Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Book Summary)

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Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, By Leta Hong Fincher [213 Pages]

Brief Overview of Leftover Women

Mao, the founder of Communist China, once honored the importance of one half of the human race by noting “women hold up half the sky.”  Communism was promoted worldwide — including in the United States — as a path to equality for all.  Women included.  

Communist China promoted this sense of equality, including women’s role in public life alongside men.  Nonetheless, like religion lingering in an atheistic communistic system, traditional gender norms continued.  Women were expected to handle domestic chores on top of their “male” duties in the fields and factories.  True equality was not in place.  

The post-Mao period, which involved a major move to a modern market economy, included a worsening of the status of women.  The government encouraged sexist practices, believing it useful for their authoritarian ends.  Opposition was suppressed.  

The struggles of China to address the problems of modern society furthered inequality.  Professional women from an early age (mid-20s) were seen as “leftover women” if they were not married with a child.  Real estate wealth was controlled by men, even if women significantly contributed time and money.  Domestic violence was a major problem.  And, GLBT acceptance continued to be strongly frowned upon.

Women, however, found means to protest.  Online means to speak out are available if continuously monitored and censored by the government.  Women also take part in public protests, such as the promotion of more equal public toilet facilities.  The struggle is hard and slow.  But, it continues until this day in various forms (her second book examines this further).   

Favorite Quote

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, particularly over the past decade and a half of market reforms. 

This provides the basic theme of the book, which uses attacks against so-called “leftover women” as a window into the widespread and still growing threat to gender equality in China.   

Should I Read It?

This book grew out of the author’s academic research, but the potential reader should not fear it is only appropriate for a college reading course.  It very well might be a useful addition to a course examining feminist issues world-wide or Chinese life today.  Others can enjoy it too.

The academic aspect of the book is summarized by one review: “statistical analysis, sociological surveys and extensive first-hand interviewing.”  The other half is clear writing done in a way that draws the reader into the stories told.  And, basic background is provided, to allow people to understand the context.  It is a good window into another culture.   

The book has no photographs (except the cover), for those who like that sort of thing.  Many quotes and interview excerpts do help as breaks as you read.  The book was first published in  2014, but the author’s later writings suggest its subject matter is still topical.  

Those who wish to read more about these subjects, including about activism today, should read the author’s second book (Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Reawakening In China).  She can also be found on Twitter.  Amelia Pang’s Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods is also recommended.

We Served The People by Emei Burell is also recommended.  It’s a graphic novel that discusses a young woman’s experience during China’s Cultural Revolution and years afterwards. A good snapshot of a woman’s life in China in this period, including her rebellion against sexism.    

Comprehensive Summary of Leftover Women


In China, there is a derogatory term known as “leftover” women or shengnü (剩女) used to describe “an urban, professional female in her late twenties or older who is still single.”  Women worldwide have also in some fashion faced this pressure to marry, a stigma of being single.  

The state media promotes this idea, using it to further their goals promoting a certain form of marriage, population control, and maintaining social stability.  A combination of factors have contributed to the decrease in the status and well-being of Chinese women. 

The book is a result of an analysis of state media, conversations with many Chinese women, personal communications, and a lifetime of visiting and working in China.  

China’s “leftover” women

The chapter looks at the state media’s efforts to stigmatize single educated women in their late twenties.  The pressure is both a sign of the advancements of Chinese women and social pressures arising from a shortage of marriage-age women.  A major issue here being the “one child policy,” which was applied with a clear favoring of male children.  

The “leftover women” campaign also furthers discrimination against urban working women.  China has a larger proportion of women working in rural areas than most countries. The rate of women working in urban areas, however, has significantly decreased in recent decades.  

[A Leftover Women documentary was later made in which “three modern women search for Mr. Right before Chinese society deems them ‘leftover’ for putting jobs ahead of marriage.”  It does not seem to be directly connected to this book.]  

How Chinese women were shut out of the biggest accumulation of real-estate wealth in history

Real estate is a major source of wealth in China, but most homes are registered in men’s names.  This is so even though the homes are largely paid for by wives and girlfriends.  The pressure to marry, which regularly means giving up control of such real estate, worsens this situation.  

The importance of real estate to wealth, including because of tax policies involved, underlines how inequality in this area is a prime sign of gender inequality in China.  

China’s giant gender wealth gap

Parents tend to buy homes for their sons, not their daughters.  Many parents do not even buy a home for their daughter when she is their only child.  

A home is often connected to marriage, not only harming lesbians, but also to some degree gay men.  The state promotion of marriage contributes to a real estate “mania,” a home seen as a necessary part of a good marriage.  

Money given to daughters for such things as education expenses are often seen as mere loans.  Filial piety and feelings of obligation to family results in pressures for women to pay for male relatives, including cousins, over their own needs.  

Back to the Ming dynasty

We now are sent back to China’s Song dynasty (960-1279), when women had various property rights. (Compare how Islam and the Qu’ran improved the status of women in 7th Century Arabia)  Confucian philosophers opposed this because they saw it conflicting with various traditional practices.  The historical decline of women’s rights is discussed.

There were some improvements in women’s rights in 20th Century China in the age of the republic and early communist years.  This process was never complete and women’s property rights have declined in the recent push to develop a more market based economy.  

Wives caught in China’s web of abuse

In 2010, government figures state that one quarter of Chinese women have experienced “intimate partner abuse,” but feminist activists (such as a women’s right attorney) say this number is too low.  It is seen as inappropriate to expose “family ugliness” (abuse); exposure can result in retaliatory violence and threats to take children and financial resources away.    

The police are used more as a means to enforce “social stability” than address such violence.  The case of American Kim Lee fighting for a divorce and publicly discussing the violence in her marriage is discussed.  The hardship that even an American with her means suffered shows how the courts and the law overall is stacked against women.  

Gender Equality Movement in China an Uphill Battle 

There are non-profit organizations that address the needs of women, but it is an uphill battle.  The Communist Party organized women in a “top down” way, which hindered the development of an independent “bottom’s up” movement.  

The chapter discusses various grassroots and individual efforts of protest such as a protest against child abuse in Chinese schools.  Many of China’s most committed women’s rights activists are lesbian.  The LGBTQ community has trouble being recongized  by official women rights. There has been some success with “lead-less movements.”  See here for a taste.  

The future is hazy and the hopes for immediate change are limited.  Those interested should read the author’s second book which covers much of the same ground and updates things a bit.

Points to Ponder 

The book is part of an “Asian arguments” series concerning Asia today, written by authors with direct experience on the subject matter.  The series has the aim of advancing understanding of the problems of ordinary Asians today.  Is this book a good fit for the series?

“Weibo” is basically a Chinese form of Twitter.  It is a major resource for information in China though it is also greatly censored.  Consider its role in Chinese culture, including how censorship might make things different than it would be in our own Twitter-verse.  

About the Author

Leta Hong Fincher is a journalist (won the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award for her China reporting), writer, and Seminar Associate at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.  

She is fluent in Mandarin.  Her parents were both Chinese scholars and she spent a significant portion of her childhood travelling to China.  

Fincher was the first American to receive a Ph.D. from Tsinghua University’s Department of Sociology in Beijing.  She also worked at Radio Free Asia, Asia Television (1997–1998), CNBC Asia (1998–1999), and Voice of America.

She later wrote Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Reawakening In China.  

Is Leftover Women a Reliable Source?

Dr. Leta Hong Fincher (洪理达) is a scholar in the material covered as well as having much relevant personal experience regarding Chinese society. The book is well sourced with endnotes.  The book is a trustworthy product of careful research.  

By Joe Cocurullo