many people in China thought those stories weren’t important. Her books The Good Women of China and Letters From an Unknown Chinese Mother were groundbreaking in their time. This time, Xinran has widened her scope and looks at the first generation of young men and women raised under the One-Child Policy in her new book Buy Me The Sky. Be sure to read my interview with her about this book here.
With journalistic acumen and a novelist’s flair, Xinran tells the remarkable stories of men and women born in China after 1979 – the recent generations raised under China’s single-child policy. At a time when the country continues to transform at the speed of light, these generations of precious ‘one and onlies’ are burdened with expectation, yet have often been brought up without any sense of responsibility. Within their families, they are revered as ‘little emperors’ and ‘suns’, although such cosseting can come at a high price: isolation, confusion and an inability to deal with life’s challenges.
From the businessman’s son unable to pack his own suitcase, to the PhD student who pulled herself out of extreme rural poverty, Xinran shows how these generations embody the hopes and fears of a great nation at a time of unprecedented change. It is a time of fragmentation, heart-breaking and inspiring in equal measure, in which capitalism vies with communism, the city with the countryside and Western opportunity with Eastern tradition. Through the fascinating stories of these only children, we catch a startling glimpse of the emerging face of China.
While many theorists, psychologists, moralists, and even economists have all weighed in on what the outcome would be for China’s only children generations, we had to wait for those first only children to grow up before they could tell their own stories and begin to piece together the real emotional impact of what it means to be, not just an only child, but a country of only children. Xinran finds a group of these young people, mostly through casual acquaintance, and tells their stories.
Unfortunately, I think the stories are very limited. 9 of the 10 chapters (the 9 people who get a whole chapter to themselves) are students she met who were living abroad. That means these are all rather affluent people. There are some variations in their stories, one girl was a waitress and one young man was from the countryside and borrowed money from his extended family to leave China, but the type of person who has the opportunity to go abroad is very different from someone who cannot afford to school, or was a “left behind” child, or was denied a hukou. I think that chapter 10 was the strongest because it focused on all of those other ones, the ones she met in China. They are all lumped together though and I would have liked to have seen more variety throughout all of her interviewees.
Of course, no two people are alike. Even if she had 20 interviews in the book and had met Chinese youths from all over the world, in and out of China, the stories would not have been representative. How do you write a book about millions of people? It is impossible. This book at least offers a glimpse of what life was like for those kids. Hopefully this will be just a jumping off point for more writers, researchers, and the youths themselves to tell their stories.
This book is a good introduction to the One-Child Policy and what life was like for that first generation growing up under it.
Have you read Buy Me The Sky? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
I am so honored that Xinran agreed to talk with me about her new book!
1) Tell me about yourself.
A Chinese daughter, but doesn’t know very much about her parents’ life because of China’s political past which her parents never wanted to talk about it between 1950’s to 1970’s.
A Chinese mother, but doesn’t know much about her only child, because he grows up between Chinese culture and western culture, in his bilingual languages and screened knowledge.
A British husband’s wife, but doesn’t know much about her husband’s culture and adopted western society because her limited English and world knowledge.
A Chinese woman, but doesn’t know much about her roots country because China has changed so fast in last 30 years, there is no so such a historical record/lesson to learn from it.
A Chinese writer, but is still struggling to understand why the history is so unfair to women, and is trying hard to get Chinese hidden voices out.
2) How did you become a writer?
Driven by a childhood dream, grow up with a passion and everyday hard trying of listening, observation, and thinking.
3) How did you come to write Buy Me the Sky?
During over thirty years research on today’s China, I have shocked by some facts which have happened to the most families under One Child Policy, therefore I want to find the answers to these questions and to send an invitation out for people could listen to their answers:
— ‘Is the mother keeping her child as a pet, or is the child keeping her parents as slaves, to be at her beck and call with every wave of her hand?!
— Is One Child Policy much more powerful than any kind of the beliefs rooted in culture, religion, education, and living environments?
— They all belong to the first generation of the One Child Policy, they have completely different views on China, the world, and the concept of a quality life because of their family backgrounds, living conditions, and their pursuit of different ideals. But is there any point they could agree with their family elders after their long march under One Child Policy?
