China's 'Leftover Women' Desperate to Find Mr. Right

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"This is a strange period in Chinese history," said Chen. "This generation of women is suddenly incredibly well-educated."

She called it a kind of cultural "whiplash."

"They are like a speeding train, getting the best education in the world and, suddenly, they are in the work force and told to put on the brakes and go in the other direction back to women's roles from the 5,000 years of Chinese society," she said. "For women, that is the source of their security and their survival."

Gender selection clinics draw women from abroad.

This cultural phenomenon exists in all Asian countries rooted in Confucianism, according to Dudley L. Poston, Jr., professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, who has worked as a demographer in both South Korea and China.

Family members are remembered with ancestor tablets, similar to photos Americans have of their grandparents. But those tablets can only be displayed by sons.

"There was really no way for a woman to be single and to be legitimized," said Poston. "The only way was if they get married and have a son."

Poston said a new class of marriage-age women with professional careers is emerging in China -- the "single nobles" or "danshan quizu" who are rejecting the constraints of the past. They are electing to stay single and delay marriage by 10 to 15 years.

"There has been a relaxation in sexual activity so that young women can engage and it's not as frowned on," he said. "They can travel, so they don't have to be messing around with mothers-in-law, who treat the young bride, some as young as 15 and 16, as a slave. ... They manage their own money."

"This kind of behavior is starting to disturb the male-female marriage-age equilibrium," he said. "The 'single nobles' phenomenon is taking away even more potential brides. This is a big issue these days in China."

As career women wait to marry, and because of the lopsided birth rate favoring males, "a million extra boys are not finding brides, according to Polston.

"We estimate 45 to 55 million boys who, when they are marital age, won't find girls available to marry," Polston said.

A reduction in fertility rates, strong cultural preferences for boys, medical techniques that allow sex selection and the "physical and cultural" ease of abortion contribute to that imbalance.

"The government encouraging women to get married will provide more unbalances," he said.

But Chen said she has seen more women who view themselves as "leftovers" rather than "noble singles."

"In the past year of meeting tens of thousands of women, I only met one of those," she said. "Much more of what I have seen is women who want to be proud of lives filled with accomplishments, but are completely stigmatized."

She said these attitudes encourage women "just to get married."

"They marry the nearest guy and it causes trouble," she said. "There is an exploding divorce rate and, for the first time, China is creating children of divorce."

Chen said the book is "the perfect encapsulation of all that is old and all that is new -- all the contradictions in China today."

"One of the things we keep hearing all over again in pop culture is there are very few role models with success in their career and a happy family life," she said. "My intention is to start the conversation these women need to have amongst themselves."

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