To, S. (2015) China’s Leftover Women. London: Routledge.




Sandy To is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She did her PhD at Cambridge where she did her PhD research on Chinese professional women’s views on marriage and partner choices.  The chapters of the book are based on quotes from the interviews that were undertaken for this research into unmarried women and their relationships. At the beginning of the study, she interviewed ten men but then decided to focus on women only since she found some of the men had contradicted themselves (p38).


This book on China’s leftover women has seven chapters – Introduction to China’s ‘leftover women’: highly educated, accomplished …and unmarried; Traditional marriage views of modern career women: ‘I’m very traditional so I must get married!’; Discrimination in the marriage market: ‘I have a lot of friends who are single because men think that I’m too tough!’; Patriarchal demands and difficult choices: ‘I’m quite unhappy because he made me face the choice…so I chose work’; Contesting discriminatory constraints: ‘I have a lot of Western colleagues who say they don’t like their wives not working. They think they should utilise their talents’; Combating controlling constraints: ‘I would like to find someone who can take care of things and home and complement my schedule’; The strategies of partner choice: Maximisers, Traditionalists, Satisficers, Innovators; and Conclusion: the future of China’s ‘leftover women.’


In the Preface, Sandy explains that the term ‘leftover women’ or ‘sheng nü’ is widely used in the media, including newspapers, gossip magazines and television, in both China and Hong Kong, but now the term has been internationalised.  Leftover women can cover everything from the idea of leftovers in the fridge that no-one wants to the concept of the femme fatale who terrorise men rather than marry them.  She speculates that the active use of the term ‘leftover women’ to the state-run media is a way to encourage single, professional women to get married and could be similar to terms used during the Maoist-era of ‘social burdens’ and ‘sexual abnormalities’ (p27).


She goes on to discuss how being a single women is not considered an issue in many countries but in China, with its Confucian values, there is a strong emphasis on traditional marriage. The role of patriarchy is high and links to the old proverb ‘men worked outside and women worked inside’. The author explains that Mao’s New Marriage Law of 1950 banned marriages arranged by parents and women were free to choose their own marriage partner (p13) but there was still an expectation that women would marry. In fact, women could not afford to live by themselves and only men were eligible to apply for urban danwei (work unit) (p13). Also in the danwei, cadres and managers would undertake matchmaking for single male and female employees and refusing a match could impact badly on promotional prospects (p.13).


The chapters are developed based on quotes from interviews with women and one of the interviewees is Dora who is an assistant financial manager in her thirties.  Dora had been with her partner for ten years and although they both came from the rural district of Xinjiang. Dora had graduated from university in Shanghai and had started her career in Shanghai. She wanted to pursue her career in Shanghai but he wanted her to move back to Xinjang. This was her reason for splitting from her boyfriend. After the split, she was introduced to over 20 matchmaking candidates but none of these led to anything (p.63). This does go to show the sacrifices that women are prepared to make in order to pursue their careers but at the same time want to be married.


Other aspects that are covered are whether women are prepared to settle for men who are less able than themselves in order to be married and women who are in relationships with men of a different nationality.


Sandy To wrote the last paragraph based on the strategies of partner choice which she described as maximisers, traditionalists, satisficers and innovators. Maximisers are characterised as ‘I want to slow down in my work until I get married’ and find partners from similar backgrounds thus maximising their marriage and economic goals. Traditionalists say ‘I must get married’ but sometimes these women suffered discrimination because of their superior achievements.  Satisficers say ‘I want an egalitarian partner’ but in the face of making a choice between career or marriage they renounced chances of marriage. And lastly, the innovators who say ‘I want to live my own life with satisfaction’ who are women who will not compromise any of their personal needs and goals for the sake of getting married.


Overall, I found this to be a really interesting book that gave insights into the issues that Chinese women find in their relationships with both their parents and their potential partners. Sandy To explains the historical background which has led to the concept of ‘leftover women’. It discusses the challenges that women face in order to pursue their careers but at the same time comply with the expectations of society and their families.


This review was provided by Wilma Garvin, Senior Lecturer in the School of Business and Law University of East London