Skip to content
Subscriber Only

China's 'Leftover Ladies' Are Anything But

Urban women are deferring marriage—or not even bothering
China's 'Leftover Ladies' Are Anything But
Photograph by Philip Gostelow

Since Scarlet He was born in 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, values in China have changed. Over lunch at a Hong Kong-style restaurant on the fifth floor of a Beijing shopping mall, she explains that of her seven best girlfriends growing up, all have gone to college and pursued careers. Only two are married, while the others have either divorced or, like her, simply never gotten around to it. “Happily never married,” the 40-year-old entrepreneur adds. “Marriage is only for having children.” In her view, it wasn’t necessarily good for relationships. “Once you are married, the man begins to take you for granted. But I am still free.”

Most younger women in China will still marry, but a growing number are choosing to stress education and career over finding a mate. In a country where universal marriage for women was the norm for centuries, it’s the most educated and financially independent urban women who are most likely to delay marriage or remain single. According to a census analysis by Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, an estimated 7 percent of college-educated women in Shanghai remain single at age 45—“a significant change from the past,” he emphasizes. Wang calculates that in urban China the number of never-married women ages 25 to 34 is about 7 million.