Leftovers or Leaning In

It’s a warm August evening and some 100 people – mostly female students and young women – wait patiently in line outside Beijing’s Meridian Space theater, in the hope of securing a ticket for The Leftover Monologues, a China-inspired spin on the American feminist play The Vagina Monologues.

The play sees fifteen women and one man – none of whom are actors – take the stage to share their own stories of searching for a partner, their observations of love and sex, and the pressure provoked by the thought of becoming a ‘leftover woman’ – defined as a single urban female over 27.

“All my girlfriends at university have been talking about the show,” says 22-year-old Zhu Ying, a student at Beijing Normal University. “Some of them liked it so much on its first run that they wanted to see it again. It’d be such a shame to miss it.”

As the line moves on, the atmosphere buzzes with chatter and a feeling of camaraderie takes hold. A few latecomers are turned away and the rest squeeze in, cheerfully staking out positions on steps and makeshift benches.The lively mood continues throughout the show, with the audience greeting each line with enthusiastic shouts of support. But does such enthusiasm extend beyond the theater, and how representative is it of urban China? Headmaster of the Women’s College at Shanghai’s Tongji University, Xu Hong, suggests that although feminism as a coherent civil movement never arrived in China, a growing cluster of learned, urban women are “taking to its principles with passion.

“Many women from the post-80s generation are gaining a stronger sense of independence,” continues Xu, who educates female students in a number of fields, from business and management to politics and science. “They are inspired by Western feminism yet seeking their own version of it, focusing on problems that are intrinsic to Chinese society.”

Suddenly, it was like ’I don’t have to be a wife or a working woman; a mother or a leftover woman. I can be all of these things.

Though China has the highest percentage of self-made female billionaires, and female students accounted for over 56 percent of Master’s degrees awarded in 2012, Chinese women are experiencing what many describe as ‘a rights rollback’.

According to data from the All-China Women’s Federation, which is appointed and run by the Government to represent women’s interests, incomes are falling relative to men’s. In 1990, urban Chinese women earned 78 percent of what their male peers earned, with rural women faring a little better. Two decades later, the figure has dropped to 67 percent in urban centers, while rural women earn just 56 percent of what men can expect to take home. The employment rate for working-age urban women has also decreased, standing at just over 60 percent, down from 77.4 percent 20 years earlier.

Assets remain predominantly in men’s hands and women lack political clout. There are no women among the seven members of the country’s top tier of government, the Politburo Standing Committee. Female parliamentary representatives in the party’s Central Committee account for less than five percent – a figure even lower than in the Mao era.

Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at New York University, Rebecca Karl, argues that rather than moving forward, China has taken a step back from the ideal that women, in Mao’s well-worn phrase, ‘hold up half the sky’.

"Women are being told to keep a low profile to help promote ‘social stability,’” she says.

Besides wealth gaps and unequal professional opportunities, a resurgence of traditional attitudes is also coming to the fore and relegating women to the home. The Third Survey of the Social Status of Women in China, conducted in 2010 by the central government, revealed that nearly 62 percent of men and nearly 55 percent of women agreed that ‘men belong in public life and women belong at home’ – an increase of 7.7 (men) and 4.4 (women) percentage points from 2000.

The idea that it is better for a girl ‘to marry well than to study well’ (xue de hao bu ru jia de hao) remains entrenched. This is partly due to lingering cultural traditions but also to the more recent campaign targeting ‘leftover women’.

Driven by the All-China Women’s Federation, the very organization that is supposed to safeguard women’s rights, the media drive – launched in 2007 – is directed at women over 27 who delay marriage in favor of career.

Sociologist Leta Hong Fincher, whose book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China analyses the effects of the campaign, believes the stigma of being labeled ‘leftover’ has been one of the main factors driving gender inequality in China.

“In this respect, it’s significant that small-time voices are making some noise against the system,” she says. “China might not be ready fora nation-wide feminist movement– there isn’t enough interest in women’s rights to get it going. But the fact that urban women, whether feminists or not, are making a choice to act differently and speak out is incredibly important.”

Although The Leftover Monologues is unlikely to attract audiences outside major cities such as Beijing, it proves that – at the very least – there is interest in the subject among young, educated urban women.

The play, which was organized a year ago by American journalist Roseann Lake, grew out of the capital’s ‘Lean In’ circles, a network of local women’s groups inspired by Lean In, the bestselling book by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg.

“Initially, there were talks of hiring a playwright to create fictionalized accounts of women’s stories,” Lake explains. “I didn’t think that was a good idea – I was working on a book looking at love in China at the time and, having personally listened to many women’s experiences, I felt that real- life monologues would work much better. So that’s what we did.”

