The term “Sheng Nu” is a controversial one. The term, written in Chinese, translates to “leftover woman” which is interpreted exactly how it is written. Women, who mainly reside in the populous cities of China like Beijing, are referred to as leftover women if they are not married by the age of 27.
Due to China’s prominent history of gender imbalance, those women are considered to be the reason and the solution for this issue. While most of the men who reside in Beijing are already married, most of the women who also reside there are not. This is due to those unmarried men living in rural areas which are quite far out from the country’s inner cities. The inequality of Chinese men and women is shown in more ways than one in Leftover Women, a documentary by award-winning filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia set to premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Together, Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia collected the stories of three successful women from China who all have one thing in common: they are not married. Leftover Women follows the daily lives of each woman who are not as different from each other as they may believe. All three women are dealing with their own personal battles in addition to the pressure to get married from society and even their own family and friends.
As a lawyer, Qiu Hua Mei is 34 years old and what most in China would not consider to be beautiful. The film opens with Qiu Hua visiting a dating counselor who insists that Qiu is attractive but does not China’s conventional idea of beauty. Qiu is secure with herself and knows what she wants. She can appreciate the purpose of having a companion or bearing children but has no real intentions on making it happen at anyone’s pace but her own.
Qiu leaves the counselors office a bit defeated but not enough to give up. Similar to this, Xu Min is only 6 years shy of Qiu’s age and single. She frequently attends the government hosted national speed dating fairs held in Beijing and the “marriage markets” held in the city’s local parks by the parents of potential suitors. While she is more proactive in the search for a potential husband, she has her reservations about finding a suitable match for herself. With an overbearing mother, that clearly loves her daughter but has a hard time understanding another perspective that is not her own, and a father who just wants to see her happy, Qiu embarks on a difficult journey of exploring her desires while trying to satisfy everyone else’s.
Unlike these other ladies, 36-year-old Gai Qi is just hours away from getting married. Gai is an assistant professor at Beijing’s Normal University. Although Gai decided to submit to what is expected of her, she is nowhere near naïve. Throughout the film, Gai seems to come to terms with her reality. She is aware that she does not need a husband but she believes it would be best to have one for security. She understands the value in having a husband but does not entirely believe that they are as much of a necessity as society has tried to convince her.
While someone being single or unmarried in their late 20’s is something that is not that hard to believe in western culture, China and its government have made it a priority to promote a demoralizing and harmful ideology that reigns supreme in a patriarchal society. The dating fair that Qiu attends in the film is one of the many governments sourced tactics meant to shame unwed women in to “finding the right one”.
The Knockturnal spoke to the directors of Leftover Women, Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, about their perspective Sheng Nu, China’s hand in enforcing the terminology and why placing a biological stopwatch on women only enables outright misogyny.
The Knockturnal: What inspired you both to pursue this film? Were either of you able to relate to the women in the film, or personally know someone who could relate to the women in the film?
Shosh Shlam: When we decided to research this phenomenon, we put an ad in [Sina] Weibo, which is the Chinese Twitter, advertising that we were going to make a documentary of this phenomenon. Women just called us and came to meet us, but not all of them understood that when you do a documentary you have to shoot them. Some of them came just to share their pressure and their panic being a leftover woman. So, this was our first research of meeting women and we met many of them. Not only were they willing to be filmed, we also needed permission from their parents because some of the pressure does come from the family.
Hilla Medalia: We did something a few years ago called Web Junkie about internet addiction in China. When we finished the film, it premiered at Sundance and Shosh said to me “let’s do another film in China” and I said “Eh… I don’t think so”. But, there were a group of Chinese feminist activists and they were arrested for 30+ days and when we heard about that, is when we decided to do our research and learn more about the situation of women in China and that is how we came to learn about the leftover women phenomenon.
The Knockturnal: Why do you think the social stigma of Sheng Nu has become such a big deal?
Shosh Shlam: The term was coined by the All-China’s Women’s Federation in 2007. The All-China’s Women’s Federation is a part of the government. It’s supposed to protect women and one of the big reasons that the Chinese government decided to stigmatize these women is because the Chinese government is facing demographic issues. Today in China, there are 30 million more men than women. It is a big threat to society’s stability. So, the government decided to start a very organized campaign through social media to send out these sexist messages and, in a way, this is the revival of the gender inequality in China.
To find out more about Leftover Women and filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, visit www.tribecafilm.com/festival.