Grace Jackson reviews Leftover in China by Roseann Lake
First coined in the Chinese media over a decade ago, “leftover women” (剩女 shengnü) is the epithet in China for those women who have failed to attract a husband by their mid-to-late twenties and early thirties, and are considered by their parents and Chinese society at large to be flirting perilously with spinsterhood. Much ink has been spilled in the Anglophone sinosphere over this invented category, and the latest addition – plagued by accusations of using uncredited inspiration from an earlier work – is Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower by Roseann Lake. A vibrant survey of marriage and dating in contemporary Beijing, the book is supported with research and interviews, and peppered with personal insights into the romantic lives of China’s educated, urban and doggedly unwed young women.
Journalistic in her approach rather than thesis-driven, Lake nonetheless argues that single working women in China are “the ultimate linchpin to the country’s rise and development.” As the offspring of parents “forced” by the one-child policy to value their daughters, these women, according to Lake, have been given access to financial and educational resources – and the attendant parental pressures and expectations – traditionally reserved for sons in China. And despite the burdensome persistence of traditional values, she finds cause for celebration in the independence and ambition of these women, who are leaning in to careers and lifestyles their grandmothers can barely conceive of.
Lake, who spent five years in Beijing and is currently The Economist’s Cuba correspondent, grounds her story in the personal lives of four women. 34-year-old Christy holds a master’s degree in English and runs her own public relations firm in Beijing. Zhang Mei, 28, moved to the capital from her native Harbin after graduating from college and works as a Chinese teacher, counting Lake among her students. The first thing we learn about Ivy, 27, is that she “earned her English name from the first married, moneyed man she ever slept with”; she attended a prestigious drama school but realized her “new calling as a mistress” after drawing the attention of a man who showed up to a party in an Aston Martin. Finally, June Ma, a 27-year-old lawyer with a degree from Yale, strategically “hikes up the virgin factor” on first dates with Chinese men, despite being no shrinking violet. It is Lake’s prerogative to frame her subjects through their romantic proclivities and feminine wiles. But in a book that seeks to subvert the assumption that a woman needs a man, it is jarring that our introductions to Ivy and June are mediated through their relationships to men.
An exuberant narrator, Lake whirls us through vividly-drawn scenes, and her vignettes accrue to a kaleidoscopic view of the pressures and possibilities of life as a single woman in a booming Chinese city. We travel in time as well as space, learning for example about the unmarried female silk-reelers of nineteenth-century Canton, who used their economic power to resist marriage and motherhood. Her own character as narrator oscillates between roving journalist, confidant to her female friends, and would-be matchmaker, while the tone ranges from bawdy mirth to bone-dry sarcasm. Often Lake is charming and funny, but sometimes her reflexive levity is so forceful that it counteracts the inherent gravity of her subject matter. After recounting how a 35-year-old investment banker likened his fiancé to “plain yogurt” that he can “flavor” and “manage” as he likes, Lake deflects with humor, describing how she felt unsure “whether he was engaged to a human or a dairy cow.” In other contexts, her chirpiness becomes defensiveness: “I mention this not to be grim,” she tells us after citing data on China’s high female infant mortality rate, “but to convey a more complete sense of the accrued surplus male population.”
For those familiar with sociologist Leta Hong Fincher’s pioneering work on the shengnü category, the relentlessly upbeat tenor of Lake’s treatment might come as a surprise. As will the decision not to cite Hong Fincher’s research, in particular her 2014 book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. Given Lake’s bibliography – which includes news clippings from the Daily Mail, nonfiction books, articles from scholarly journals, and academic monographs – this omission is baffling. In response to online speculation about her motivation, Lake released a statement claiming that while she is familiar with Hong Fincher’s work, she actively avoided reading Leftover Women “because I was working on the manuscript for my own book, and I chose to stay focused on the stories of the women whose lives I feature in it.”
To ignore a book that deals with the same subject as yours – let alone one that pioneered the field – out of fear that it may derail or distract is, at the very least, poor journalistic practice. Lake’s book would have been richer, and her claims more convincing, had she acknowledged Hong Fincher and engaged with the research contained in Leftover Women and Hong Fincher’s many other articles and op-eds published on the same subject, the first of which, in 2011, appeared several months before Lake first published on the topic. Lake’s publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, has so far not commented publicly, but the website ChinaFile has taken down an interview with Roseann Lake, saying that they didn’t “feel confident” of the book’s journalistic integrity. At the very least, any future reprintings of the book could credit Hong Fincher, whose own new book Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China comes out in September.
