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White-collar Females Cling to Trendy Single Status

Liu Li, 29, is a Doctor of Law. She works at China's highest academic organization, and has a tight daily schedule: revising essays, reading, providing legal consultancy for companies and translating books. In order to get a state scholarship for studying abroad next year, she must pass the Public English Test System (PETS) exam. Liu's boyfriend of five years works for a lawyer's office and earns a good salary. Wanting to end their marathon courtship, he proposed to Liu recently. After some heartsearching, she broke up with him. "I have so many things to do, and I am happy with my single life. There's no need to talk about marriage," she told him.

Looking back five or ten years into China's past, such a phenomenon is unimaginable. But in today's Chinese metropolitan areas like Beijing and Shanghai, a large number of well-educated and well-paid white-collar female workers are enjoying a comfortable single life.

Economic Independence and Social Tolerance

Family ethics have always been paramount in China. Being a wife is traditionally considered a woman's main role and the quality of marriage is closely connected with happiness. In the past, single and divorced women were societally snubbed, but this has begun to change.

In Beijing in 1990, the number of single people between 30 and 50 was estimated at 100,000; in 2003, the number jumped to 500,000. Single females constitute 60 percent of all singles, and according to a Horizon Research Group survey conducted in six Chinese cities, 89.94 percent of well-educated females prefer the single life.

Experts interpret the emergence of a single female group as an indicator of Chinese women's increased social and economic independence. Societal development has given way to a friendly environment to pluralistic values, different lifestyles and individual freedom.

Social transition is another important factor at work. Under the planned economy, constraints like the household registration system (hukou) made single life difficult. The welfare housing system stated clearly that only married couples qualified for government allocated housing. Regardless of age, singles could only stay in small dormitories shared by several people. To qualify for benefits, some married hastily, promptly divorced and kept the house. Today, the commodity housing system has replaced welfare housing, but there is still a certain percentage of low and medium income females who get married for the sake of apartment.

"Being single is a way of life that brings high expectations on quality of life," says Professor Yan Hong, PhD. "Some women don't want to be constrained by family burdens and children -- I am one of them." Yan, 33, is a single university professor and views marriage rationally: "Everything has two sides, and single and married life are no exceptions. No matter which life you choose, there are inevitable problems. My marital status will in no way influence my happiness and confidence."


Single females in big cities are characteristically very well educated, possessing a bachelor's degree at least, have an average annual salary of above 50,000 yuan and either work in high profit industries or hold executive positions.

Confucius, the ancient Chinese sage, once said, "Ignorance is a woman's virtue." Ironically, intelligence and high positions can be obstacles for women seeking marriage partners. Within Chinese philosophy, men are superior to women, so Chinese men want to marry women intellectually inferior to them. A current example is the rumored difficulty women doctors experience when looking for a spouse, a hot topic in today's society.

Since China resumed the postgraduate enrolment system in 1978, many women have received academic credentials. With the enlarged enrolment in recent years, the year 2003 saw a total of 100,000 students studying for a doctorate degree, 20 to 25 percent of them female. Women holding high academic credentials are popularly assumed to be unattractive and arrogant. For the majority of Chinese men, therefore, women doctors are not a popular choice.

In southern China's Nanjing City, Ai Hua, 28, is studying for a doctorate. Pressured by family members, she went to a matrimonial agency for help and gave false information about her academic credentials. "I do not care if my boyfriend's academic credentials are lower than mine," she says. "But Chinese men feel shamed if their girlfriends are better educated than they are."

Duan Mei, a well-known journalist for a famous Chinese newspaper, is in her forties. Because her journalism career has broadened her horizons, she is reluctant to marry just any man. But as the men she considers her intellectual and social equal are generally married, she prefers to stay single. "I would rather remain single than lower my standards."

Age is another barrier. Single women that dedicate their youth to career development find that when they are ready for marriage, society doesn't look kindly on older brides. In China, marriage is a difficult problem for women over 30; it is widely accepted for men to be older than their wives, but the opposite has not yet become a popular phenomenon.

"I've received pressure from my family and friends, but I don't think it's a enough reason to marry," says Yan Hong. Her unmarried state is a headache for her, and an embarrassment to her family. To escape endless nagging and save face for her parents, Yan did not go home at Spring Festival.

A Trendy Life

Free of family burdens, single women have a high disposable income, and tend to be impulse buyers. Susceptible to advertising, entertainment, and media aimed directly at them, this group has triggered the "single woman economy."

In China's metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai, there are many chic single females in well-furnished office buildings, shopping malls, salons, bars, and gymnasiums -- they represent the driving force of trendy consumption. The single woman economy has aroused general concern, and lured by lucrative market prospects, various international brands have staked out the Chinese market for a piece of the action.

A single woman's home is a key indicator of her economic strength. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf said that a room and enough money were prerequisite to a woman who wants to write. Nowadays, single females are striving for their own apartments, which provide personal space, a sense of security and are a good investment.

In the first half of 2001, the number of female apartment buyers increased by 52 percent over the same period in 2000. Based on this market information, shrewd real estate developers promoted mini apartments for the niche market, and made special discounts. With a successful market orientation, Men Vs Women, a mini apartment project designed for singles, was a huge hit in 2003; on April 20, 300 flats were sold shortly after sales began. At 7,000-9,000 yuan per square meter, they were far more expensive than the average apartment, but this did not deter buyers, many of whom were women.

(China Today April 26, 2004)    

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