What It's Like To Be A "Leftover Person" In China

In China, the most offensive thing to call a millennial isn't a profanity — it's "leftover." Thanks to a serious gender imbalance and a massive migration from the countryside to the cities, fewer young Chinese people are getting married — and China's government is worried about it.

The population of unmarried adults, according to the latest national census, reached 249 million in 2010. Decades of a one-child policy and a culture that favors boys over girls has also taken its toll: by 2020, the Chinese State Population and Family Planning Commission estimates that there will be 30 million more men seeking wives than there are women to marry them.

All this, plus family pressures to settle down and have children have made the fear of becoming a shengnan or shengnu — a"leftover man" or "leftover woman” — something millennials face the second they receive their college degree. Generally, unmarried women over the age of 27 are considered shengnu, but the age varies by city. Shanghai is one of the loneliest cities for single women, according to a survey conducted by Jiayuan, a leading dating website in China.

To avoid ending up at the bottom of the barrel, many Chinese millennials have turned to a centuries-old tradition: matchmaking. But like much of modern China, it's now all about the bigger, the better; from reality shows where participants can vote each other off with the press of a button to matchmaking expos marketed to singles and their parents on the prowl.

But these matchmaking expos are certainly not for the faint of heart. At a expo in Hangzhou, women were forced to scrub off their makeup before entering the building so that men could enjoy a "bare-faced meeting." Next up was a session that let men measure their potential match's breasts. (Yep, it's exactly what it sounds like.)

These expos must be seen to be believed — which is why Refinery29 headed to one of the biggest just a week before Chinese Valentine's Day to check it out for ourselves. Follow along as we lift the curtain on modern love in China at the 24th Matchmaking Festival in Shanghai.

Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
The search for love began right at the door, where romance-seekers were given a long-stemmed rose and a sticker that indicated their birth year. This woman's sticker reads: "Born after 1985." Attendees were encouraged to wear their ages on a noticeable part of their bodies. Generally speaking, men say they are looking for women who are of child-bearing age.

"It helps to streamline the process," a 29-year-old man told Refinery29. "I can instantly tell if someone's worthwhile. If a lady is sporting a red sticker (meaning she was born between 1980 and 1985), we're not gonna waste each other's time. She doesn't meet my age standards and I don't meet hers."
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Next came speed dating. According to Sun Lu, the Shanghai expo's organizer, men and women usually attend the events in equal numbers.

"It's true that there are more leftover women in this city, but a good number of them end up bailing the day of," Lu told Refinery29. "The number usually balances itself out naturally."

But that didn't quite happen. Inside the speed-dating room at the upper level of a steakhouse, it was immediately apparent both women — and chairs — were in high demand. A few dozen men were told to "stand wherever" while they waited for their turn. Many gathered around the conventionally attractive women, forming a sort of a assembly line of men just an arm's length away.

"Woah, you girls really get to take your pick in here, eh?" was a pickup line that was used by at least three men.

Seeing the lines form, beads of sweat began to form on an event organizer's forehead.

"Go get me more women from downstairs!" he ordered an associate. "Girls who are shopping, anyone. Tell them we have free Vitamin Water here."
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
As the speed dating session wore on, despair set in. Outnumbered, more and more women switched their attention to their iPhone screens instead of chatting with the men across the table.

"All we got to talk about was our age, our income, and our jobs," said a 24-year-old woman. "Everyone here has the same motive. It's way too obvious."

As she was speaking, a young suitor injected, "Hey girl, are you also from Henan and born after '87? If you are, my work here is done and you should leave with me." She pretended to have not heard him.

After being told there was no more standing room, some men chose to leave altogether.

"It was harder to impress the women up there than a prospective employer at an actual job interview," a man named James said as he took a cigarette break. "If you're going after a job, you could at least ace the written test. Women in our culture don't see matchmaking as a way to find love, but rather, a transaction of resources."

Hearing this, the men around him nodded in unison.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Ms. Lee, a retired octogenarian, was one of the many parents who attend expos in the hope of helping their children find love.

"I'm stopping by on behalf of my daughter, who's too shy to attend herself. It took me over an hour to get to here from my house in Xuhui, which is on the opposite end of Shanghai.

"I'm a bit disappointed by the lack of age diversity at this event: Everyone is in their twenties and thirties. My daughter is 45 and has been divorced for ten years — so she won't find a good match here. Since she wouldn't let me sign her up for a real matchmaker, I spend a lot of my time going to stuff like this and asking around for phone numbers to put her in touch with as many suitable people as possible.

