HANGZHOU, China (WOMENSENEWS)–Li Yan squeezes through the crowd to arrive at a string of colorful brochures flying above the lawn outside Hangzhou Stadium.
Without wiping the sweat off her neck, the 53-year-old takes out a piece of paper and hangs it beside a pink brochure. A woman near her reads the hand-written message on it.
"Yours is a girl, too?" she asks.
"Yeah. How old is yours?"
"Thirty-one. Boys are hard to find these days."
It’s her third year at these Sunday meetings, still searching for a son-in-law. Her daughter has recently stopped arguing with her when she goes out.
"Last time she hated these arranged dates," Li says. (In Chinese, given names follow surnames.) "But now that she’s 30, she’s got to do this even if she doesn’t want to."
These high-achieving single ladies are a strong presence in Chinese cities. In Beijing alone, they number half a million, according to a Xinhua News Agency report in 2009. Similar numbers for high-achieving men aren’t available.
Despite the objection of some female politicians, they have a widely-used nickname: Leftover Ladies.
Matchmaking by parents is a traditional practice and Du Xiguan participated by arranging numerous dates for his daughter until she wound up with a husband.
Now he organizes these mass date-making sessions where, he says, daughters twice outnumber sons. Every Sunday his gatherings attract more than 200 parents at Hangzhou Stadium.
"These parents have only one child," he says, "how can they not be concerned about their kid’s marriage? Their children don’t understand their feelings."
Most of the women at the sessions, like Li’s daughter, have a college education and a white collar job.
A Paradoxical Problem
China is famous for its male-heavy young-adult, unmarried population. There are 162 single men aged 27-to-34 for every 100 single women in cities, according to a 2010 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Science.
Extra men, however, concentrate among the poor and the overall surplus has not created a marriage rush for absolutely every Chinese women. And for high-achieving women it’s not necessarily a problem of quantity, but of quality.
Wei Zhen, who turns 30 this year, says she has given up on finding a husband. The fashion magazine editor, who has participated in numerous arranged dates, says she wants a mate on par with her.
"I don’t expect him to be extraordinary in looks, income or cultural pursuits," she says. "I know those men are not for me. But he can’t be severely lacking in these, either."
Despite a slim chance of finding her Mr. Right, Wei says she won’t force herself into marriage. "Self-fulfillment is critical to my happiness. I’d rather not have to change my personality in order to accommodate a marriage," she says.
Her attitude is typical of the pickiness of high-achieving young women, says Shu Man, a marriage counselor. "These women are perfectionists. They apply workplace rational thinking to the search for partners."
The market of marriage is unlikely to meet their demands, Shu says. White-collar bachelors, commonly called diamond bachelors, are a highly sought-after group, she says. Age and education work against single women in this competition, according to conventional wisdom.
Social norms encourage men to marry down for family comfort, while women over 30 are widely believed unfit for producing healthy children, Shu says. Over 90 percent of men think women should marry before 27, according to a 2010 survey by the All China Women’s Federation and Baihe Net, a popular dating Web site.
The rise of single, college-educated women is the result of a generational shift in 20 years, says Ni Zhijuan, a gender studies professor at Zhejiang Electronic Technology University.
"A woman’s happiness used to depend solely on her marriage," Ni says. "Nowadays, with more opportunities in education and career, marriage is no longer the only goal in life for women."
Society Coming to Terms
But society has yet to come to terms with that. As Ni points out, the Leftover Ladies term– recognized in 2007 by the Ministry of Education as a new addition to Chinese vocabulary–reflects a stereotype that judges women’s success on their marriage.
Wei, who has gone to numerous arranged dates, says these dates connect her to reliable young men outside her own social circle. Indeed, parents such as Li take pains to screen a boy’s background before arranging a date. Many require the man to hold a white collar job and own a house.
But economic status alone cannot promote marriage, Wei says. For her, these arranged dates lack the spontaneity for romance to breed.
"It’s not a bad way to know more people," she says, "but the format is just wrong."
Though she’s not hopeful of meeting her true love in these dates, Wei continues attending these "awkward meetings" out of a sense of guilt. Her mother, who used to take pride in her master’s degree, now calls her a "tragedy of idealism."
"At the end of the day, she thinks a woman’s happiness comes from her family," Wei says. "Her colleagues and friends are all grandparents now, and she feels she’s left behind."
Though she struggles with loneliness and parental pressure, Wei says her career gives her comfort. "I take pride in feeding myself with my work. It keeps my inner universe strong."
Women such as Wei represent a new generation who have developed a sense of independence, Ni says. They are pushing society to accept diverse choices in marriage and relationships.
"As these women pursue their individuality, they have to go through a phase when they rebel against marriage," Ni says. "It’s a good thing for women and for society."
But not so to Li, who ends another Sunday morning without a phone number for her daughter. She says she’s coming again next week.
"My daughter has just turned 30," she says. "It’s not too late yet."
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Jia You, currently reporting from China, is a rising sophomore at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
For more information:
"China Love Report: ‘Leftover women’ look for younger men," CNN: