In Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, Leta Hong Fincher argues that a discourse around young, unmarried ‘leftover women’ in China is propagated through state media news reports and television shows to mask the persisting sex ratio imbalance in the country and to encourage well-educated women to marry and have children sooner. Yang Shen believes that Fincher should be applauded for bringing together the under-theorised themes of women’s property rights, the rights of LGBT groups, and domestic abuse. A thought-provoking book, although some arguments are weakened by insufficient evidence and untrustworthy sources.
This book review has been translated into Mandarin by Alice Bexson (Mandarin LN240, teacher Lijing Shi) as part of the LSE Reviews in Translation project, a collaboration between LSE Language Centre and LSE Review of Books. Please scroll down to read this translation or click here.
Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. Leta Hong Fincher. Zed Books. 2014.
Leta Hong Fincher was a journalist before completing a PhD in Sociology at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. This book is based on her PhD project on the under-researched connections between leftover women, China’s property market, and gender inequality. Fincher has previously written articles discussing similar issues for the New York Times, CNN, and Ms. Magazine, through which these topics have already gained some popularity. With an abundance of interview quotes and contemporaneous media reports, this book is quite readable and has the potential to attract a wide audience.
According to Fincher, the term ‘leftover woman’ in China ‘is widely used to describe an urban, professional female in her late twenties or older who is still single’ (p.2). In Chapter 1, Fincher examines the leftover women discourse mediated through ‘state media news reports, surveys, columns, cartoons and television shows’ (p.15), and argues that two reasons account for the state promoting the leftover women discourse: one is to maintain social stability in the context of the persisting sex ratio imbalance – China has 32million more men aged under 20 than women – that prevents a lot of men from finding wives; the other is to upgrade the ‘quality’ of the populace by urging well-educated women to marry. It is an insightful observation indeed that the state serves as a latent driver, disseminating this stigmatizing ‘leftover’ women discourse, which arguably has a profound impact on unmarried women over the age of 25.
Chapter 2 considers how Chinese women have been ‘shut out of arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history’ because the pressure they experience in trying to avoid becoming ‘leftover’ means that they often ‘give up too much bargaining power within the marriage’ (p.12). Chapter 3 further deals with how ‘many parents discriminate against their own daughters by buying expensive homes for their sons only’, leading to a gendered wealth gap in house buying.
The book is written in an accessible style, allowing general readers access to the subject. It also adopts an inclusive approach in that it covers a wide range of issues in relation to women’s property rights, including the rights of LGBT groups in Chapter 3 and Chapter 6, and the relationship between domestic abuse and women’s lack of property rights in Chapter 5. These issues are rarely discussed together when considering gender inequality in China, so the author is to be congratulated for this effort.
Image Credit: Girl in Beijing. (Ernie CC BY 2.0)
However, I did find that in places the evidence provided is insufficient to support the arguments presented. For example, readers are introduced to a female informant who has a university degree but left her job because ‘she wanted to make herself a more attractive marriage candidate, less intimidating to suitors’. She is quoted as saying “my most important duty is to find a good man to marry” (p.39). The author analyses the case by noting that ‘the state media campaign regarding “leftover” women has prompted some highly educated women to quit their jobs even before they get married’ (p.39). Aside from questioning how rare this case is, I find a lack of coherence between the analysis and the quotes as the informant did not explicitly suggest that she was influenced by the ‘leftover’ discourse.
The imprecision in analysis can also be identified in Chapter 3. The author reveals that the informant Shang got married because she believed that she was getting older. The author links her anxiety with ‘the “leftover” women age threshold’ (p.107). Again, the informant did not specify the connection between her anxiety and the prescribed age of ‘leftover’ women advocated by the state media. By adopting the ‘leftover’ women discourse in a one-size-fits-all fashion, it can be argued that the author not only exaggerates the influence that the ‘leftover’ discourse imposes on women, but also ignores the intricate complexity of the reasons for their anxiety. It is not difficult to recognise that unmarried women’s anxiety around their increasing age existed before the emergence of the ‘leftover’ women discourse, and furthermore that it is seen in other countries where the ‘leftover’ women discourse does not exist.
The author cites a remarkable amount of online sources to support her argument, showing engagement with a variety of sources. However Fincher doesn’t acknowledge that they may not be completely trustworthy. In Chapter 2, the author cites the 2012 Horizon and iFeng.com Report, noting that women’s names were endorsed on only 30 per cent of marital home deals (p.46). First, there are perhaps questions as to the credibility of the report, as it did not suggest how many informants were involved, nor how the survey was conducted. Furthermore, it is a pity that the author did not mention the trend indicated by the report, of a 10.2% increase in the number of women’s names on home deeds compared to the time prior to 2006, which can be interpreted as women’s rising power in property rights.
Although there are thought-provoking points throughout, I find some of the findings intrinsically contradictory. For instance, in Chapter 3, Fincher reports that a daughter’s parents ‘often decline to help buy a home’ for their daughter (p.78). The author implies that it is because the parents consider buying a home to be man’s responsibility (p.83). However, the author finds out that many women contribute their whole savings to help their partners to buy homes without putting their names on the deeds. The daughters’ behaviour is in contrast to their parents’ perception that men should be the home provider. Considering the author’s finding that a daughter has a sense of filial piety to her parents (p.82), I cannot help but wonder how the parents view their daughters’ behaviour of contributing their savings without being entitled to the property? Does it lead to any intergenerational conflicts? The book unfortunately does not discuss this.
Finally, the use of the word ‘resurgence’ is somewhat problematic in this context. As suggested in the Introduction, ‘this book argues that the state-sponsored media campaign about “leftover” women is part of a broad resurgence of gender inequality in post-socialist China’ (p.3). Resurgence here implies that gender equality was once achieved. I consider gender equality to have never been achieved and indeed that gender inequality has been persistent throughout China’s history (see Liu, Croll and Stacey for further reading). In Chapter 4, Fincher conceptualises ‘resurgence’ by tracing back to the Song dynasty (960-1279), upholding that women at that time ‘had substantial, independent ownership and control of property’ (p.110). She then compares the women in the Song Dynasty to those in contemporary China, claiming that ‘Chinese women’s property rights have steadily eroded in the post-socialist, rural-to-urban transformation’ (p.131). The way in which she compares the women in contemporary China with the women one thousand years ago is problematic; although the author quotes historian Bernhardt, it seems that she disregards Bernhardt’s conclusion that ‘there was no “half-share law” in the Song and indeed could not have been. Instead, the principles of patrilineal succession applied, and women enjoyed inheritance rights only by default, in the absence of brothers and sons.’ (p.8). Chapter 4 leaves itself open to critiques of reductionism by merely discussing property rights without considering the corresponding social economic context.
The dominant discourse among the Chinese media and public currently focuses on how women strategise to add their names to the deeds without paying for or paying very little for property. This book engineers to reverse the abovementioned discourse by discussing how women are disadvantaged in the real estate market. Unfortunately, by intertwining the ‘leftover women’ discourse and real estate market, the author’s intention to create a novel approach to demonstrate how women are disadvantaged in contemporary China fails to meet its purpose due to its reductionist approach, the not well-grounded evidence, and the insufficiently supported arguments.
Above all, this book looks likely to be controversial. Nonetheless it has the potential to be a bestseller due to the timeliness of the topic, Fincher’s eye-catching arguments, and the already established reputation of the author, regardless of how selective the views encapsulated in this book may be. Once again, it is worth saying that the author should be recognised for bringing together the rarely-discussed issues of women’s property rights, the rights of LGBT groups, and domestic abuse.
Yang Shen is a PhD candidate at the LSE Gender Institute funded by China Scholarship Council. Her current research focuses on peasant migrant workers in the catering Sector in Shanghai. Her research interests cover gender and work, migration studies, contemporary China Studies, and qualitative research methods. Yang has a BA in History from Fudan University and a MSc (with distinction) in Higher Education from Shanghai Jiaotong University. She worked as an intern at UN Women and she continues to work as a columnist for the newspaper UKChinese. Read more reviews by Yang.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.
书评：《剩女：中国性别不平等死灰复燃》 Leta Hong Fincher. Zed Books. 2014.
Review translated by Alice Bexson (Mandarin LN240, teacher Lijing Shi).