"All of her coworkers are younger, so that door is closed. I'm well into my 80s, so my main priority now is to find someone my daughter can rely on — I'm not gonna be around that much longer."
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
After speed dating, men and women were told to couple up and hop into the pool for an obstacle course that wouldn't look out of place on American Gladiators. Couples were encouraged to use teamwork, stamina and, from what we saw — very, very thick skin — to make it through.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Crowds of mostly men cheered and jeered as contestants made their way through the pool's challenges. Several female contestants openly lamented their wardrobe choices.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Many of the men were willing to strip down and show off.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Miss Zhang, a finance manager who will turn 30 next year, said her friends dragged her to the expo, but she understood why.

"I'm terrified of hanging out with my extended family. My relatives keep telling me that I should be married by now and have even gone of out their way to set me up for dates. Since they base the potential compatibility on our respective backgrounds and financial status, these dates were good on paper, but never felt right in reality. These men could barely hold a conversation with me.

"I've seen some pretty promising guys here, but I don't have the courage to go up and talk to them. I personally believe that if a girl approaches a guy — in real life or on a dating app like Momo [China's version of Tinder] — she'll fall into the role of the initiator in every other conversation in that relationship.

"It's the way courtship in China works and this one-way street is far too exhausting for me. So I'm gonna hold my ground and stand in a corner with my friend until someone chats me up."
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
The expo's organizers hoped that physical contact and a rush of adrenaline would create some sparks among the couples. Many women ended up being carried across the pool like precious cargo as a crowd of mostly men jeered.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Next up? Water basketball. The fastest pair to shoot baskets from the swimming pool took home a flatscreen TV.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Men and women hung heart-shaped notecards on a bridge leading to the expo to bring them good luck. The card on top reads, "I want a guy with a car, a house, a lot of money, and a face I can bear looking at."

Men also voiced their preferences. A 25-year-old named Mr. Xia told Refinery29 he preferred a girl who doesn't fuss about her makeup.

"I'm really tired of women who wear those pupil-enlarging contact lenses and fake eyelashes. It's become the mainstream standard of beauty, but that's something that would fade easily, like this rose in my hand. If my future girlfriend is a statuesque woman, I wouldn't want her to wear heels when she go outs with me. I feel like less of a man when a woman I'm dating appears taller than I am."
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Mr. Shi, a mechanical engineer, is looking to meet a wife he can bring the 500 miles back home to rural Henan province.

"This is my second time at an event like this. I had a much better experience at the last one. There are way too many men here and I don't see as many pretty ladies compared to last time. I don't think I can get a local girl because the Shanghainese are very xenophobic. I'm from Henan and it's basically another country to people from Shanghai, a coastal city.

"But the worst thing about the dating scene in here is actually the sky-high property prices. People's top priority in selecting a partner is whether they own an apartment, so girls would immediately lose interest if I tell them I'm still renting.

"I'm actually considered an anomaly in my hometown: Henan is less developed and most people get hitched before the age of 25. Last time I went back, I felt kind of discriminated against by my childhood friends, since they've all settled down. They'd joke about my relationship status and say hurtful things like, 'I can't believe so-and-so is married and you aren't!'

"I expected this kind of pressure from my parents, but not my friends! Even my next door neighbor would make fun of me. Since I'm already 29, I'm really hoping to find a wife soon and introduce her to everyone at home. I've gotten two numbers so far, so there's hope."
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Couples also tried their hand at a synchronized jump rope competition. A spiky foot massage mat that made landing painful added an extra-competitive twist.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Whether or not they found true love — the couple with the highest jump count walked away with two boxes of soft drinks.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
With its huge corporate sponsors, the expo had its share of swag. Soy machines and microwaves were given out to participants willing to get on stage and describe their ideal partners. If someone in the audience thought they matched that description, they got up and ran on stage.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
A "selfie wall" featured singles who couldn't make it to the expo in person, but still wanted to put themselves out there. A quick scan of the high-tech QR code directs people straight to their profiles. Their height, income, and level of education are all listed on the wall for potential mates.
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
Miss Lu, software engineer, told Refinery29 that at 34, she's okay with being single — but her family thinks otherwise.

"I actually stumbled upon this event. Had I known earlier, I would have put more effort into glamming up — I'm having a bad hair day. It's so difficult to find anyone decent here since I'm born in 1981, considerably older than most of the pool.

"My parents are freaking out about my lack of a husband and have set me up with three dates since March. This usually happens at that point of the year, since they'd badger me about finding a boyfriend when I see them over the Chinese New Year break.

"To be honest, they are more worried than I am. It's not a matter of life and death to me. I've already bought my own house, so I'm not concerned about my own living situation. It'd be great if I can find someone to spend my life with. If not, I'm perfectly fine."
Photographed by Eric Michael Johnson.
As the long-stemmed roses wilted and more and more participants gave up and went home, it seemed like the expo was more successful in pairing people with new microwaves than mates. Plenty of singles went home empty-handed — but here's hoping that at least some of them found love.