Roseann Lake’s “Leftover in China” and Leta Hong Fincher’s “Leftover Women” Compared

A huge thank you to Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife, for this comparison review of Roseann Lake’s Leftover in China and Leta Hong Fincher’s Leftover Women.


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.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife.


Leftover in China and Leftover Women are available at Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.

5 Awkward Things for a Longtime Married Couple in China with No Kids

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I’ve got a secret to share with you.

Remember how a couple of weeks ago I mentioned John and I just celebrated our 10th marriage anniversary? And remember how we subsequently met with our friends at a nice Hangzhou restaurant on said anniversary?

Our friends who dined with us that evening had no idea it was our 10th anniversary. (We actually told them it was a dinner to celebrate my birthday – which was true, in part.)

It’s crazy, I know. And you might be wondering, Why would they hide such an important anniversary from their friends in China?

Because in China, it’s incredibly awkward to be married for 10 years and not have any kids. So awkward, that my husband just doesn’t want to mention it to his friends or even talk about it with people we know (like a friend’s mom we walked through the park with the other night). It’s funny how something that made me feel so proud could actually make me feel embarrassed at the same time.

For those of you wondering what that awkwardness is like, here are 5 things that reflect the challenges of being a married couple of 10 years in China with no children:

1. You will need a coping mechanism for the many times people ask you, “Why don’t you have children?”

In the US where I grew up, this sort of question is mostly off-limits (unless you have one of those really nosy relatives who doesn’t know the meaning of the term “off-limits”). In China, it’s par for the course. After all, this is a country where “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” are a Chinese equivalent of asking “Are you well?” – ways to show your care and concern for someone else.

Well, believe me, when people find out we’re married but have zero children, they look INCREDIBLY concerned.

This is a culture that believes marriage and children are as inseparable as Beijing duck and those tasty little pancakes – you just cannot have one without the other. Chalk it up to Confucian values, particularly filial piety. In fact, of the three unfilial actions, the worst of all is never having kids (which are the next generation to care for the elders and worship the ancestors).

When I hear this question – “Why don’t you have children?” — the flippant side of me desperately wants to say, “Mind your own business!” But that doesn’t go over too well with most people, as you can imagine.

Sometimes I just say, “Because we don’t.” Sometimes I tell people, “Because we can’t,” and leave it up to them to figure out what that means. Sometimes I just change the subject. But more often, if my husband is with me, I just leave the answering to him!

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Me and my mother-in-law.

 2. You will need to find your inner courage whenever your mother-in-law suggests you’re an “old maid”.

I love my mother-in-law to pieces, but whenever we return back to the family home after a long hiatus, she immediately brings up having kids and then tells me I’m “too old”. After all, we’ve been married for a decade and I’m over 30 (30 is the official “expiration date” in China for having kids).

I know what you’re thinking, it’s just her opinion and it’s just a bunch of words. But things like that have a way of wiggling into your subconscious and tugging on your insecurities. Before you know it, you’re wondering, “Am I too old?” Or worse, you follow this whole train of thought to its depressing end – often something involving you curled up on your bed crying away a perfectly good afternoon.

It takes a LOT of courage to fight through these awkward moments and find your inner confidence. I still don’t have a magic bullet to deal with suggestions that I’m too old. What I have found, though, is that moments of just being present – taking a walk through the park, or focusing on my breathing – can help me feel more comfortable with where I am right at this moment.

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 3. You will dread going home for holidays like Chinese New Year, when all of your husband’s peers from school come over to visit – with their school-age children.

Unlike us, my husband’s peers jumped on the baby bandwagon almost immediately into their marriages (including a friend whose wife was famously pregnant and showing at their wedding – a bridal bump I had the chance to witness with my own eyes).

So whenever Chinese New Year comes around, they come around to visit as well – with, well, their young and even school-age kids.

Actually, for the most part, his friends and peers don’t give us pressure. It’s their parents that do – parents who will compare us to John’s peers and then pelt us with all sorts of uncomfortable questions or comments (usually of the “Why don’t you have children” or “You’re too old” variety) when they notice we have no little ones in tow. The whole situation completely strips all of that sepia-toned nostalgia from the idea of “home for the holidays”.

We were able to dodge a lot of these questions this year, because most people were just glad to see us back in China. But next year? I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Deep down a part of me is secretly saying, “Help!”

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 4. You’ll feel isolated from your friends with kids – and instead gravitate to friendships with other people who “don’t belong”.

Don’t get me wrong, we love our friends with kids. But sometimes being around them can feel a little uncomfortable, particularly when they – with well intentions – bring up the topic of us having kids. Sometimes we feel like we don’t entirely belong to the same club, if you know what I mean. So of course, we inevitably gravitate to our other friends who feel as if they “don’t belong” in Chinese society.

In particular, one of our best friends in China is Caroline, who happens to be what people call a “leftover woman.” “Leftover women” and “leftover men” describe people of a certain age in China (over 27 for women, 30 for men) who haven’t married yet. They also feel as out of step with China’s society as we do, because it’s just not normal in China for adults to be single.

We’ve always loved Caroline, our mutual friend who introduced the two of us years ago. But maybe we feel even closer to her because she’s like the ultimate safe space where we can vent about the awkwardness of our situations – hers not being married, ours being childless.

I feel like I’ve come to understand Caroline’s pain every time someone else pelts her with that unwelcome question: “Why aren’t you married yet?” She’s even shared with us some of her less-than-pleasant encounters with the question, encounters that make her angry and frustrated, and I feel her. Because to me, the question isn’t all that different from “Why don’t you have kids yet?” It’s a question that also singles you out, that divides you from the world, that reminds you of something you lack or something that perhaps you even desire but cannot have.

The other night, she told John and me about this one ridiculous girl she used to work with (“ridiculous” was her description) who kept interrogating Caroline about things that could easily have been ripped from a list of the “10 most cringeworthy questions in China”: Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you own an apartment? Why don’t you have a car?

“What do you want to hear from me?” Caroline said to this girl (surely in a voice that was getting dangerously close to angry). “That I’m unable to find someone? That I have no money?” Somehow, just hearing about Caroline’s courageous, “take no crap” response to this girl made the three of us erupt in a cathartic burst of laughter. In these moments, we always feel a little less alone and isolated.

 5. “Being married for 10 years with no kids and living in China” will become one of the scariest things you write about.

For the longest time, I never wanted to go public with this topic. It scares me because it’s such a personal thing – and one that weighs on me on a regular basis (for many of the reasons I mentioned above). Why put it out there and risk having more people tell me either 1) You’re too old for kids or 2) What’s wrong with you?

But one of the things I’ve learned from my husband is the importance of self-acceptance. This is who I am – a woman who has been married to her Chinese husband for 10 years, lives in China, and has no children. Will I be like this forever? Honestly, I really don’t know for a lot of reasons I can’t share on this blog. But regardless, I must face my reality and embrace it – in all of its awkwardness. And for the moment, maybe that’s enough.

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This is who I am, red-starred hat and all!

What do you think?