The monologues – a collection of personal stories that span the serious and the trivial – touch on different women’s issues in modern China: lesbian relationships, family pressure, marrying up and the importance of a good hukou (the household registration essential for receiving municipal services) in dating culture.

“I like to think of them as a wake up call; an accurate reflection of what many women in China are going through,” says Lake. “Mostly, I’m hoping they might help drive a conversation on what being young and female means here – shifting from monologue to dialogue, if you will.”

Following the publication of a Chinese edition of Sandberg’s book, Lean In circles have begun in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. They include monthly circle meetings where women discuss everything from staving off parental marriage ultimatums to rebounding from a divorce, challenges in the workplace and female entrepreneurship.

When Sandberg traveled to China last September to promote her book, more than 800 fans flocked to hear her talk at Peking University. For Maggie Zhang, one of the organizing members of Lean In Beijing, listening to her speech was a turning point. “I was hooked,” she says. “It made me want to support other Chinese women and drive the discussion about local female issues. Suddenly, it was like ’I don’t have to be a wife or a working woman; a mother or a leftover woman. I can be all of these things.”

Together with fellow Lean In member Yolanda Wang, she decided to expand the reach of Sandberg’s message to the online community. In March, the duo founded ThinkTank Beijing, a WeChat subscription service associated with the Lean In circles that posts gender-related stories, articles and ideas, addressing 20- to 35-year-old professional women.

In just under six months, the platform has gained 10,000 followers in Beijing alone. “We were not expecting such a positive response,” says Yolanda. “But there was obviously a need for it. The plan now is to bring the concept – and more LeanIn circles – to other first- and second-tier cities.”

Lean In Beijing

But modern feminist activism in China also predates the arrival of Lean In. The Voice of Feminists, a folk feminist group and online publication based in Beijing,has been active since 1996. It speaks out through Weibo, WeChat and Douban and has been promoting feminist causes both on- and offline across the country. Unlike Lean In circles, it doesn’t only target college and business women, but females from all social backgrounds. 

To many, the word ‘feminist’ equals ‘weird’ or ‘nuts. ‘Once I approached a middle-aged guy in my neighborhood, saying I was a feminist. He started shouting: ‘What’s a feminist? Are they going to kill all men?’ People look at us with curiosity.

Ming Shan, a 22-year-old volunteer with the group explains: “The Voice of Feminists is the most radical expression of a feminist movement in China. It aims to makegradual but impactful changes, starting from everyday aspects of life. I joined three months ago and I have been surprised to see how many women positively respond to its work.”In the past couple of years, the group has been pivotal in helping organize and sustain a handful of small-scale, often humorous protests across the country, to raise awareness of the challenges facing women in China.

On Valentine’s Day 2012, three of its volunteers dressed in white bridal gowns smeared with red paint to challenge domestic violence. Days later, female students held an ‘Occupy the Men’s Toilets’ movement outside men’s and women’s public bathrooms in Guangzhou to protest the lack of female facilities. Others shaved their heads in order to rally against discriminatory university admissions rates, or participated in photographic protests of sexual defiance.

But support is not as strong as some would hope, says 24-year-old Xiao Meili (pseudonym), a women’s rights advocate who volunteers at The Voice of Feminists and has participated in most of its protests.

“There could definitely be more [support] but there’s a growing awareness among our peers about gender inequality. It shows that our activities are having an impact.”

Xiao recently made headlines as she embarked on a 144-day, 2,300 kilometer walk from Beijing to Guangzhou to raise awareness of sexual abuse. Her idea seemed to resonate on Weibo, where her writing and drawings quickly earned her a steady stream of followers. Netizens donated money for her journey (she raised some RMB30,000 from September 2013 to last March) and offered their homes as accommodation. Almost 50 people – including a number of men – joined her march.

At every place she stopped, Xiao sent letters to local officials asking to improve sexual education, teacher screening and investigations into abuse claims. Out of 330 missives to 55 towns and cities, she received 42 responses.

Despite growing interest in the issues that women like Xiao promote, feminism remains a term perceived by many women as too extreme and unwomanly.

“To many, the word ‘feminist’ equals ‘weird’ or ‘nuts,’” she says. “Once I approached a middle-aged guy in my neighborhood, saying I was a feminist. He started shouting: ‘What’s a feminist? Are they going to kill all men?’ People look atus with curiosity. But, with our actions and protests, they are also hearing our opinions. I’d rather be controversial than unnoticed,” she says.

Yolanda agrees. “This is still the beginning. More and more women are okay with being ‘leftovers’. They are no longer affected by the fear of being judged. We can only move forward from here.”

First appeared in That's Shanghai and That's Beijing magazines, September 2014.