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HONG FINCHER, Leta. 2023. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (fully updated 10th anniversary edition). London: Bloomsbury.

Harriet Evans
p. 89-90

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1Leta Hong Fincher’s pathbreaking analysis (2014) of an effectively institutionalised culture of discrimination against women in their late twenties/early thirties who, for one reason or another, found themselves without a husband, became an instant hit with students, journalists, and feminist activists in and outside China when it appeared. In a gender environment that discouraged critical enquiry, its revelations about the extent of legally binding discriminatory practices emboldened countless women in China to begin to speak up about their own experiences.

2This 10th anniversary revised edition is no less startling in its revelations. Indeed, it is difficult to read the revised edition without a sense of increasing indignation if not outrage. Readers will recall that the macro-political context for the revelations in this revised edition is the total absence of women from the highest echelons of Party-state government. The 20th Party Congress held in October 2022 was confirmed as the first time in decades that there was not one single woman in the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling Politburo. Only 11 out of 205 members on the Central Committee are women. China’s ranking in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report (2012-2022) fell from 69 to 102 out of 146 countries.

3This second edition indexes an explicit reassertion of masculinist and patriarchal practices in every dominant aspect of society: gender discrimination in university admissions, gender disparities in the financial and legal aspects of property ownership, falling numbers of women in the social labour force, increasing unemployment among 16- to 24-year-old women, and against rising rates of divorce, increased state media efforts to shame single women and pressurise them into marriage. If the term “leftover woman” (shengnü 剩女) has in recent years been replaced by “good wife and virtuous mother” (xianqi liangmu 賢妻良母) with two or three children, then this foregrounds even more visibly the main reproductive and demographic objective underpinning the relentless insistence on marriage: to reverse the trend in falling fertility in order to sustain an (unpaid) female labour force to care for the increasing numbers of elderly people in an ageing population with no or little access to pensions and social care.

4The book’s structure mirrors that of the first edition: women’s falling fortunes in China’s property market; the huge gender disparities in wealth accumulation; a brief historical overview to contextualise the current situation as compared with the Ming dynasty; domestic, gender-based and sexual violence against women; the resurgent feminist and LGBTQ+ movement. With the exception of the historical excursion in Chapter Four, each chapter marshals statistical and media evidence to demonstrate how the situation has deteriorated since 2014.

5So, to take the topics in turn, if very schematically, an official study of 2022 noted that only one quarter of married couples in China listed the wife as an owner on the property deed, while around 92% listed the husband. The reason is that, despite the fact that women had contributed to the purchase from their own earnings, they felt compelled to compromise with their partners’ and in-laws’ insistence that their assets be legally listed under their husbands’ name. In the case of joint mortgages, the “primary loan recipient” is invariably the husband, meaning that in the case of divorce, the legal documentation about mortgage payments would only show the man’s payments, creating bureaucratic nightmares for women wanting to justify any financial claims they might have on the property. Such reinforcement of the patriarchal norm of the male head of the household continues to be shored up by views – held by women as well as men – that a man’s financial contribution to house buying is worth more than a woman’s, regardless of how much she and/or her family might contribute to its purchase.

6Property ownership is a dominant marker of middle-class identity in China’s cut-throat market economy. Indeed, owning a home is widely seen as a man’s ticket to a good marriage; failure to do so emasculates him in his own eyes as well as in the eyes of society, and possibly of his family. The wealth associated with property ownership is stacked up to minimise if not exclude women’s access to it: divorce regulations prioritise settlements based on the legally recognised ownership of the property, inheritance regulations are untaxed (which in a context of continuing son/male preference favours the patrilineal transmission of wealth), and banking regulations are heavily weighted against women’s autonomous interests.

7Chapter Four is almost identical to the version in the first edition. I can’t help but feel that it was a pity that this could not have been revised to better explain the historical forces, in both the Mao era and before, that contribute both to compelling women to marry and bear children before they reach the age of thirty, and to sustaining Xi Jinping’s resuscitation of a popular neo-Confucian ideology prioritising men’s public activities and women’s domestic and reproductive activities.

  • 1 Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress 全國人民代表大會常務委員會, “中華人民共和國反家庭暴力法” (Zhonghua renmi (...)

8Amidst mounting evidence of sexual and gender-based violence against women in China, Chapter Five charts both the advances and the setbacks in China’s mainstream approaches to intimate partner violence. Hence, the Anti-domestic Violence Law1 was passed in 2015, and implemented in 2016, after more than a decade of women’s lobbying against repeated bureaucratic hurdles to introduce it. However, in the absence of reliable critical accounts of how and where it is implemented and alongside continued evidence of sometime brutal intimate partner abuse, it is difficult to assess the effects of this law on upholding girls’ and women’s interests. If anything, the zero-Covid lockdowns all over China after 2020 produced a higher incidence of violent abuse of girls and women within families, which, when reported, the police largely refused to follow up on, on the grounds that the epidemic prevented them from doing so.

9Finally, in a condensed version of the discussion in the author’s Betraying Big Brother (2018), Chapter Six focuses on the feminist and LGBTQ+ resistance that has exploded into the international public eye since 2014 – from the arrest of the Feminist Five for their street protests against patriarchal norms in marriage and public life to the revelations of women’s struggles to publicise cases of abuse and victimisation since China’s #MeToo movement took off in 2018.

10Alongside the volume’s dismal account of the ongoing re-entrenchment of gender discriminatory practices in China, there is considerably more to sustain the author’s argument that the ongoing media campaign against “leftover women” appears to be part of a backlash against perceived threats to the social and gender order of China’s political economy. I would go further and say that it constitutes a more or less systemic and deliberate sidelining of women’s and gender-diverse interests. Finally, analysis of the reach of the publicity about domestic violence and the #MeToo campaign, and the grassroots activities oriented to supporting gender-diverse interests and rights cannot be included in a book of this length, but maybe the author will take this on as her next project.

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Bibliography

HONG FINCHER, Leta. 2014. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. London: Zed Books.

HONG FINCHER, Leta. 2018. Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. London: Verso Books.

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Notes

1 Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress 全國人民代表大會常務委員會, “中華人民共和國反家庭暴力法” (Zhonghua renmin gonghehuo fan jiating baoli fa, Anti-domestic Violence Law of the People’s Republic of China), Promulgated the 27 December 2015, effective 1 March 2016, https://www.gov.cn/zhengce/2015-12/28/content_5029898.htm (accessed on 15 February 2024).

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References

Bibliographical reference

Harriet Evans, HONG FINCHER, Leta. 2023. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (fully updated 10th anniversary edition). London: Bloomsbury.China Perspectives, 136 | 2024, 89-90.

Electronic reference

Harriet Evans, HONG FINCHER, Leta. 2023. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (fully updated 10th anniversary edition). London: Bloomsbury.China Perspectives [Online], 136 | 2024, Online since 01 March 2024, connection on 14 April 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/chinaperspectives/16683; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/chinaperspectives.16683

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About the author

Harriet Evans

Harriet Evans is Emeritus Professor in Chinese cultural studies at the University of Westminster and Visiting Professor in anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street, London, United Kingdom (H.Evans5@lse.ac.uk).

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Copyright

The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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