根据洪理迖,中国用‘剩女’这一称呼来指一个已过二十八九岁但还没有结婚的专业妇女 (第二页)。在第一章，洪理迖检勘了“ 国家媒体新闻报道，调查，专栏，漫画和电视节目” 怎么拿捏与“剩女”相关的语言。她提出了国家之所以鼓吹“剩女”说法的两个原因。第一是在性别比例失衡背景下保持社会的稳定。中国20岁以下的男性比同年龄的女性多3200万，这意味着很多男人找不到妻子。第二，通过敦促接受过良好教育的女性结婚，从而提高人民的“素质”。这是一个特别精辟的论述：国家隐秘地驱动 “剩女”言论的传播，对25岁以上的未婚女性带来深刻的影响。
在第二章，作者论证女性因希望避免成为“剩女”的压力而常“在婚姻中放弃议价能力” ，从而“被排斥在史上最大的房地产财富积累之外” 。在第三章，作者更近一步讨论“很多父母怎么通过只为他们的儿子购买昂贵的房子来歧视自己的女儿” ，从而导致性别间的财富差距。
不过，我发现了支持观点的证据存在不足。例如，作者介绍一个大学毕业的女性，但是她的离职是因为“她想让自己成为一个更有吸引力的婚姻候选人，对求婚者不那么吓人”。 作者引用她话说，“我最重要的责任是找一个好丈夫”（P39）。作者分析了这个案例，并提出“国家媒体关于剩女的大肆渲染促使一些受过高度教育的女性甚至在结婚以前离职”。除了质疑这种情况是如何罕见以外，我也发现分析和引述之间不连贯， 因为受访者没有明确表示她受到“剩女”说法的压力。
Image Credit: Girl in Beijing. (Ernie CC BY 2.0)
在分析的不精确也出现在第三章。作者揭示一个叫“尚”的受访者结婚是因为她觉得自己年纪越来越大了。作者把她的焦虑与‘剩女’的年龄联系起来。同样， 受访者并没有明确她的焦虑与国家媒体所鼓吹剩女的年龄之间的关系。作者在用一刀切的方法来处理“ 剩女论调”，不但可以被视为夸大了“剩女论调”对广大妇女的影响，也忽视了她们焦虑的复杂性。不难认识到未婚妇女关于年龄的忧虑在“ 剩女论调”出现之前就存在。 此外，在其他没有“ 剩女”观念的国家也有这样的焦虑。
作者引用大量的网络来源来支持她的论证，显示了她使用了多样的参考来源。不过，洪理达不承认此类来源可能不是完全靠得住的。在第二章，作者引用2012年Horizon和iFeng.com的报道，提出已婚女性的名字只包含在30% 的房产交易中。首先，该报道的公信力令人质疑，因为不但没有透露受访者的数目，而且也没有透露调查的方法。此外，可惜作者没有提到该报道所提出的趋势，即，房产证上妇女名字的数量比2006年增加了10.2% ，这也可以被解释为女性的房产权在日益上升。
虽然耐人寻味的点子贯穿整本书，我发现一些结果自相矛盾。比方，在第三章，洪理达阐述了女孩子的父母“常常拒绝帮助自己的女儿买房子”。作者暗示这是因为父母认为买房子是男人的责任(p.83)。不过，作者发现许多女性动用她们的储蓄帮助自己的伴侣买房子， 但她们的名字并不在房产证上。女孩子的行为与她们父母认为“买房是男人的事”的观点形成鲜明对比。考虑作者说的“女孩子对父母有孝心”(p.82)的观点， 我情不自禁地想知道父母如何看待女儿出钱买房， 名字却又没能在房产证上的这个事实。会引起代际冲突吗？很可惜， 这本书没有讨论这个主题。
最后，书中使用的 “ 再现resurgence ” 一词也有点问题。 正如前言里说的，“这本书讨论国家媒体对‘剩女’言论的推波助澜是后社会主义中国性别再次不平等的冰山一角”。‘再现’意味着男女平等曾一度实现。我认为性别歧视从来没有实现，事实是男女不平等在中国历史上一直存在（见Liu, Croll 和 Stacey）。在第四章，洪理达通过追溯宋代（960到1279）的历史企图把“再现”概念化，提出当时的女性拥有“实质性，独立的所有权和财产控制权”。 然后，她对比宋代和现代的中国女性，声称“在后社会主义社会，在城市化的进程中， 中国妇女的产权逐渐被侵蚀” 。但是她把当代中国女性与一千年前的女性进行比较的方法有问题；虽然作者引用了历史学家Bernhardt，她好像忽视Bernhardt的结论， “宋代的时候的确没有‘平分法（half-share law）’ 。相反，父系继承的原则也适用；只有在没有兄弟和儿子的情况下，妇女才能享有继承权。” (p.8) 。第四章自暴其短； 仅仅讨论产权而没有考虑相应的社会经济背景。