4) At the end of each story, you ask the young people you talked to about the Yao Jiaxin incident. Why did you feel it was important to get their views on that?
Yes, it could help readers to understand there is no such a Chinese and single China there, young Chinese have very different knowledge and views on Yao’s case because the difference of their living condition and family backgrounds, also between rich and poor, city and countryside, and even between 5 years age!
5) Why do you think only-children in China are so different from only-children born in other countries?
A child lives in an adult society must be completely different from a child lives in a society with many other children…
Or we say, English lives in Beijing, in a Chinese Hotong, must feel very different from she/he lives in a building which is full of English speakers…
Childhood society/family culture is the first education/brainwash in our life!
6) What do you think of China’s new two-child policy? Do you think it will effect much change in the short or long term?
One Child Policy, as anything, likes a coin with two sides, (in fact it should be three sides):
In the last three decades, under the One Child Policy, China has prevented 400 million people from coming into this world, buying FOUR years for the world population to reach 6 billion. In this point, One Child Policy is a gift to the earth by its birth control, saving energy, giving more space to all of life being. AND China had got a chance to recover from nearly one hundred years civil war, from a very poor country to today’s big rich country.
But, China has paid high price for it. This policy has led Chinese families jumped a history queue, BEFORE Chinese could have had a time to build up a ‘ready knowledge and support system’ for the one child society, as I have mentioned in my article sent to you:
According to China’s sixth census in Oct 2014, by 2020 there will be 30 million more males than females among the age group of 20 to 45 year olds in China. More than 150,000 Western families have adopted Chinese orphans, mainly girls, since 1991. And also, the most important part of Chinese tradition is our family value which has rooted and shaped Chinese culture and society, but it has been damaged by single children society. Chinese become confused by its social disorders, its rule-less family structure, and polluted by some western celebrity culture, and even drugged sexual behaviours without enough education and any learning process.
I hope ‘two children policy’ is not too late.
I wish more and more hard working young parents could realise that their beloved only child won’t have a real sharing and quality life by lives by her/his own, because money can’t buy a happy family and peaceful sleep!
It might take more two generations for Chinese to realise how much Chinese tradition and society have been damaged by this policy.
7) What are you working on next?
I am working on my new book ‘Talking Love’ a family dating history through its four generations.
8) Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
Great thanks for this question with your cares!
I set up a charity called The Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL) (UK registration number 1105543) with a group of volunteers in 2004. MBL’s aim is to provide Chinese cultural support to children in all corners of the world, by creating a bridge of understanding between China and the West, and between birth and adoptive cultures, and helping education in rural China.
After ten years MBL’s achievements of assistance, advice and educational activities to adoptive families around the world, supporting a number of disaster relief and built 15 libraries for some migrant workers’ children, and children living in rural countryside in China, now MBL invites my readers and families from all over the world to support MBL for giving more children with reading possibility in rural China.
Don’t worry, everyone. China still has the most brutal and backward family planning policies in the world.
I work at a newspaper, but the biggest news in weeks broke while I was on my way home for the weekend Thursday night. In the 45-minutes it took to get from my office to my home, my Facebook, Twitter, and in-boxes were filled with two things – celebration over the end of China’s decades-old One-Child Policy and questions asking me what is really going on over here. So let me explain what China’s new Two-Child Policy actually means.
This is only a proposal.
The Two-Child Policy has not been approved by China’s government yet. Couples are not yet safe to have two children. It will still take several months for the policy to be accepted by the government and then it could take up to a year to be adopted nationwide. When the government eased restrictions two years ago, it took over a year for the policy to take effect here in Shenzhen. That means that if a woman was to get pregnant with an unapproved second child tomorrow, she would still be in violation of the law and have to pay a huge fine or risk her child being denied a hukou or be forced to terminate the pregnancy.
All Chinese couples can eventually have two children.
This is nothing to be happy about. First the #CCP would kill any baby after one. Now they will kill any baby after two. #ChinaOneChildPolicy
Two years ago, China already relaxed the One-Child Policy and announced that in families where one of the parents was an only child, the couple could have two children. The new policy will allow all couples to have two children.
But they have to apply for it.
