Roseann Lake: 'I was fairly sick of the term "leftover", to be honest'

We chat to the author about her controversial book on leftover women

First popularised over a decade ago, 'leftover women' or shengnü (剩女), is an epithet commonly ascribed to Chinese women in their late twenties (and beyond) who remain unmarried. In Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower, author Roseann Lake argues that it is these women who are in fact the ultimate linchpin to the country’s economic future.

In the weeks following the book’s publication, Lake has received a torrent of criticism from Twitter’s China-watching community for her failure to cite Leta Hong Fincher, whose work Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China is considered by many to be a seminal text in the field. In light of the allegations, we spoke to Lake about her book and the controversy surrounding it.

What initially drew you to the topic of leftover women?
The fact that I was surrounded by them. I was working at a TV station in Beijing and all of my colleagues fell into this ‘leftover’ category, though I didn’t realise this until Chunjie. Watching them return to the office in low spirits after visiting their families, I was struck that such a promising population of women could be called by such an unsavoury label. These women should be the toast of the nation, why are they being called this? And with the surplus of men in this country, why is this happening? Those were the two big questions that I set out to answer.

It's a complex topic to unpack, so what was your starting point? Was it talking to your colleagues?
My colleagues couldn't unpack the topic for me, there was just so much that they didn't get. They didn't understand the geographic breakdown of where these surplus men were, and they didn't understand they were part of a generation that was very different. They knew that they had more opportunities than their mothers and grandmothers, but it wasn't really crystallising in their minds what that meant for their marriage and professional opportunities. Marrying together their stories with research was my way of trying to make sense of it all.

Why do you believe the Government propagates the idea of leftover women?
They may have at the beginning, but I've always struggled to see that side of it. A lot of women – in urban areas, that is – don't pay particular attention to the All China Women's Federation. The All China Women's Federation is without a doubt powerful and important, but most of their work is conducted in rural areas helping women get access to micro-credit. And ultimately, the Government understands that these women aren't bad for the economy. They're destabilising in the sense that they're not getting married and it's leading to a different type of household, but from an economic perspective, they're pretty good.

They're actually much better than leftover men [referred to as guanggun 光棍, or 'bare branch'], who are a bigger problem. And people who I've spoken with in government are not nearly as worried about women as they are the men, who typically have a low income and lower prospects. Ultimately, leftover women will be okay. Not all of them are going to find a Mr Right, but they will have food, they will have jobs, they will probably lead fulfilling lives or they'll marry someone else. At worst, they'll leave the country leading to a potential brain drain – but they're going to survive. The leftover men are your bigger problem and it's been my sense that that's where the Government is more concerned.

Why is the onus more on women than men to get married?
We see it more for the women because it's more of a chronological matter. For the men, it's financial. Leftover men and leftover women have equally strong pressure to marry, but different social expectations. For women, it's about time and biology, so there's more of an urgency to get it done by an early age. For the men, it's not so much the expectation to be married by 27 or 30, it's to accumulate a certain amount of wealth so that you're considered desirable on the marriage market.

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Leftover women are commonly characterised in Chinese media as picky or selfish, but that doesn't seem to be what you found researching this book.
There are certainly women who are picky, but I didn't feel that overwhelming sense from all the women I had spoken with. It's not so much about being picky, or salaries or education – that's just part of it. More than anything – and what I think the Leftover Monologues really conveyed – is that rather than a label, being leftover is a mindset. Ultimately when you distill it, being leftover is about standing up to societal pressure to get married, to have children, when to settle down, all of those things. More broadly defined, I think it's a powerful, empowering term. It's actually good for everyone to have a bit of that leftover spirit in them because it means you're going to compromise and concede less.

Women's Day is an important holiday in China, and Mao also famously once proclaimed 'Women hold up half the sky'. Why did China make the shift from viewing women as vital to now less than?
My sense is that it was about being pragmatic. This idea of women being equal has certainly been embraced, but at the same time, it was a particularly convenient thing to say because Mao wanted to build a nation and he needed as many hands on deck as possible. It didn't matter if they were men and women – they needed bodies, they needed hands and they needed brains. None of the actions taken during the Cultural Revolution were done in the name of improving the lives of women, of educating them or even giving them equality. In a similar way, none of the factors that have given this population of leftover women greater access to education, such as the One-child Policy and China's economic growth, have expressly been to empower women. Any sort of feminist advances and equality that women received in China were more of a by-product of the means to build a nation.

How important are leftover women to China's economy?
I think they're a crucial part and I think that's ultimately what will save them from being reprimanded too harshly. As China transitions itself to a different kind of economy – from less manufacturing-based to more knowledge-based – the talent of women that already exists here is going to be a vital part of that. And the Chinese Government is, if nothing else, pragmatic. If they take a hard look at what their economy needs, as well as particular patterns in other East Asian economies that took off in a similar way China has, they'll see that the one recurring mistake was that women were not involved in the formal economy like they are here. And China's already got that. They're steps ahead of Japan, South Korea and Singapore, so if they stay on that path, good things can happen. It's not certain that they will, but I'm also stupidly optimistic.

