The Best Books about China: Part 3 Women’s Lives

What is the Chinese Dream of Women?

What is the Chinese Dream of Women?


“Women hold up Half the Sky,”

Mao Zedong said famously, but there are no women in the Standing Committee of the Communist Party today. These books take a look into the life of ordinary Chinese women. There are very successful female entrepreneurs in China nowadays, but I have yet to read a book about them. I prefer not to put “women books” in a separate category as this may put off people (yes conservative men, I mean you), but how can you understand China or its economy for that matter if you do not take the female perspective into account?

The Good women of China: Hidden Voices- Xinran
Chinese Oprah Winfrey, radio host Xinran, tells the riveting tales of women calling in to her late night talk show. Beautiful and heart-breaking stories.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China- Leslie Chang
How do the girls who make your IPhone live and work, love and think? How a stolen phone may mean the end to your social life in a vast city like Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in Southern China. Former Washington Post correspondent delves into the life of factory girls. A novel doing something similar is Northern Girls by Chinese author Sheng Keyi, though the tone is completely different.

Wild Swans- Jung Chang
A real life story of 3 generations of women in 20th century China, connected to the broader historical developments in China in that period. The writer’s grandmother was the concubine of a general, her mother a high party executive.

Chinese Leftovers

Sheng Nu Dou Shi- Leftover fighters

Women between 25 and 27 are “sheng nu dou shi,” leftover fighters. According to Leta Hong they are seen to “still have the courage to fight for a partner.”

No, this is not a post about food. It is about the “leftover women” (sheng nu) in China, basically women over 25 who are not married. These ladies may be very successful in their careers, but they face enormous pressure from their parents and society to get married.

Yesterday it was International Women’s Day, apparently all the women in Mr. Expat’s office were allowed to take the afternoon off. But it is not so easy to take time off from the pressure to get married if even the Chinese Government adds to the pressure. For social stability and a “harmonious society,” they have concerns about this, especially in the light of the millions of Chinese men who cannot find a wife due to abortions of girls.

However, these men often live in the country side, and the sheng nu in the cities. Still, the image in state run women’s media portray the women that are successful in their careers but unmarried as stuck up, too focused on work and with a long wish list about their dream prince to “look down” and see all the admirers. Although “Women Hold Up Half The Sky” according to Mao, there is still much work for the women’s movement here.

percentage unmarried women worldwide

In percentages it is still a long way from the West, though in absolute numbers there are a lot of “leftover women” in China.

The topic was recently brought to my attention at a funny but somewhat shocking Beijing International Society talk with Leta Hong Fincher, a researcher at Tsinghua University, click here for her article. I couldn’t help but wonder if my single 30+ friends back home were feeling the same pressure. Hopefully not! When, still a little shocked, I talked about it to my Chinese teacher the next day, who I guess is a sheng nu herself (mid thirties and unmarried) she gave a very down to earth answer though: “nobody reads that stuff!”

PS I have since learnt that the divorce rate in Beijing is currently a whopping 39%. Most cited reason for split is infidelity. So it is not necessarily “happy ever after” for those who do get married either.