In China’s biggest cities, single Chinese women who number by the thousands live two lives: the life of a modern and successful woman in a modern society, and the life of a Chinese girl still bound by the expectations and rules of the same society’s age-old traditions. It is a very thin line between these two lives that they have to walk, and eventually they reach a fork in the road and have to choose which life to continue living.
Just walking this thin line between their two lives is, more often than not, nearly an impossible task. There are instances when they actually have to be on just one side of the line or on both sides at the same time. As they near their 28th year, it becomes harder and harder to balance the two lives. They have to make the difficult choice of either being a traditional girl and turning their back on what they have accomplished, or being a modern woman and carrying the stigma of the sheng nu.
Most of these women came from single-child families. Their parents pushed them to excel in school, to get higher education, even pursue masters’ degrees and Ph.D.s, and then to find a well-paying job and succeed in their chosen profession. They are their parents’ investment and insurance for a secure future.
Of course, reaching these goals takes years. Most achieve financial stability by their 25th or 26th year. By this time, however, they are also nearing their maximum marrying age. Having been so focused on their education and then their jobs/careers, they never had time to socialize, much less date and find a mate.
Traditionally, a Chinese woman is eligible to marry when she’s 22, and she’s expected to be wed and have a child before she turns 28. Before the women of China were given the opportunities to better themselves and pursue success and financial independence, they had all the time they needed to search for a suitable husband way before they get “too old” to marry.
Back then, their marriage also served the purpose of securing their and their parents’ future and continuing the family lineage. So they really didn't need to attend a college or university and look for a stable job; all they had to do was find a husband who will support them financially.
Fast forward to the present, and we have successful and independent women of China who find themselves pressured by their parents to find a suitable husband and being very short on time. If they don’t find a partner by their 28th year, it will be extremely difficult for them to find a man who will still consider them as a suitable wife, mostly because Chinese men are still very traditional when choosing a mate.
At the same time, their higher qualifications also give them very limited options. To be more accurate, the number of Chinese men who would not find them intimidating or threatening (mostly to these men’s egos) is very small. Traditional Chinese men prefer partners who are not just younger, but also have fewer and/or lower qualifications than they do.
If they choose the traditional path, it will most likely mean giving up their job/career so they can devote all their time being a wife and mother. It will also mean that they will have to rush finding a partner and marry the next suitable man that comes along; they can no longer afford to search for their Mr. Right, much less wait until love comes along.
If they choose the modern path, it will definitely mean being judged by their society, even their parents, and being rejected by the men. The longer they stay single after their 28th year, the harder it will be for them to find a husband, and the harsher the ridicule they will have to suffer.
In an ideal world, these women can actually have the best of both worlds. They can keep their job/career and continue being successful at what they do and, at the same time, also have a family. They can wait until they find the right person, and men will not find them less desirable just because they’re already in their thirties and just because they are successful and independent women.
In fact, they will be even more desirable as a life partner, given the life experiences they have acquired, their maturity, and the significant contributions they can make to the family in terms of future security.
Unfortunately, current Chinese society is not such an ideal world. Most of these modern women eventually face the dilemma of living one life and abandoning the other. Perhaps one day soon, they will be able to enjoy the best of both worlds.
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