Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher

29th May 2014

Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher
Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher intrigued me instantly as a concept, that in the 21st Century, women in the most populous country in the world face social and governmental pressure to be married by their mid to late-twenties or risk being “leftover” (shèngnǚ).

I find the idea of Spinsterhood slightly archaic. If anything it makes me think of  great fictional characters like Bridget Jones and Miss Havisham. To me, there’s something about the idea of a woman having to ‘settle down’ to marriage in her mid-twenties that sits quite uncomfortably with our different and diverse lifestyles as modern women.

We’re known (and loved) at For Books’ Sake for championing many different brands of feminism, but of course it’s easy to forget our subjective position, which for me as a Western woman is very different to that of a twenty-something woman living in Beijing or Guangzhou.

I was keen to know more so jumped at the chance to review Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China by Leta Hong Fincher which investigates how Chinese women negotiate a patriarchal society and where finding a husband before your late-twenties is a very real pressure.

To be a “leftover” woman in China is to threaten social stability, argues Hong Fincher, who believes that the term is concocted by the ruling Communist Party to promote certain demographic goals in China’s ‘race for economic growth at all costs’.

The book is published by Zed Books whose titles aim to promote alternative and diverse voices particularly on issues of sexuality, gender, social change.

The content is the result of two and half years of research undertaken by Hong Fincher during her Ph.D at University in Beijing and investigates the links between China’s real estate market, namely women’s property rights, and gender inequality.

Leta Hong Fincher, through her clear presentation of evidence, is giving voice to the women of China who believe that the way they are treated both in their personal relationships and by wider society is not okay.Leta Hong Fincher quickly establishes in her work that real estate is one of few viable investments in China and so many young people desire to be home-owners in order to achieve a sense of economic security and middle-class identity.

However, it is still very much ingrained in Chinese society that it is the role of men to own any property and thus money and assets still pass largely to sons, sons-in-law, nephews and male cousins.

This means that women forfeit a lot of their power within marriage when their husbands sign as sole owners of a property. This is staggering given that often these women or their families have paid tens of thousands of RMB towards the property.

Women’s property rights flourished in the Song dynasty which is why the book argues that China is now seeing a resurgence in gender inequality.

The book discusses the phenomenon of “leftover” women and women’s property rights in the initial chapters but then goes on to contextualise how it is part of a much bigger problem for Chinese women by looking at property rights in ancient China, modern domestic violence and LGBT activism.

So in some ways readers get a lot more than they bargained for; the breadth of knowledge is certainly an insight to those new to Chinese culture, but also felt like it could have been structured more coherently.

Perhaps an overview of the history of women’s rights would have been better coming earlier on in the book and then working chronologically forward as oppose to backward.

It felt like there was a lot of repetition in the early chapters before zipping through the gritty (and to me, the most interesting ) chapters. The book unfortunately does read more like a collection of essays that really needed a stronger narrative to bind these different but timely social themes together.

There are many points in the book that can make for compelling but also uncomfortable reading; from China’s preoccupation with population planning policy and “quality” rather than quantity of citizens, to the stories of women who have been nearly beaten to death by their husbands only to be ignored by police and law courts.

Leta Hong Fincher, through her clear presentation of evidence is giving voice to the women of China who believe that the way they are treated both in their personal relationships and by wider society is not okay. As one of her respondents argues in her story, ‘the system is designed to make you give up’.

This book is just one interpretation of the situation in China as it stands, there are of course other viewpoints but the literature is still sparse. The book at times suffers from being overly-academic in tone (heavy on facts, dates).

That said, I truly admire Leta Hong Fincher for tackling such important issues in a country where the voices of vulnerable women are smothered by the authorities. She writes with real integrity and remains professional  when her research has come under fire on social media (usually from men, shocker!) for an overly simplistic comparisons between ancient and modern China.

I would argue that any controversy surrounding the book is a good thing; I would hope it draws a wider audience of women and men to interesting gender issues that some would prefer we do not interrogate and scrutinize!

Have you read Leftover Women? What did you think? Leave us a comment and let us know.


  • Danielle Roper says:

    This sounds really interesting. Will put on my ‘to read’ list 🙂

  • Alexis Somerville says:

    Sounds interesting. I lived in China a few years ago and it’s really good to see someone tackling these issues.

    • Marie-Claire Conlin says:

      Oh wow! I’m v jealous – I’m determined to visit and spend some time travelling there. I think you’d love this book!