Highlighting China’s “Leftover Women”: ‘Feminist’ advertising in China?

Marriage can be a fierce topic, dissected, debated and fought over throughout history. Numerous dialogues including religious interpretations, LGBT rights, the legal age for marriage exist across the world. However just one aspect of the cultural and societal pressures around marriage has recently been given a new platform thanks to a documentary-style advertisement by skincare company SK-II: China’s “leftover women”* (剩女 shengnü).

*Edit: I wanted to add that at the time of writing this blog post I was inexcusably ignorant to the pioneerong academic foundations of the term ‘leftover women’ by respected scholar Leta Hong-Fincher. I apologise for my ignorance and wanted to come back to this post to make it as properly-referenced as possible! Her work is in-depth, inspiring, so so important towards the field of womens’ studies in China, and I think vital to reference in any medium covering leftover women. I have learnt a lot from her work since writing this article and I recommend anyone who stumbles upon my blog post to educate themselves further on the topic starting with Leta Hong-Fincher’s article for Ms Magazine here.

The term ‘剩女’ shengnü (leftover woman)

Simply put, the term shengnü  is an amalgamation of the Mandarin Chinese words 剩下 shengxia (‘leftover’) and 女人 nüren (‘woman’). The name is argued to be derogatory by many, not least because of the similarities to discarded objects such as 剩饭 shengfan and 剩菜 shengcai (leftover food), but due to the negative social repercussions of the women it refers to.

According to a definiton in iciba.com, the term ‘shengnü‘ was first recognised by the Ministry of Education in China in August 2007. The website claims it describes a highly educated, highly paid and highly intelligent woman who encounters difficulty in finding a spouse due to her high expectations.

Taking a slightly more objective approach, duhougan.com merely states that the term refers to “a young unmarried woman who has not found a suitable partner.”

User @hylovewzy1 writing in Baidu Zhidao also refers to alternative names such as “3S women”, an abbreviation for the words “single”, “seventies (the majority born in the 1970s)” and “stuck”.Although many women under pressure to marry can now even be born as late as the 1990s, the sentiment is arguably similar.

While these definitions appear to imply that women have a desire to find a marriage partner, this could be a reflection of the weighted assumptions behind women’s expectations, life goals and careers in China and elsewhere in the world. The contemporary nature of the issue now appears to have prompted the consumer market, notably by skincare company SK-II, to tackle the debate head-on.

A caption from the advert reads “I don’t want to get married just for the sake of it, I won’t be happy.” Photo from Weibo user @南荀张生

The advertisement

Skincare company SK-II, a Japanese skincare company launched in the 1970s, has recently been embarking on a campaign under the hashtag #changedestiny, accompanied with various uplifting videos, slogans and even an advertisement with Chinese actress Tang Wei, urging viewers to “let go of what others want you to be” to further the call for self-determination.

However, the one video from the campaign that captured the internet’s attention released by SK-II on the 6th April, entitled SK-II: Marriage Market Takeover (video on both YouTube and Youku). The reason behind the explosion of press coverage appeared to be the emotional addressing of one of China’s growing phenomenons: the “leftover woman.”

The advert begins with smiling childhood pictures of the featured women seemingly contrasted with foreboding quotes from parents: “Don’t be so free-willed,” a voice sternly warns over the image of a young woman in her graduation gown.

One of the women proceeds to explain the term shengnü and the negative connotations behind it, along with other emotional testimonies of the social and familial pressure on women over the age of 25 to get married or else face being seen as “incomplete.”

A central feature to the advert is the exploration of China’s “Marriage Market”, which runs weekly in People’s Square in Shanghai. As the advert explains,  it is a huge gathering where concerned parents of unmarried children can advertise for a spouse, often listing their children’s income and possessions as highly advantageous factors.

However, rather than advertising themselves for marriage, the women featured in the advert instead take the opportunity to appeal to their parents to understand their way of life and to ease the pressure to marry. This contrasts with the previous assumptions that all single women in China have the desire to marry or meet a partner. The advert proceeds to recognise the “confidence” and “independence” of these women as the focus of their identities rather than their unmarried status.

A woman featured in the advert tearfully addresses her feelings on the issue. Photo from Weibo

Is this the beginning of feminist advertising in China?

This isn’t the first time sensitive topics have been dealt with by the medium of short film in China. For instance,  two years ago Quentin Lee directed a public service announcement called Wedding Plan that detailed the pressure on China’s gay and lesbian citizens to find a spouse of the opposite sex.

Nevertheless, the key difference here is that an advert challenging social expectations in China has the backing of a huge brand name. The advert does not however directly address the effect that “leftover woman” stigma has on members of the LGBT community.

SK-II posted the video on their Weibo page, one of China’s largest social media networks. The response was an overall positive one, with the top rated comment by user @期待一趟旅程精彩万分 reading: “I remember watching a film a while back, it for opinions on the term ‘leftover women’…your spokesperson Huo said not to use this term to describe them [women], it is their own choice…and now your film supports independent women, perfect.” Interestingly, this comment and its subsequent support could be highlighting the importance of consistency when companies address social issues.

In relation to this topic, some have argued that despite the uplifting and emotional nature of the ad, the message can be overshadowed by the fact that the distributors are a skincare company that ultimately focuses on women’s beauty. Twitter page Women in ModernChina analysed a possible corporate trend for companies to use feminism in order to push their products towards a target market, also known as ‘femvertising’:


Despite this analysis, it is notable that the company did not openly push their products as a ‘solution’ to the issue, but their name was clearly displayed at the end. As well as this, the advert is part of the umbrella #changedestiny campaign by SK-II which also spreads the name of the brand.

On the other hand, the ad has provided a platform for discussion over one of China’s largest cultural hot topics. Notably, the subject has been peppered with tearful admissions, apologies and reconciliation. This does seem to strike a difference with the way single unmarried men are discussed in China. While the term 剩男 shengnan (leftover man) does exist, it is more common to see single men jokingly named 单身狗 danshen gou (single dog) with accompanying internet memes and spoofs. The topic appears to garner a lot more humour than that of single women, which could reflect the interpretations of severity in either situation.

Other brand names may well follow in the footsteps of SK-II in tackling societal issues, particularly those affecting women. While the ad did not address intersectional perspectives such as economic factors and LGBT issues in marriage, it has certainly started an online discussion on marriage and identity in China. The question is whether these campaigns will actually invoke social debate or merely be a short-lived internet hot topic.


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