Why does this subject resonate with women around the world?
It’s a universal topic. When I first started pitching my book, agents dismissed it as 'too Chinese'. I was never crazy about that response because what happens to China’s women has the potential to set the tone for a lot of other countries. When I met the women in my book, we were of a similar age, and it struck me that for a professional woman dating in Beijing, her life is more similar to a woman’s in New York than a woman’s in rural China. It’s an interesting commentary on globalisation. In China, it’s 25, 27 or 30 that you’re a leftover, but in other countries there are terms like ‘Christmas cakes’ and ‘New Year’s noodles’ [no one wants you after 25 or 31]. There’s this pathological stigma against women who aren’t married.

Since the release of your book, you've been criticised for not citing Leta Hong Fincher's research, particularly after she previously shared research with you.
So the unpublished paper that Leta shared with me was about how women are being shifted out of the property market. It was the basis of her thesis at the time and I referred to it in an article I had written for Foreign Policy where she's cited generously. But then as I continued to conduct my own research, the stories that women were telling me were not that they were getting shut out of the property market, it was more that they were inheriting and purchasing property. I didn't encounter women who were too scared to be on a deed or to stand up for their rights, so her work was no longer relevant to what I was doing. When I was in contact with her, it was during a time that I didn't have as deep an understanding, hadn't spoken to so many women and didn't have the personal touch of the interviews that I received as I progressed.

Do you believe it necessary to have cited her simply to mention that your work is in response to hers?
If I were an academic, sure. If you’re an academic, you have to engage with everything; it means engaging with Sandy To and many others – Leta’s not the only one to have written about this. If I were an academic, I absolutely would have, but it’s a journalistic book for a general audience.

You do delve briefly into the property market, was that influenced at all by her research?
No, because these were stories that were influenced by the researchers I cite, such as Wang Feng and researchers from Columbia who did a considerable amount of research on bachelor villages, phantom third-storey houses and what the property market looks like for leftover men. That story became particularly important because that's what was reflected in what I was hearing first-hand from women. I have plenty of research on property, but it's from researchers whose work is relevant to the stories I'm telling.

You’ve also been criticised in certain circles for not engaging with what many consider a seminal text in the field of leftover women. Why did you not read Leftover Women?
If Leta had published her book in 2011 or 2012, I would certainly have read it. However her book came out in 2014, and I already had a full draft by that stage; I’d been working on this topic since 2010, and two years later was shortlisted for the M Literary Prize based on my book proposal. The Leftover Monologues actually came about as a response to me having a draft of the book, and this niggling feeling that while I had done my best to tell the stories of the women I met in the book, they told their stories better themselves. By the time Leta's book had been released, I had developed, quite fully, my own ideas on this topic, was leaving China, and was looking for a publisher to have my work fine-tuned.

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You've mentioned previously that you intentionally did not read her book because you wanted to focus on your own stories. Were you ever concerned about a potential overlap in research or subject matter?
No, because from a fairly early stage we've taken pretty different views on things. So, no, it wasn't a concern.

Have you read other works in the 'leftover' field?
Before the release of her book [China's Leftover Women: Late Marriage Among Professional Women and its Consequences], Sandy To – who Leta has also accused of plagiarism in the past – had a big piece of work on leftover women that she published a year after Leta and I didn't read that either. It was more academic than my work. I had read Sandy To's earlier work and I'd found it informative, but there was nothing I needed to reference so I didn't pull from it. If you look carefully at the research I cite, there are South Korean researchers, Japanese researchers and Singaporean ones because I draw parallels with other parts of the world, while the parts that take place in China are very narrative-driven – they're driven by the stories of the women I interviewed.

I’ve since had a look at Leta’s book, simply because being accused of intellectual property theft is a very serious accusation. Hers is more about women who are afraid to be leftover so they get married, women shafted out of property, and government intervention. I don’t cover those things. I talk about women who are standing up to the term 'leftover' and reinterpreting or reclaiming it. There’s actually very little overlap, even in regards to our bibliographies. While I understand everyone's hung up on this idea that they’re the same because they both include the word 'leftover', it’s just a descriptor.

There's also a broader dispute about an article that you had written for Salon in 2012 where you're accused of borrowing heavily from a previous piece Leta had written for Ms Magazine.
I've just been accused of intellectual property theft for a book that has just come out now. There's no evidence of plagiarism, so people are reverting back to a piece I wrote six years ago. Leta mentioned she didn't raise any issues about the article at the time because she was scared and intimidated, but at that point she was on her way to getting a PhD and was married to a New York Times reporter. I was a 24-year-old writing for Salon. She's also failed to mention that after the article was published, she emailed me directly saying thank you for citing her in the article [Leta has since posted a screenshot of their email correspondence on Twitter].

At the end of the day, The New York Times, NPR and The Atlantic had all started covering leftover women around the same time or before either of us had. I'm not claiming to have invented the term 'leftover women' or to be some pioneer. We're journalists, covering different aspects of the same topic.

You mentioned earlier that you had different ideas for the title.
I wanted to call it Maiden China, but my publisher wasn't having it. I was actually fairly sick of the term 'leftover', to be honest.

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