“Are female PhD’s really so bad to marry?” one user asked on a popular Chinese Internet forum. “They are unscrupulous, hypocritical, filthy, and weak,” another commented in response. Many of the other comments expressed similar sentiments.
Yang Xu is a successful divorce court judge in Beijing. She is one of many women in China with graduate degrees who face this stereotype everyday. Now thirty-three and married, Yang Xu has not forgotten how hard it was to find a husband. “I find it ironic that I had to suffer consequences for deciding to gain an education beyond my bachelor’s degree,” she explained in an interview with The Politic. After attaining her law degree, Xu spent years as a practicing attorney. Meanwhile, those her own age were already getting married. But men didn’t think Xu a suitable wife – she was too educated, according to her married friends.
Traditional Confucian ideas have historically limited women. This thinking shifted in the early days of the People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, when the Communist Party encouraged education for women. Mao Zedong famously called on women to “hold up half the sky” by going to school and joining the workforce. As a result, high school and university enrollment for girls substantially increased from 1949 to 1981.
But restrictions remain. In a book titled Revolution Postponed, author Margery Wolf demonstrates that although life has improved for Chinese women, gender equality has not been achieved. Traditional themes of domesticity and obedience remain relevant to daily life for women. They derive from a time in which a woman was expected to obey her father until she married, and then obey her husband. If she became a widow, she was expected to devote herself to her son. It was unthinkable that a woman would have a higher level of education than her husband.
Despite public efforts at transitioning China towards greater gender parity, highly educated women face several disadvantages, especially when it comes to marriage. A well-known article published by the All-China Women’s Federation introduced the concept of a “yellowed pearl.” The article reads: “Pretty girls do not need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family… Girls with an average or ugly appearance… hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is they don’t realize that, as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their M.A. or PhD, they are already old, like yellowed pearls.” With these stereotypes on display, international media led a storm of public criticism.
The yellowed pearl concept draws support from the well-documented, negative correlation between higher degrees like PhDs and marital status. The people who fall into this category are often known as shengnu, which translates as “leftover women.”
In an interview with The Politic, Melissa Schneider, who wrote The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home: True Stories of Love and Marriage in Communist China, states that a shengnu is widely understood to be any unmarried women over age 27, and “the epithet is a feared one among today’s young Chinese women.” This term is associated with women who have achieved an advanced education, but she explained, shengnu is “more about being unmarried than highly educated.” To escape the fear of being “a yellowed pearl,” 80 percent of Chinese women marry by age 25.
Many people in Chinese society today recognize three “genders”: male, female, and female PhD. This last label, regularly used in conversation, refers to women who are smart, successful, wealthy — but still unmarried — at 28. Chinese media outlets regularly stereotype these women as aloof, unattractive, and self-driven careerists.
“Women are seen primarily as these reproductive entities, having babies for the good of the nation,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of the book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China in an interview with Quartz.
The gendered double standard originates in the perceived conflict between women with graduate degrees and the family-centric priorities of the Communist state.
Deng, a 27-year-old sociology PhD candidate from the southern province of Hunan, explained this phenomenon as “a joke that means we’re asexual and not feminine enough.” During one interaction, she told Quartz, a worker was shocked to learn that she was working towards a PhD and exclaimed, “You’re not bad looking even though you’re a PhD.”
An online user posted in Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website: “Female PhD’s are the tragedy of China’s leftover women.” According to an online poll on Weibo, 30 percent of over 7,000 voters said they would not marry a [Chinese] woman with a PhD.
Xiao Wang, a blogger who graduated from the University of Leeds with a PhD in Chemistry, seemed more bemused than offended.
“Everyone believes that women with PhDs are a kind of third gender or third type of people. It overwhelms many people. I don’t believe in the idea of this third type of person,” she said. “I myself do not feel that my life is different from the lives of other people. The only difference is the environment I live and work in,” she blogged.
More than anything, Xiao Wang is puzzled why so many people are unwilling to marry highly educated women. “I feel that love is just a matter of fate, these things cannot be deliberately forced,” she wrote.
This sexist situation stems from the tradition of female hypergamy, which is common throughout China. Hypergamy is the tendency to marry a person of higher social status. Although most Chinese newlyweds, like couples elsewhere, are of similar age and education, it is also quite common for Chinese women to marry men who are better educated than they are, while men typically marry women who are less educated.
According to the calculations of PhD candidate Yue Qian of Ohio State University, 55 percent of university-educated Chinese men marry a less educated spouse, whereas only 32 percent of university-educated women do the same. Melissa Schneider argues that when it comes to education, A-quality men will find B-quality women; B-quality guys will find C-quality women; and C-quality men will find D-quality women — so those left are A-quality women and D-quality men.
Chinese registered psychologist and expert Liu Fuliang weighed in on why men are unwilling to marry women with PhDs. In an article translated by EChinaCities she states, “Men regard women with PhDs as having one set of specific ‘stereotypical’ characteristics. They see them as a third gender with either a strange temperament or an excessive drive to succeed. Chinese men traditionally see the ideal woman as gentle, soft and virtuous.”
In recent years, highly educated Chinese women have emerged on the national and world stage as powerful players. According to Forbes magazine, 11 of the 20 richest self-made women in the world are Chinese, and now 19 percent of Chinese women in management positions are CEOs, which is the second highest percentage worldwide. This social transition and the undeniable rise of women in China is captured in the phrase: yin-sheng, yang-shuai, which means that the female (yin) is on the up, while the male (yang) is on the way down.
Chinese men also feel the pressure to marry. Popular belief states that if a man and his family cannot buy property, he will struggle to find a bride. So mortgages often precede marriages. When choosing a husband, three-quarters of women consider his ability to provide a home, based on a recent survey in China’s coastal cities by Horizon China, a Beijing market-research firm. Even if a woman dismisses this point, her family and friends will often remind her of it.
Men spend dutifully on property to improve their position in the marriage queue. But such a mindset forces other men to spend more in response. Unmarried men are locked in a Darwinian race where overpriced and ostentatious homes symbolize what only the wealthiest males can boast.
Hong Fincher explains that “home ownership defines masculinity” in her interview with Quartz. Often a couple’s finances are arranged so that the husband can take all the pride of owning the home, even if in reality his wife jointly supports the household. A dutiful wife may feel obliged to bolster this superficial mask of masculinity.
The idea of “leftover women” harms women and men in China. For men, there is intense pressure to assert their masculinity. And for women, education becomes a barrier to marriage. As more of China’s women pursue advanced degrees, tensions between traditional ideas and modern women will only grow. The question is whether Chinese society can adjust.