All the sin­gle ladies

The World of Chinese - - Bookmark - – HAN RUBO (韩儒博)

In the pub­lish­ing world, “provoca­tive” usu­ally means good, “con­tro­ver­sial” is better, and “banned” al­most guar­an­tees “best­seller.” On the other hand, “so­cial me­dia sh*tstorm,” can go ei­ther way—de­pend­ing on who’s kick­ing it up.

The pub­li­ca­tion of Roseanne Lake’s Left­over in China: The Women Shap­ing the World’s Next Su­per­power, was greeted with a so­cial me­dia squall over at­tri­bu­tion— or the lack of it. Sayre’s Law dic­tates that aca­demic cock­fights are vi­cious “pre­cisely be­cause the stakes are so small”; re­place “academia” with “China ex­perts” and the com­par­i­son holds firm.

Lake’s book comes at a con­tentious time for women in China. There’s sus­tained and in­creas­ing pres­sure for young fe­males to put aside ca­reers and set­tle down (in a het­ero­sex­ual part­ner­ship, nat­u­rally); sin­gle moth­ers are of­fi­cially frowned upon (see p.28); child­less par­ents are crit­i­cized (p.40); and some lesbians marry gay men in or­der to fit in (p.43).

Amid myr­iad draw­backs, Lake ar­gues, one ben­e­fit of the one-child pol­icy was that it forced par­ents to give their daugh­ters “more re­sources, op­por­tu­ni­ties, and lib­er­ties.” Many of th­ese women grew up to be highly ed­u­cated, fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent, pos­i­tive, and pro­gres­sive con­trib­u­tors to China’s grow­ing econ­omy. Yet, sup­pos­edly, those who re­sist the siren song of mar­riage be­ing spurned and la­beled shengnü (剩女), “left­over women.”

The term is preva­lent in ar­ti­cles, stud­ies and books on Chi­nese gen­der is­sues. Now, it’s nearly a decade old and clichéd, and one wonders whether it is still as mean­ing­ful. Lake ex­am­ines the ques­tion—and stu­diously fails to ac­knowl­edge the con­sid­er­able archive on the topic, in par­tic­u­lar Leta Hong Fincher, whose 2014 Left­over Women: The Resur­gence of Gen­der In­equal­ity in China is, rightly or wrongly, of­ten con­sid­ered the bench­mark work on the topic.

That con­tro­versy has been well-hashed by Twit­ter, leav­ing only the mat­ter of rel­e­vancy: Does Lake sub­stan­tially add to the canon? It may not be “Fac­tory Girls meets The Vag­ina Mono­logues,” as the jacket gushes, but Left­over in China’s ap­proach of fol­low­ing the pri­vate lives of an en­gag­ing quar­tet of fe­male sub­jects (plus a few oth­ers) sets it apart from Hong Fincher’s more rig­or­ous or re­con­dite mus­ings, which in­cluded a whole chap­ter com­par­ing mod­ern and Song dy­nasty gen­der tropes.

In­stead, Lake fo­cuses on fa­mil­iar top­ics from the Chi­nese dat­ing world. We visit mar­riage mar­kets in pub­lic parks and meet em­bar­rass­ing moth­ers who pose as daugh­ters on dat­ing sites in or­der to find them a part­ner.

Lake’s nar­ra­tive style leaves her free to fo­cus on what re­porters usu­ally do best: telling sto­ries. Her cast (Christy, Zhang Mei, Ivy, June) is cu­rated with al­most box-tick­ing soap opera logic—the mis­tress, the PR girl, the coun­try girl made good, and the lawyer ed­u­cated over­seas. Her ac­count of mod­ern Chi­nese his­tory is solid, though res­o­lutely su­per­fi­cial; the se­ri­ous reader is un­likely to find a sin­gle ob­ser­va­tion or in­ter­pre­ta­tion that hasn’t been al­ready made by a scholar and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally retweeted.

The book’s rai­son d’etre re­lies on its Chi­nese nar­ra­tives—although the voice they are couched in can be, at times, irk­some. The dou­ble stan­dards and prej­u­dices en­dured by th­ese women are in­iq­ui­tous, but Lake’s nar­ra­tive voice of “be­mused Amer­i­can out­sider” can border on con­de­scen­sion. It’s a voice that gently but con­sis­tently re­minds the reader that its sub­jects are per­pet­ual vic­tims, to be pitied and hope­fully res­cued, rather than agents forg­ing their own path.

More­over, Lake makes cul­tural as­sump­tions with­out ques­tion or ex­pla­na­tion: Is sajiao (撒娇)—women de­lib­er­ately pout­ing, whin­ing, and throw­ing tantrums—sim­ply about mak­ing male part­ners feel more “chival­rous” and “manly,” as she as­serts? And if so, why not ex­plain the prac­tice in the con­text of Chi­nese so­ci­ety (es­pe­cially as Lake as­sures us the idea “might sound un­con­scionable to most Amer­i­can women”)? For­tu­nately, due to the rel­a­tively in­ti­mate por­traits of the four women, and some amus­ing anec­dotes through­out, Left­over in China man­ages to stand on its own, rather than be­ing the over­cooked left­overs its ti­tle (and some crit­ics) have sug­gested.

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