You can’t just go out and get pregnant in China. You have to apply for permission, even for a first child. The same is now true of a second child – you have to ask the government if it is okay first.
You Can’t Undo Decades of Brainwashing Overnight
China’s insistence that families should only have one child pre-date the current One-Child Policy. Even though Mao initially encouraged families to have as many children as possible to spur the economy, by 1970 the government had serious concerns about the country’s population explosion and began “encouraging” people to marry later and have as few children as possible. The official One-Child Policy was enacted by 1980. Most people of child-bearing age today have only lived under the One-Child Policy.
The One-Child Policy isn’t simply a rule like “wear your seat belt” that most people begrudgingly accept. It has been pounded into their minds that having only one child is their moral and patriotic duty. To have more than one child would be to betray China. The punishments for violating the policy have been strict and brutal, creating a culture of fear of the government and authorities. Forced abortions are still commonplace today. Abortion under duress even more so. Families who violate the policy have to pay huge, life-crushing fines. Families who cannot pay the fines can be denied jobs and housing. Children born outside the policy are denied personhood, by which I mean they are denied a hukou or official registration. Hukou-less persons are denied schooling, healthcare, housing, jobs, bank accounts, train/bus/airplane tickets, and cannot marry. They don’t exist in their own country. They also can never leave because they cannot apply for a passport.
People in China also believe that having a second child is too expensive. When you only have one child, it is easy to think that that child has to have the best life – the best clothes, the best education, live in the best neighborhood, go to the best college, and so on. Because of this, many people believe their expenses for raising a second child will double. Instead of finding ways to cut costs by sending them to a less expensive school, many families who qualify for a second child opt out because of financial concerns.
After living your whole life in this kind of environment, it is difficult to suddenly change your way of thinking and have a second child.
Current Second Children Born Outside the One-Child Policy Will Still Be Denied Personhood
There has been no indication that current second children who were born outside the One-Child Policy will be granted clemency. Their parents still broke the law and they and their children must suffer for that.
Any child born outside the Two-Child Policy Will Be Denied Personhood
Any child born outside the new two-child policy will still be denied a hukou.
Women Who Get Pregnant Outside China’s Family Planning Polices Are Punished
And, of course, children born to women who are not married can also be denied personhood.
Just to be clear, men cannot be fired from their jobs nor are they fined for having a child out of wedlock.
Nothing Has Changed
Long story short – this isn’t good enough. China’s family planning policies are still in violation of basic human rights. Do not give China any kudos for this. Only when China ends all of its family planning policies and every person in China is recognized as a human being will it be good enough.
What do you think about the new Two-Child Policy? Do you think it will have much of an effect? Let me know what you think in the comments.
China’s New Two-Child Policy Leading to More Sex-Selective Abortions?
People might think that this would be a boon for women in China. People were speculating that this would help reduce families’ archaic desire to kill off their unborn daughters in favor of sons and help bring the country’s gross gender imbalance under some control. If families can have two children, then they will be more likely to keep their first daughter because they can always try for a son later. Or, if they already have a son, they might decide to keep their second baby no matter what sex it is.
In mainland China, it is illegal to determine the sex of a baby before birth, even if you are just curious and aren’t planning a sex-selective abortion. In Hong Kong, though, it is legal to know the sex of a baby before birth, so some pregnant women are going to Hong Kong for ultrasounds or blood tests or are using agents who will send blood samples to testing centers in Hong Kong. A woman surnamed Xie, who has been acting as one of these agents since before the relaxed policies started taking effect, said she has had an increase in business lately. These sorts of agencies are illegal in China, but it hasn’t stopped countless women in China from paying up to 7,500RMB (US$1,250) to find out the sex of their babies.
The hope that loosening the one-child policy would help protect baby girls was a mere dream. However, even before the one-child policy was implemented, female infanticide was rampant in China. The Chinese people have also spent over 30 years being brainwashed into thinking that having one child is best for families and the nation. Even completely eliminating the one-child policy will not help raise the status and numbers of girls. A complete overhaul in Chinese people’s thinking with regards to the roles and values of women in society has to take place to see any significant increase in the number of Chinese women. As long as China continues to treat women as second-class citizens, boys will always be preferred. The gender imbalance in China is probably not something that will be fixed for many generations.