“It’s merely cultural”. Leta Hong Fincher warns us against this easy interpretation of questionable practices, and then goes on to explain just how pernicious cultural traditions have been in undoing China’s twentieth-century strides towards gender equality. It is never merely cultural.
In this commanding book Hong Fincher argues that China’s international image, celebrating the increasing education and wealth of its women, masks an alarming slide back towards deep gender inequality – and that the very education and wealth of Chinese women is being used against them. The ‘leftover women’ of the title are, in China, unmarried women aged 25-27 and older. ‘Leftover’ in this context has all the connotations of leftover food, and the pressure to avoid becoming a leftover woman is intense. From state matchmaking agencies to discriminatory hiring practices; state-controlled media propaganda to the parental and social pressure it feeds; even the avowed eugenic intentions of the Chinese government, who exhort educated Chinese women to marry and have a “high quality” child for the good of the state (p.12) – the web of pressure surrounding these women is total. And when they do marry, they are caught in a new web that draws all their assets towards their husband, leaving them dependent and powerless.
Property ownership is at the heart of this predicament: in a country where there are no other significant investment opportunities, buying homes has become a symbol of prosperity and entry to the middle class. But property ownership has also become the crux of gender inequality in China, and its influence is far-reaching. Hong Fincher begins by explaining that although China has seen an unprecedented boom in home ownership and the accumulation of wealth, women have been largely shut out of it. This comes down to the fact that 80% of marital homes are registered in the husband’s name, with only 30% including the wife’s name, even though women contribute to the purchase of 90% of these homes. It is standard for young wives to sink their entire life savings into their marital home, frequently providing half of the down payment and subsequent mortgage payments, but their names are not registered on the deeds at all. They are not then entitled to the appreciation value of the home, and in the event of a divorce, they would have no claim on the property whatsoever.
A key strength of Hong Fincher’s analysis is the complementary use of data and interviews. The book includes many quotes and personal stories that flesh out the numbers, and clearly show where ‘culture’ comes into the equation. Hong Fincher describes the experiences of young women who have made large contributions to a home registered solely in their husband’s name; women whose parents have helped sons buy a home but not daughters; and even women whose parents pressured them into giving their savings to a male cousin to help him buy a house; women who have been trapped in abusive but financially dependent marriages and women who have lost everything to buy their way out. But we almost never hear dissatisfaction, anger or dissent from these women. Even in Hong Fincher’s confidential Weibo interviews women tended to agree that the system was fair, that of course families would help men to buy homes, and of course wives would not undermine their husbands by fighting to have their name on the deeds. It’s just the culture.
This is really the great controversy that the book uncovers, and Hong Fincher details exactly how the gains for women under Communism were quickly subverted by bureaucracy and reinterpretation. The superior status of men never went away, and now the capitalist drive for prosperity is using women as cash-generators for men: the key, therefore, is that women marry, and that is how the spectre of the leftover woman came to haunt the Chinese imagination.
Hong Fincher pulls no punches in her excoriation of this injustice, and yet her book is accessible and fascinating – an important work for scholars as well as those wishing to broaden their understanding. It would be especially illuminating to hear responses from Chinese women, and I can only hope that as many women as possible will have the opportunity to read this book and continue the debate. I am happy to pass on my copy to anyone who would like the next word…
Carina Hart has a PhD in contemporary fiction and aesthetic theory from UEA, and blogs about human beauty at Beautiful in Theory [ beautifulintheory.com]. She works in the Research Student Office at Loughborough University, and runs The Gradgrind [thegradgrind.com], an online magazine and proofreading service for PhD students.