Some months ago, there was a stir on social media about a new book on leftover women. Leta Hong Fincher is the veritable scholar on this subject, so was Roseann Lake’s new book taking credit from Hong Fincher by not crediting her work? I set out to read both books and compare the two since I hadn’t seen anyone else do so in detail.
Let’s start with the titles. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Zed Books, 2014) by Leta Hong Fincher tells me that her book will show how women in China no longer hold up half the sky and women who don’t marry by twenty-six are suffering from this inequality. (Up until the mid-90s, before I read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book China Wakes, I had thought China had done better a better job with gender equality than most other countries. If it wasn’t clear since then, Leta Hong Fincher certainly makes that case in her book.) Roseann Lake’s book is titled Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower (Norton, 2018) and to me sounds like it focuses on the women in China who are not marrying by twenty-six and are influential in China’s rapid rise. Both books are pretty true to their respective subtitles.
But could there be overlap? And how much and in which ways? These were the questions I was looking to answer when I read both books. I first kept my eyes open for statistics since those are easy to compare. I found similar facts on page 47 of Hong Fincher’s book and page 188 of Lake’s.
- According to Hong Fincher, “The 2011 interpretation of the Marriage Law by the Supreme People’s Court, however, specifies that upon divorce, if both parties are unable to reach an agreement on the division of property, each side is entitled to keep whatever property is registered in his or her own name.”
- And this from Lake’s book: “A 2011 amendment states that in the event of a divorce, the marital home belongs exclusively to the person whose name is on the deed.”
While these two passages are not word-for-word duplicates, the information is the same. It’s important to note here that Chinese parents strive to buy their sons property as a way to attract a bride. Even if the bride-to-be owns her own apartment, she sometimes puts it in her husband’s name so the husband doesn’t feel emasculated. The bride may sell her property and put the proceeds towards a new property she and her husband jointly own—with his name solely on the title per the custom in China. Hong Fincher doesn’t have copyright on this 2011 amendment, but this was a good place Lake could have cited Hong Fincher’s work, mostly because this information is the crux of Hong Fincher’s book.
Another part that stood out was when both authors cited statistics from Mara Hvistendahl’s fabulous book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Public Affairs, 2011).
- In Leta Hong Fincher’s book, she writes on page 22, “Mara Hvistendahl writes in her book on the global sex ratio imbalance, Unnatural Selection, about some remote parts of China with villages teeming with men, where the ratio of boys to girls had reached 3 to 2.”
- Lake expands on this on page 23 of her book. “As reported by Mara Hvistendahl in Unnatural Selection…, there are places in China like Yichun, in Jiangxi province, where the ratio is 137 males for 100 females under age 4…and in Tianmen, Hubei, it escalates to a perilous 176 to 100, or the mathematical equivalent of 1 in every 3 men being unable to find a bride.”
So did Lake lift material from Hong Fincher in this case or not cite her? I don’t think so. Mara Hvistendahl’s work was cited and it’s interesting that both Hong Fincher and Lake use this material in similar places in their books.
As a sidenote, Tianmen is next to my former in-laws’ hometown. Two decades ago, I left my AMWF marriage because I was terrified my then-husband was going to whisk our son to his parents’ home so they could raise him. I didn’t know about the gender imbalance there, but that could have been the life my son would experience had the ex and his parents had their way. It makes me shudder.
Both authors address the somewhat common occurrence of gay men marrying women but not telling their wives about their true identity. Women are desperate to get married and not become leftover women (according to Hong Fincher, this label was created by the Chinese government to get independent and highly educated single women onto the marriage track when they realized the surplus of men, called “bare branches”, was left without wives). Because they don’t want to become leftover women, sometimes women won’t ask questions when their partner doesn’t seem quite into them.
Hong Fincher writes about LGBTQ activism and how property ownership is an issue for gay men who won’t and cannot marry. I didn’t find any similar wording in Lake’s book, which talks more about the history of gay rights in China. Both authors interview women who were or are still married to gay men. In Hong Fincher’s book around page 91-92, the woman was still in denial about her husband’s need to live apart from her while he shared an apartment with a college roommate (they shared the same bed), while around page 109 in Lake’s book a woman divorced her husband after she suspected he was leading a secret life that didn’t include her.
I may have missed other similarities, but the reason for that is that these books really did seem like different stories. Hong Fincher’s book reads like a thrilling narrative that centers around property ownership and all that entails in contemporary China:
- parents not giving their daughters money for a down payment and instead giving it to a male cousin;
- how property ownership is tied to masculinity and how independent women give up their property rights or are stripped of it by Chinese custom when they marry in order to avoid becoming a leftover woman; and
- how Chinese women have enjoyed property ownership rights in the past, even going back to the Ming dynasty.
Hong Fincher also includes chapters on spousal abuse and women activists.
Lake, on the other hand, includes profiles of women she met in China and tells their stories about becoming leftover women and how they’ve tried to find suitable partners or have escaped terrible marriages. Her book is lighter in some ways, for instance when it features a bikini waxer, which segues into the section about women marrying gay men in China. I’m still not sure about the relevancy of the bikini waxer, but it gives the book a different tone from Hong Fincher’s. On the other hand, Lake writes about the mistress culture in China, whereas I can’t remember Hong Fincher discussing it at all. Hong Fincher is not so optimistic about women’s rights in China as long as the property market is skewed against them, whereas Lake views the status of women in China to be on the right track if they can find better marriage prospects or feel all right about being single for life. They both conclude that women have it pretty rough in China.
Back to the controversy: should Lake have credited Hong Fincher? I think that would have been the decent thing to do, especially since she had contacted Hong Fincher while researching her book. In her footnotes, Hong Fincher meticulously credits scholars even for a conversation about a particular detail she wrote about in her book, whether or not said scholar wrote a book she used in her bibliography. Lake admits she didn’t read Hong Fincher’s book because she wanted to form her own ideas. I would have taken a different approach, but this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of an author admit to not wanting to be influenced by outside ideas. She’s certainly not alone in this.
After thinking about both books and recently reading Mara Hvistendahl’s, the bottom line to me is this: we need more books in this space. Between Hong Fincher, Lake, Hvistendahl, we’ve seen different ways leftover women and bare branches shape China today. Still other authors like Mei Fong and Lenora Chu write about the one-child policy and how that is shaping China, too. If we can have over half a dozen memoirs written by white American Peace Corps volunteers in China, I think it’s high time we listen to women’s voices, too.