Inside China's Open-Air Marriage Market For "Leftover Women"

Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Parents sit behind umbrellas bearing ads for their children in Shanghai's People's Park. The park has become an open-air marriage market for parents seeking mates for their adult children.
On a sweltering Saturday in late August, a steady stream of senior citizens paraded through Shanghai's People's Park. Armed with colorful umbrellas and stools, they set up camp along the labyrinth of walkways, rarely looking up from their newspapers or knitting yarn. But these seniors weren't waiting to take a tai chi class or to make small talk over chess. They were sweating it out in the midsummer heat with a singular, all-important mission: finding a spouse for their adult offspring.

Over the past decade, the northern corner of this park has become an unofficial, open-air "marriage market" — a popular meeting place for retired parents to find partners for their adult children, who are typically in their 20s and 30s.

And the People's Park marriage market isn't for the casual love-seeker; it's an atmosphere of transaction, one that these parents have down to a science.

Parents bring along a single sheet of paper containing vital statistics on their child — age, occupation, education, and property ownership are all musts. Other parents peruse the offerings, and the different parties hash out the specifics of what they are looking for in a future son- or daughter-in-law.

If — and only if — the vibe is right, photos and contact information are swapped discreetly, so that the singles can arrange to meet in person on their own time.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Parents carry around photos of their unmarried children in folders, along with their proof of employment, for potential suitors.
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Competition is fierce, and it isn't easy to impress these parents on the prowl for future in-laws. Most candidates sound impeccable on paper. Phrases like, "My son graduated from University X — with a full-ride scholarship!" or, "My daughter works at a Fortune 500 company!" are frequently overheard.

Perhaps in the interest of saving time, some are very straightforward with their requirements. On postings for female partners, it's not uncommon to spot demands like "must be fair-skinned" or "must be able to give birth." Bilingualism is a plus, too; one ad featured a Chinese poem that potential suitors must adequately translate into English in order to receive a call back.

The booming marriage market has even sparked a cottage industry of agents, who offer to save parents a day in the hot sun by posting notices on their behalf. Some of these brokers charge a premium for access to a phone directory-like notebook with the contact information of unmarried locals. Others are more vociferous.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Mr. Gu, a marriage broker, gets ready to tape up a freshly minted ad for a single man or woman. Gu said he charges about $16 to display an ad for six months.
Mr. Gu is a veteran in the business. Dressed in an ostentatious red suit and cowboy hat, he told Refinery29 that he has spent the past six years managing marriage postings. Gu said he makes around 4,000 Yuan (about $630) per month from displaying laminated advertisements in a heavily trafficked area of the park. Each parent pays a fee of 100 Yuan (about $16) for a six-month posting on his board.

Gu said that most of his business comes from parents who don't have time to sit around behind umbrellas every weekend. Sometimes, parents post ads for their children without their knowledge.

"It's a really chatty environment, but you can sense the eagerness of these mums and dads by how often quarrels break out in the parents' side of the market," Gu said. "You hear a snide comment about a person — usually aimed toward age or income — and the next thing you know, these parents are fighting."

In my mother's mind, it's better to be miserably divorced with a child than to be all alone.

Dani Zhang, a single woman living in China
One reason for conflict is the scarcity of potential husbands. When Refinery29 visited the marriage market, there were roughly 70% more ads from women seeking men than from men seeking women.

"Right now, it's toughest for women born before 1984 to find a partner," Gu said.

In Chinese popular culture, these urban, unmarried women over a certain age — usually 27, but it varies by location — are given an unflattering nickname: shengnu, or "leftover women."

According to 2010 census figures cited in a report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 50% of unmarried women between the ages of 25 and 29 lived in cities, compared to 46% of unmarried men in the same age group.

And that divide widens dramatically with age; 54% of unmarried women between the ages of 40 and 45 lived in cities, compared to 21% of unmarried men in the same age range. It's that discrepancy that accounts for the greater number of postings by parents seeking husbands for their daughters.
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Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
A woman copies down contact information from the marriage market, presumably to help a family member find a match.
But it's also a confusing discrepancy, given China's overall gender imbalance. Decades of a strictly enforced one-child policy and a culture that favors boys over girls has led to a population of far more men in China than woman. Though residents in rural areas were allowed to apply to have a second child if the firstborn was a girl, sex-selective abortions were rampant.

According to the latest census data, there are 105 men for every 100 women in the country. By 2020, the Chinese State Population and Family Planning Commission estimates that there will be 30 million men of marrying age that won't have a partner. These men have their own unflattering nickname — shengnan, or "leftover men." But by and large, it's still women who seem to be getting left behind.

"The attitudes of young, educated women are evolving very quickly," explained Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. "They want more freedom, successful careers, and to get out in the world. More and more, they are aware of the need to protect their own rights."

