BEIJING — For young women in China who have ambitions beyond raising a family, life is a constant barrage of societal pressures to marry early – preferably by 25, by no means beyond 27.
For these women, few things in life are more stressful than returning home annually on Chinese New Year and fending off questions about their unwed status. So stressful, in fact, that some have found it liberating to take the stage in Beijing to recount their ordeals before a public audience.
In China’s capital over the last month, more than 15 women have gone onstage to share their true-life stories about being labeled “sheng nu” – a Chinese term that means “leftover women.” Dubbed “The Leftover Monologues,” the presentations proved surprisingly popular – and the cast is considering whether to continue now that the original plan of three performances is completed.
“After the show, I had several women come up and tell me that my story sounded much like their story,” said Fu Xin, a 31-year-old unmarried architect who appears in “The Leftover Monologues.” “We are being told that we were are too picky – that we should compromise on making the most important decision of our lives.”
Like Fu, nearly all of the women appearing in “The Leftover Monologues” are well educated and off to a promising start in their careers. Even so, they say, family and even friends regularly taunt them for being too selective in finding a mate and too focused on their life goals.
Yolanda Wang, one of the cast members, offered a withering account of an encounter with her father, who she said told her she needed to learn how to cook – or risk a beating from her future husband. She also received laughs during a recent performance by poking fun at her less-than-rail-thin figure. “I just cannot become slim, no matter how hard I try,” she said in Chinese. “So what? Should I just go die?”
Some themes in the “The Leftover Monologues” are familiar to women in many parts of the world: Unfaithful boyfriends. Abusive relationships. Pressure by media and society to focus on their looks and behave in a way that doesn’t threaten male sensibilities.
Yet several of the stories are uniquely Chinese. One woman told of being snubbed by men because she lacked a Beijing “hukou,” a registration essential for receiving municipal services. If a woman lacks hukou, families of prospective husbands have been known to derail the marriage, fearful that the woman’s parents will move to Beijing and became a burden on the rest of the family.
Another woman, Wang Anqi, described how her high school sweetheart broke up with her after his parents paid for him to attend college in the United States. Apparently, Wang said, his mother questioned why she lacked similar resources to pay for an expensive U.S. education.
“When it comes to marriage in China, there is a gap,” said Wang, who is 24. Young people start out viewing marriage as an expression of love, she said, but families traditionally view it as a “massive transaction that requires matching backgrounds and a fair trade of assets.”
The stigma of being labeled a “leftover” is hardly unmentioned in China. It has been researched and reported on for several years, most recently by sociologist Leta Hong Fincher in her 2014 book, “Leftover Women.”
But Hong Fincher and others say this may be the first time a group of women in China have used theater as a vehicle for elevating the issue.
“It is significant that there are these women acting on an individual level to rebel against the system,” Hong Fincher said in a telephone interview. “They are dealing with a system of intense marriage promotion . . . coming from the media, from the education and even from the medical establishment.”
As Hong Fincher has documented, young women face pressure in China not just from the family, but from the government itself, including its state-run media and women’s organizations the government has sanctioned. “Eight Simple Moves to Escape the Leftover Women Trap,” is one headline that appeared on the website of the All-China Women’s Federation. “Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy?” is another.
Hong Fincher believes the government delivers such messages under the misguided notion that they will help promote “social stability.” As she notes in her book, a People’s Daily article laid out the government’s apparent thinking, arguing that millions of men unable to find wives are more likely to take part in “rioting, stealing and gang fighting.”
Ironically, China’s one-child policy may have contributed to the growth of highly educated, ambitious women. Some research suggests that young girls in China get more attention from their parents when families lack a son to dote over.
Fu, the architect, is a product of such attentions. She’s an only child and was born in their hometown, Tianshui, in China’s western Gansu province. Her father, a music teacher, taught her to play piano. He and her mother, an engineer, urged her “to never compromise” in performing music or any of her other pursuits, she said.
It worked. After earning a degree in architecture from Chongqing University, Fu found a job at a Korean-owned architecture firm in Beijing, and then was hired by BMW. She is now part of a four-person team expanding BMW’s network of 400 showrooms in China, and she lives in the upscale Beijing neighborhood of Sanlitun.
Stylish, worldly and well-employed, Fu would seem to be a poster child for upward mobility in China. But that’s not of interest when she goes home at New Year’s.
“When I go home, no one asks me about my job; they only ask me why I am not married,” said Fu, sipping on a glass of soda water at a Sanlitun cafe. “Friends always say to me, ‘You need to get married as soon as possible!’”
Like several other cast members in “The Leftover Monologues,” Fu was inspired by the advice from Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in confronting such situations. Even though Facebook is blocked in China, Sandberg’s 2013 book about women in business, “Lean In,” became a bestseller here, prompting Fu and many other women to start or join “Lean In” chapters.
In Beijing, it was a chapter of “Lean In” that first sparked the idea of the monologues. Members had stories to tell, and they recruited a U.S. journalist they knew, Roseanna Lake, to help organize the production.
The original idea was to hire a writer to produce a fictionalized version of the women’s stories, similar to the “Vagina Monologues” (a play that Chinese authorities initially shut down when it opened in Shanghai in 2004). But Lake, who knew many of the women through a book she was researching, said she pressed them to present their real-life monologues in person, with nothing fictionalized.
The resulting stories range widely. They include Wei Tingting’s travails of explaining to an ex-boyfriend why she was a lesbian, as well as Chen Shiwen’s poignant story about making a childhood discovery about her mother. Chen’s mother had once been a published writer before getting married and having children. But she had kept that hidden from her daughter for several years, apparently because she was ashamed of having given up on her dream.
Chen, a 27-year-old marketing consultant, said she was initially wary about sharing such a personal story to strangers. But as she rehearsed, she was impressed by the willingness of fellow cast members to tell even more intimate aspects of their lives.
“This is such an amazing group of girls,” said Chen, who grew up in Hunan province and has lived in Beijing for five years. “They are so brave, and the stories they tell are so meaningful.”
Whether the cast members engage in repeat performances is uncertain. The cast and crew of “The Leftover Monologues” devoted much of their free time this summer to pulling together three shows, the last of which was Aug. 8. Several cast members said they wanted at least a few weeks of break before considering an encore.
Yet the curtain probably hasn’t dropped on the production. Fu and others were surprised that after a soft opening in July, more than 200 people lined up for tickets at a Beijing arts theater that had far fewer seats than that.
“In the beginning, we never imagined this would turn into a real show,” said Fu. “But now, who knows?”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.