Roseann Lake and Xinran Xue: Love and Leftover Women in Modern China

Roseann Lake

Roseann Lake and Xinran Xue: Love and Leftover Women in Modern China

01 October 2018

Cassie Lawrence

Roseann Lake’s interest in the Chinese marriage market – and it really is a market – began when she was working for an international news network in Beijing. Her female colleagues were powerful, intelligent, bilingual – they were running the show. But they weren’t married. While this probably wouldn’t be an issue in the Western world, in China, according to Lake, it’s a huge deal.

The journalist and author visited Asia House to explore this issue with fellow writer Xue Xinran, as part of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2018. The two writers shared an illuminating conversation on marriage in China today.

Pressure is on for young men and women to find a partner, settle down, and bring grandchildren into the world. This has been the case for hundreds, if not thousands of years. However, when China introduced the controversial one-child policy it meant that if families had a daughter, they would have to put all their eggs in that basket. They would provide them with a good education and they would be given good opportunities, something that used to be reserved for the men of the family.

For Lake, this means there are now many well-educated, professional women who aren’t prepared to settle for married life and the loss of opportunities that this often entails.

Marriage in China, like in other countries, has often been for transactional reasons. In the 1930s and 1940s, people married for shared revolutionary goals, the audience heard, while now the main motivation is for property and money. This is speaking in broad terms, of course; not everyone is marrying to get the big house with the nice view. But this is often something that families will focus on when suggesting potential spouses to their daughters.

Families with eligible sons have been known to go to extraordinary measures to attract a better partner. One example shared with the audience involved families building bigger homes, complete with a ‘phantom third storey’ if they run out of money. Such is the competitive nature of finding a spouse in modern China.

Parents and grandparents are also becoming increasingly involved in their children’s dating process. In a lot of the major cities “marriage markets” take place, where grandparents will take photos and CVs of their grandchildren and gather in a square to discuss potential matches with others. This may seem like a bit too much involvement – you may question why the younger generation don’t push back on such interventions. This is mainly down to filial duty – a major component of Chinese culture that teaches respect for one’s elders.

The older generations are not ill-intentioned. They understand that their children are not immortal, and that they should have someone to share life with. However, as Roseann puts it in her book, Leftover in China, it’s like ‘a generation of chickens gave birth to a generation of ducks’. They are so different and obviously this means that they approach the concept of marriage in radically different ways.

All of this is, presumably, stressful for the young people who find themselves in the Chinese marriage market. As Roseann said: “Marriage is like an ingrown toenail. If you don’t address it soon, it’s going to get worse.”

This has led to partners getting married despite being completely incompatible. One audience member asked whether “divorce was still considered taboo in China”. It is becoming more accepted, Xue replied, but that men get off more lightly than women in this matter.

That said, as Roseann put it, in today’s China “it is better to marry and divorce, than not marry at all.”

The illuminating talk highlighted the gymnastics that young Chinese people have to go through to find marriage in China, and the after-effects of the one-child policy.

There’s lots more to come in this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. See the full line-up here.