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“She's leftover because she’s average looking”: powerful film shows what it’s like to be a single woman in China

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Most people, at some point, have had to field an enquiry from a relative about their relationship status. It's a question that can seem innocent, interfering or infuriating - depending on who's asking. But if the answer is "no one, thanks", that's fine. Right?

In the UK, perhaps, but in modern China, many women in their 20s and 30s still face suffocating pressure to marry. Those who remain single into their late 20s are called "sheng nu": literally, "leftover women".

Owing to the country's one-child policy, introduced in 1979, men in China outnumber women by some 33 million. (In traditional Chinese culture, sons were valued more than daughters - meaning that female babies were often aborted or abandoned.) With so many men around, women who are unwilling or unable to find a husband are often regarded with suspicion, and pushed by their families into "settling down". In 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Education attributed women's failure to marry to their "overly high expectations for marriage partners".

But now a powerful short film, produced by cosmetics brand SK-II, has set out to challenge Chinese perceptions of single women. In the video, titled "Marriage Market Takeover", young Chinese women articulate the familial and cultural pressures they face to find a husband.

leftover women

"People think that in Chinese society, an unmarried woman is incomplete." Picture: SK-II

"You become a subject that people talk about, and get so much social pressure," says one woman.

"In Chinese culture, respecting your parents is the most important quality," another explains. "And not getting married is like the biggest sign of disrespect."



In one particularly painful scene, a middle-aged mother says bluntly: "She's just average looking. Not too pretty. That's why she's leftover." Sitting next to her on the sofa, her daughter's eyes fill with tears.

Leftover women

Some Chinese parents place huge pressure on their daughters to marry. Picture: SK-II

The film's name comes from the 'Marriage Market' held each weekend in Shanghai. Every Saturday and Sunday, the parents of unmarried men and women flock to the city's People's Park to browse for partners for their children. Descriptions of young men and women – their income, job title, whether they own a house or a car – are written on pieces of paper, and hung along pieces of string that line the park. "It's like you're selling your daughter," says one woman. 

The video shows a group of young women going to the Marriage Market to deliver a personal message to their parents, and it's not to be missed.

Watch the full film below:

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