Sheng Nü – ‘The Patriarchy’ Comes to China

By Pickup Culture

crying woman

Crying woman in China, the basis for the SK-II viral video.

This video has been around for a few months, but it’s still getting a lot of play on social media.  It came onto my Facebook feed just as I was writing up an article about the PUA phenomenon in China.  I couldn’t resist trying to change the tack of the conversation in the comments section, but I still got slammed by a lot of first- and developing-world feminists whilst doing so.


‘Sheng Nü’ is the name for the so-called ‘left-over’ generation of women in China – those who embody everything Western women are taught to be: modern, independent and happily single.  The main difference between the way spinsterhood is treated in China and in the West is evidenced by the comments on social media about the video, a selection of which are featured in the promotional pieces in news stories – they all characterise Chinese attitudes to marriage as backward and ‘patriarchal’.

Though I’m not overly supportive of the shaming tactics the parents use to cajole their daughters into marriage – clearly, they are not successful – I would say that this kind of campaign only works as part of a grand ‘feminist’ narrative in other parts of the world because it plays on the emotional susceptibility of women.

The film invites us to identify with the single, urban, educated women in the film.  They are not rural, poor or by any other means hard done by.  They have a particular freedom that their parents did not enjoy: the freedom to date and be single.  That’s all well and good, but the social pressure to marry is one that burdens them much more than it does the society or their families as a whole.

But seriously – they are not being forced to marry at gunpoint, as some women in other parts of the world tragically are.  It’s not the threat of ‘patriarchal’ violence that brings us into the film, but rather something more emotionally appealing – the tears of a young woman.  For a young woman’s tears evoke such sympathy from both men and women, in a way that the depiction of a man’s suffering simply cannot.

Guang Gun – ‘Bare Branches’

Anyone who knows anything about Chinese society, and can do some very basic maths, will know that the One Child Policy in China has produced far more ‘left over’ men than women.   Though it’s fair to say that their plight hasn’t been completely ignored by the Western media; the lives of these Chinese bachelors don’t make for such interesting social media campaigning.

These men are referred to as ‘Guang Gun’, which translates to English as ‘bare branches’ – a slight on their masculinity, not being able to add the fruit of a child to their deep-rooted family trees.  Though guang gun fall under different demographics, most of them live in poor ‘bachelor villages’ throughout China’s vast countryside.

Consider the following story about one such village in Hainan Island, and how the problem of bachelorhood is framed compared to the story of the more urbane Sheng Nü.


The video touches upon some of the reasons for the guang gun phenomenon, in particular the gender imbalance caused by the One Child Policy.  The ‘expert’ in the video correctly talks about the restrictive cultural stigma associated with being a 30-something bachelor.  But the farmer in the first part of the film also identifies a much stronger biological impetus for the change: women fleeing the countryside to work in the developing cities.

As these young women leave behind their rural menfolk, to pursue better paying jobs and husbands, the society as a whole is temporarily driven forward.  But such development in China comes at a longer term demographic cost, and that cost is one of population atrophy.  This is part of the worry that the parents in the first video share, that their daughters leave no lasting legacy for their families or communities.

Market distortions… emotional distortions?

But such personal stories are hard to contextualise within the much larger picture of national growth and decline – a multi-generational process.  Whilst the effects of China’s colossal labour market decline won’t be felt for some fifteen to twenty years from now, when it kicks in it will be just as devastating as it has been for Japan and Western Europe.

Though the bachelor of Hainan Island struggles to hold back his tears at the end of the film, all to the sorrowful sounds of the Chinese harp, his crying is not a match for the tears of the young Sheng Nü from uptown Shanghai.

Both of these films capture different emotions in post-One Child Policy China – male loneliness on the one hand, and female dejection on the other.  That sense of dejection is more powerfully felt than the blue-pill loneliness of the rural workers, particularly through our feminised social media.  The biological drive for material comfort is stronger in women, and that is perfectly natural.

What is not natural, and what is much harder to convey in a short film, is how these distortions in the marriage market emerged in the first place.  In China that distortion occurred through the One Child Policy, a policy that itself was enacted to deal with decades of disastrous population planning under communist rule.  The distortions in the West, of excessive welfare spending and broke governments, create a very receptive audience that can sympathise with the emotions of this new breed of modern, and very single, independent women.

The origins of emotions

Whist we feel emotions in intensely personal ways, it’s interesting to note just how contextual those emotions are – created through historical, government and economic realities.  The mothers of the Sheng Nü acted on the same emotions that their daughters do today, but were compelled to marry out of necessity and be happy with that decision.  Let’s not forget that their tears also come from a place of deep self-interest.

Understanding this, and knowing how these greater forces interact with our very basic biological selves, is a useful place to start when engaging in any Facebook debate about teary-eyed single women in China.  Sometimes you can’t argue with biology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: