By Jess Fenton
14th June 2019

Between 1979 and 2015, China implemented the One Child Policy. Sure, population control seems a gross violation of human rights, and yet they’re also a country of (currently) 1.3 billion people, so it kind of makes (sad) sense. But with hindsight being 20/20 you, me and Bobby McGee can see what was going to happen. As a result of this policy and China’s population favouring boys over girls, the country now has entire generations left with a gross gender disparity, and thus a vast number of its male populous that will see out their lives unwed and childless. While both sides feel the pressure to marry, it’s the women that suffer from their families as they’re the baby makers, and yet are still seen to a certain extent as the weaker sex. Therefore these days, despite there being 30 million more men than women, the government pressures women into early marriage, with those still single in their mid-20s and over being labeled as “leftover women”. There are government-sanctioned Marriage Markets, Singles Fairs, the whole shebang. Parents wander the streets and line up in city square holding placards with their children’s bios on them in the hopes of finding them a mate. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s nuts! But from the inside, it’s just life.

‘Leftover Women’ is a documentary that follows three such women. Qiu HauMei is 34 and a lawyer. She doesn’t particularly want to get married or have children, plus her high level of education, occupation and feminist ideals make her an unappealing partner. That and the fact that she’s told by an "expert" that she’s "not beautiful enough", at least in a traditional sense. Is your blood boiling yet? Next is Xu Min, the 28-year-old radio host. Seen as on the cusp of being a leftover woman, she has some deep-seeded mother issues that prevent her from finding a suitable husband. Then there’s Gai Qi, a 36-year-old Professor of Film and TV. Taking care of an ill parent in her 20s prevented her from entering the "market", so now she’s considered over the hill. However, she’s found a partner in a younger man and is now pregnant. Socially, this age difference is seen as a bit of a no-no, but since she’s no longer a leftover women it’s willing to be forgiven (to an extent).

Prepare yourselves for a way of life we never knew existed - not just from a “leftover women” perspective, but Chinese life in general. Throughout this film, everyone speaks to each other with such frankness and honestly, almost as if it’s void of emotion. But we also see them get worked up and shedding many tears during these conversations, and we therefore know it’s highly emotional, just on a level we aren't aware of. It’s so fascinating. Parents speak of marriage as such a happy event and an opportunity to have a family - yet the approach is like buying a car or a business merger. And once you’re in it, it’s viewed as perfunctory and boring to those involved, yet comforting is better because it’s safe, as though they can finally breathe. It’s such an old-fashioned way of thinking, played out with modern women. That dichotomy is mind-blowing to watch but so deeply sad at the same time. Caught between the old and the new, culture and duty versus what you want and should have, we see it all via these three women.

Prepare yourselves for a glimpse into lives and a way of life we never knew existed.

But here’s the catch-22: this “leftover women” problem or the outdated social view isn’t going to be fixed overnight. In fact, I don’t even think it can be fixed. It needs countless generations to outgrow it; talk to me again in a century or so. But it also means that this documentary doesn’t really have an ending. Qiu HauMei is the main focus of the film and her story is seen as an ending or sorts, while the other two women almost fade away and we’re expected to be satisfied as viewers. Instead, I was left angry, sad, frustrated at the stories.

The “leftover women” generations are fascinating and an issue that’s now on my radar, but this is now the second documentary I’ve seen on the subject in the last few weeks. Both had the same conclusion - which is, there isn’t one. Can you live with that?

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