Hong Fincher has described Lake’s failure to cite her work as “erasure” rather than plagiarism. We reached out to Hong Fincher for comment, and she provided an account of her contact with Lake, beginning after Hong Fincher’s 2011 article was published:
“Over the next few years, [Lake] continued to email me, asking me specific questions about my PhD research on “leftover” women. … I shared with her an unpublished conference paper, which was a microcosm of what became my critically acclaimed 2014 book. … She promised to cite me if she used any of my findings. She appeared at several of my conference presentations and book talks. After my book came out in 2014, she sent me another email congratulating me and saying that she wanted me to sign a copy of her book. She continued to mislead me for many years by promising to cite me and praising my research and making me think that she was some kind of admirer and friend. … This deliberate erasure of my work and my crucial help with her work – which she deliberately sought out – made it appear that she was the pioneering author on this topic, and general readers would have no way of knowing anything about my groundbreaking research. I feel profoundly betrayed by her bad faith and am very upset about her deliberate erasure of me, which is symptomatic of the very common phenomenon of the erasure of women writers of color.”
Lake takes her own path through conceptual territory first opened up by Hong Fincher, referring to guanggun (“bare branches,” the surplus male population created by selective female abortion, a product of the one-child policy where families favoured boys), luohun (“naked marriage” between two people without financial assets), and xingshi hunyin (a “functional marriage” between a lesbian woman and a gay man to present an acceptable front to society). University entrance requirements that discriminate against women are also mentioned, as well as the Supreme People’s Court’s 2011 interpretation of the marriage law, which states that a marital home belongs to the party whose name is on the deed – in China, usually the man. The deleterious effect of this decision on women (who often contribute significant savings to the property purchase), especially divorcees, is a cornerstone of Hong Fincher’s research. Lake, for her part, keeps her focus on the social and domestic pressures borne by unmarried women, citing an anecdote in which a boy’s wealthy parents called off his wedding to a less-than-affluent girl, after the bride-to-be’s family insisted on adding her name to the deed of a marital home that the boy’s family had purchased.
If Lake’s strength lies in her ability to get close to her subjects and reveal the everyday texture and drama of their lives, her blind spot is the larger political context of sex and marriage in China, which is Hong Fincher’s bread and butter. Midway through the book, Lake describes a 2013 meeting with a lawyer who had challenged the requirement of certain universities that women have higher test scores than men in order to be admitted. “Until it was closed in 2016,” she writes of the lawyer’s workplace, “the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center was one of China’s most important non-profit organizations for enforcing gender equality.” But Lake declines to mention the reasons for Zhongze’s closure, which the New York Times reported as “part of a continuing crackdown on civil society.” The services provided by the center included support for female victims of domestic violence and legal advice for women fighting for child custody and property rights.
According to official data (cited by Hong Fincher in Leftover Women), one quarter of China’s women have experienced domestic violence, making it statistically likely that at least one of Lake’s four subjects will need those services at some point in their lives. Why would Lake omit the political context for the center’s closure, a detail that the non-China expert for whom she writes would be hard-pressed to guess? One explanation is that it would complicate the curiously depoliticized picture of women’s struggles in China that Lake sketches in her book.
While they cover similar terrain, Lake and Hong Fincher diverge sharply in emphasis, sensibility, and perspective. Where Hong Fincher finds structural backsliding in the cause of gender equality in China, Lake is buoyed by the tenacity of her unmarried subjects. She closes the book on a hopeful note, declaring that despite the slate of usual concerns about pollution, rights and corruption, she is “rooting for China.” Lake offered a modified version of this attitude in her written response to the controversy surrounding her relationship to Hong Fincher’s work. “We are all rooting for the same women,” she signed off – subsuming the pertinent questions of journalistic practice and integrity into a posited, irreproachable sisterhood.
That Lake conflates the fates of her characters with the future of their country is not surprising – the book is subtitled “The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower,” after all. But is rooting for China the same thing as rooting for “leftover women”? Hong Fincher’s research suggests otherwise. Lake’s admiration for her subjects is clear, and sincerely felt. But by “rooting” for the women she profiles, she denies herself the critical distance necessary to ask larger questions about the social and political forces acting upon them. And by declining to root for a female China scholar of color who paved the way, Lake tarnishes her own feminist credentials. “Modern China is like a giant episode of Sex in the City,” remarks June Ma in the book. The same could be said of Leftover in China: savvy and entertaining, perhaps, but ultimately more comfortable reproducing the paradigms of gendered normativity than interrogating them. ∎