China’s Leftover Women

By: Rose McInerney

China’s Leftover Women
November 28, 2016 Rose McInerney

Leftovers are wonderful unless you’re a Chinese woman, unmarried and over the age of 25. Traveling in Beijing, I met a young Chinese woman at the airport who worked for Ritz Carlton Hotel. It was Cherry’s job to help me navigate customs and collect my bags before delivering me to the waiting hotel car. She was ebullient and beautiful; immaculately groomed in her petite, champagne-colored, silk pantsuit.

We struck up a casual conversation and Cherry congratulated me on my happy marriage. She shared her worry about being single and I offered what I now consider totally useless advice. I mumbled something about not rushing love and the joys of being single. She would have been better served with a $5 discount for Kentucky Fried Chicken, a popular fast food chain in China.

As a Westerner, I understood Chinese family life to be patriarchal but I knew nothing of the challenges facing single women in a country where marriage is expected. Young, unmarried women are ostracized by family and considered “shengnu”, meaning leftover women. They risk not fulfilling their conjugal duties as a mother and a wife in a culture where marriage is a sacred tradition.

I learned about shengnu when I travelled on to visit Shanghai and saw an article about SK-II; a beauty cream banned in China in 2006.  Lu Ping, a Chinese national sued the Japanese beauty company because the beauty cream caused a skin rash and for false advertising promises because her wrinkles did not improve1. China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine found chromium and neodymium in the product. These heavy toxic metals can cause dermatitis, skin rashes and damage to the eyes, liver and lungs.

chinese-woman-bikingChina is a huge consumer market and instead of trying to repair the marketing damage caused by the scandal, SK-II is causing a new stir by its recently released YouTube video, Marriage Market Takeover.

SK-II’s campaign, questioning traditional attitudes and promoting the empowerment of Chinese women, encourages women to embrace their inner beauty. The company is enlisting single women to raise their voices and help change the way they are viewed by themselves and by society simply because they are unmarried.SK-II’s decision to market its beauty cream as a catalyst to embrace young women’s shifting values, empowerment and ability to shape one’s destiny, is gathering support.

The video says it all and I can’t help but think two things:

  • This is a brilliant but obviously risky and challenging marketing scheme; and,
  • The message could become a very powerful discussion tool for women’s confidence and creating change in the Chinese culture.

Please share your story or thoughts about Shengnu. Can a beauty cream’s marketing campaign make a difference?

  1. “SK-II’s Viral Ad is Empowering Single Women in China”,


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