The government-sponsored All-China Women's Federation urged women to stop pursuing advanced degrees, warning them they could end up like "old, yellowed pearls."

And according to Fincher, that means ruling out a large subset of men with low regard for women and chauvinistic ideals — summed up as "straight men cancer" in Chinese social media slang.

One major "symptom" of "straight men cancer" is the notion that these women are single because they are holding out for a wealthy husband, according to Jem Yuan, a co-founder of S Club, a social group that organizes get togethers for single women.

"These men usually lack introspectiveness," Yuan said. "If a courtship doesn't work out, they don't look for any shortcomings on their part and promptly blame it on the 'overly high standards' of women."

But while many of these career-driven, so-called "leftover" women are content being single, their parents often think otherwise.

Yiting Hu, a 26-year-old fashion publicist, has been unwillingly set up by her mother four times since moving home to Shanghai from New York City, where she graduated from fashion school. With the help of a family connection, her mother even posted Hu's personal information on the internal discussion board of a prestigious e-commerce company. Hu said she got more than 20 dating inquiries that evening, but nothing promising came of them.
Photo: Courtesy of Yiting Hu.
Yiting Hu, 26, has been set up by her mother several times since moving back to Shanghai from New York City, but said she often has little in common with these potential suitors.
"I had nothing in common with these men who work in IT," Hu told Refinery29. "I'd try to break the ice and talk about my work, but they haven't the slightest idea who Tommy Hilfiger or Ralph Lauren is."

For Dani Zhang, a 32-year-old civil servant, the pressure has come to a tipping point.

"In a fit of rage, my mother has told me that she'd rather see me marry somebody random and have kids," Zhang said. "In her mind, it's better to be miserably divorced with a child than to be all alone. That was by far the most hurtful thing someone has said to me."

To show that she's at least putting in effort, Zhang has conceded to getting coffee with strangers recommended by her extended family. But, chemistry is typically lacking at these arranged meetings, leaving her feeling worse afterward.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, including parents' worries about marrying off their "leftover" children.

Three decades of China's one-child policy in urban areas has forced the responsibility of continuing the family bloodline onto just one pair of shoulders.

"Our parents' generation live by the adage 'You should be doing what's suitable for your age,'" Yuan said. "For them, that naturally means settling down and having babies once you hit your childbearing years."
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You hear a snide comment about a person, usually aimed toward age or income, and the next thing you know, these parents are fighting.

Mr. Gu, Shanghai Marriage Market Broker
However, dating while in school — known as zaolian — is frowned upon by most Chinese parents.

"It's super ironic of them to ban puppy love and expect us to produce a husband candidate as soon as we graduate — that's simply unscientific," Zhang added.

Parents of most twenty- and thirtysomethings in China grew up in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution — a decade-long policy by communist leader Mao Zedong in which many people were stripped of proper education and material possessions that were deemed "bourgeois."

That history has led many of them to seek financial stability and a better life for their children through smart matches to successful partners. And many feel that those smart matches come only from using strict criteria. According to Ms. Lin, a professional matchmaker at Shanghainese dating agency Xi Zhi Yuan, these criteria include a high salary, car ownership, and the square footage of the matrimonial home.

But Hong Fincher said that the stigma around unmarried women also serves a social purpose in China. Since 2007, the Chinese government has reacted to worries over the country's gender imbalance and shifts in female attitudes by drastically changing its tone in state-owned media.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Ads by women seeking husbands come with their own requirements. "Ownership of a house or proof of ability to purchase property" are listed as a requirement by all of these women.
In entries that have since been deleted, the government-sponsored All-China Women's Federation urged women to stop pursuing advanced degrees, warning them they could end up like "old, yellowed pearls." Hong Fincher quoted these and other harsh words in a 2012 op-ed for The New York Times.

"There's a consistent theme among the messages the government sends out: Women need to stop pursuing their careers so aggressively and shift their focus into finding a husband," Hong Fincher said.

"It's a scaremongering campaign that influences the parents — and the rest of society — even if the women themselves are not buoyed."

"I'm really against the notion that 'leftover women' are a group of patients that need special attention and care from the rest of society," said Sandra Bao, a fashion editor and S Club co-founder.

Bao said that the majority of her friends who married just for the sake of escaping singledom have warned her to think it through, citing infidelity, spousal disputes over child-rearing duties, and problems with their mothers-in-law.
Photo: Courtesy of Jem Yuan.
Sandra Bao (left) and Jem Yuan (second from right) attend a gathering of the S Club, a group that organizes get togethers for single women.
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Zhang said she dreams of creating a residential quarter for single women to live in old age.

"I'd like to turn the notion of 'having children to take care of you in later years' on its head," Zhang said. "Being financially independent, I'll grow old just as happily with a few dear friends by my side."

If her wish comes true, and attitudes about marriage in China continue to change, perhaps being "leftover" isn't so bad, after all.
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