Leta Hong Fincher: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China


Leta Hong Fincher, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality
in China (Asian Arguments series), London & New York: Zed Books,
2014, 192 pp. ISBN: 978-1-78032-921-5 (paperback).
This book examines the resurgence of gender inequality in China with a
focus on residential property. Leta Hong Fincher argues that real estate
is an important indicator of women’s socio-economic status in urban
China since ‘Chinese consumers have very few places to invest their
money, so most people invest it in a home, which is the most valuable
family asset and worth much more than income alone’ (p. 5).

The author begins her investigation by looking into the so-called ‘leftover woman’,
a derogatory term used to refer to ‘an urban, professional female in her
late twenties or older who is still single’ (p. 2).

By analysing various of- ficial media news reports and television programmes, the author shows how the state-sponsored ‘leftover woman’ campaign stigmatizes single
women in their late twenties and presses them to ‘rush into marriage
with the wrong man’ (p. 16).

Consequently, women also ‘make excessive personal and financial compromises’ (p. 6) in conjugal relations in order to keep the marriage.

Home real estate, for the most part, is registered under the man’s name; married women have no legal home-ownership rights and are therefore deprived of their equal share in ‘China’s urban real-estate boom’ (p. 11).

The book consists of an introduction and six chapters. In the introduction,
the author outlines the theme of the book, her main argument,
and the scope of her investigation.

Chapter 1 examines the state media campaign regarding ‘leftover’ women since 2007. It shows how the campaign promotes marriage and hence serves the overall political agenda of the state: to maintain social stability and upgrade the quality of the
population.

Chapter 2 focuses on the impact of the state ‘leftover’ women
campaign and examines how the fear of being ‘leftover’ has propelled
many women to ‘give up too much bargaining power within the marriage’
(p. 12).

Chapter 3 analyses gender inequality within the extended
family and explains why many parents favour their sons or even male
relatives in home buying instead of their daughters.

Chapter 4 looks back into Chinese history and shows that ‘more property was transferred
to women’ (p. 12) during the Song Dynasty.

Chapter 5 pinpoints the connection between women’s lack of property rights and domestic violence, showing how women’s bargaining power within marriage is
likely to be reduced if they do not have an equal share and control of
the home as an asset.

Chapter 6 examines how the Chinese authoritarian state contains women’s rights movements and how gender and women’s rights activists, especially the LGBTQ community, ‘find ways to fight back against entrenched gender discrimination’ (p. 13).
One strong point of the book is the author’s shrewd analysis of
how the state (official media and television programmes, including
the All-China Women’s Federation, the state institution for women)
orchestrates a pervasive campaign about ‘leftover’ women on the one
hand, and how home buying was created as a middle-class dream by
the joint force of the media, property developers and the matchmaking
industry on the other hand.

Urban women in their twenties are thus caught in a dilemma: they must hurry to get married and establish a standard middle-class home-owning family before it is too late, but they run the risk of scaring the husband (or husband-to-be) away if
they insist on co-ownership of the marital home.

This seems to be a zero-sum game for the potential ‘leftovers’: either to get a husband and give up your property rights or to fight for property rights and lose
your husband.

Furthermore, Leta Hong Fincher shows how the idea of home ownership, as ‘a defining feature of masculinity’ (p. 84) and a marker of middle-class men’s success, couples with the traditional view of men as the household head and hence the owner of family property, giving men a far more advantageous position in home ownership than
women.

The books illustrates very well that gender inequality in today’s
Chinese society derives from multiple sources and is often a combined
result of state guidance, market development and the perpetuation of
traditions.
Another interesting point of the book is the author’s analysis of
domestic violence in light of property rights. The book is also thoughtprovoking
in comparing women’s property rights today to that in the
Song dynasty and arguing that today is no better than the past.

The author’s dismissal of ‘linear progression’, however, opens a whole new
space for rethinking the historical conditions for gender equality and
the relationship between the pace of social evolution and the trajectory
of gender equality.
One weak point of the book is that not all the author’s arguments are
well grounded and thoroughly documented.

The discussion of women’s property rights in the Song Dynasty, for instance, mainly relies on the work of two historians, Bettine Birge and Kathryn Bernhardt, without
any first-hand historical documents.

It is also a pity that the question of why women enjoyed strong property rights in the Song Dynasty is only mentioned but not elaborated, for the question is so vitally important for understanding how and under what circumstances imperial Song fared
better than women today.

In discussing domestic violence, Leta Hong Fincher shows convincingly that weak property rights make it difficult for a battered woman to leave a marriage, but the statement that ‘partner violence . . . is the worst possible outcome for a woman who rushed into marriage with the wrong partner out of fear of becoming “leftover”’ (p.
162) is highly questionable.

Violence can happen anywhere and to anyone, even in a marriage between two seemingly well-matched partners, and violence shall and must never be attributed to a woman’s ‘wrong choice’.

Moreover, the interviews cited by the author provide neither
substantial nor representative empirical evidence to show that the
occurrence of partner violence has to do with ‘women’s rush into marriage
with the wrong partner’.

The closing chapter shows how women’s rights activists and the LGBTQ community resist the authoritarian state and how some single women ignore the ‘leftover’ women campaign

 

Qi Wang
Associate Professor, PhD
China Study Program
Department of Design and Communication
University of Southern Denmark