Sovereign Health Group Blog

China’s ‘leftover women’ and the effect on mental health

06-11-16 Category: Mental Health, Relationships

China's 'leftover women' and the effect on mental health

Mao Tse-tung started it. In speaking of China’s Cultural Revolution, he declared, “Women hold up half the sky.” Around 50 years after that statement, it appears the sky is falling on millennial Chinese woman.

Shengnu, translated as “leftover women,” is a derogatory term that stigmatizes women who are 25 or older and unmarried. Shengnu are branded as selfish spinsters, stubborn outsiders and incomplete women.

Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, Ph.D., draws from the book “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” and warns, “These women with education, jobs and a decent income are frequently pressed to make choices that diminish their power and prosperity and leave them vulnerable to abuse.”

Verbal abuse from parents, physical abuse from a spouse and mental distress from the inequitable pressure and injustice plague China’s millennial woman.

The leftover women uncovered

A video sponsored by beauty brand SK-II exposes how confounded parents of leftover women frequent Shanghai marriage markets as often as health-conscious Californians peck through curbside farmers markets. To the chagrin of their grown children, parents broadcast and barter photos and profiles of single adult sons and daughters.

Like a Disney tale of triumph, the video culminates in the leftover women publicizing their affirmation of independence with the parents emotionally accepting their daughters’ wishes. In reality, it’s not so simple.

Gender facts of China

  1. Researchers recently interviewed more than 2,000 men. More than 50 percent of native Chinese males confessed to physically or sexually abusing their female partners. One in 4 reported having raped a woman. One in 25 admitted to participating in a gang rape.
  2. Chinese women’s empowerment made great advances since the founding days of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949: from being bound and molded as property to the sudden announcement of gender equality. Blue-collar women hailed as “iron girls” were the building blocks of the new China when manpower was low.
  3. Gallup poll surveys from 2009 to 2012 highlight 70 percent of Chinese women are employed or seeking employment.
  4. Male child preference remains. Combined with one-child policies, it has created its own conundrum. In 2014, China was home to 33 million more men than women.
  5. The long-running controversy over the country’s family planning restrictions, selective abortion and abandoned baby girls came to a head just last year, when China repealed the one child restriction, but by now imbalance is in full swing.
  6. The Chinese government’s news agency reported the gender imbalance is higher than all other countries: nearly 116 boys born to every 100 girls in 2014.
  7. Women’s studies professor Wang Zheng, of University of Michigan, was a movie star during China’s revolutionary heroine film era; she speaks of the paradigm shift. “The government paid attention to the negative consequences of this one child policy only when our research shows that there’s a terrible sex ratio imbalance. Female infanticide was not a concern of the government, but a man cannot find wife is a concern of the government.”

The real issue is the plethora of leftover men. Nevertheless, propaganda churns out billboards of young women in wedding dresses; at home many parents continue to shame daughters for the disrespect of not finding a husband. In the aforementioned video, parents harp on daughters with statements such as:

  • “Don’t be cruel to me [by remaining single]!”
  • “I won’t die in peace unless you’re married.”
  • “If she can’t find someone it will be a heart disease for me.”

The mental health toll

Research explored in our previous article on Chinese parenting and psychology demonstrate traditional authoritarian parenting is “counterintuitively planting seeds of psychological damage.” The common process of shaming children for not following parents’ traditional standards can have a serious impact in mental health, and not just for the females; first-born males mentally suffer as well.

Research confirms that authoritarian pressure manifests as increased psychological maladjustment, lower academic achievement and attainment, acute depression, low self-esteem and alienation from parents.

Moving out of China would not remedy the psychological damage any more than putting clean clothes on a dirty child would wash him. Real mental health solutions are necessary.

Therapy for affected individuals

The discussion on mental health and the toll of injustices has been in play since the 1990s. In “The Praeger Handbook of Social Justice Psychology,” Laura Smith and Riddhi Sandil explored oppression as a pathogen for mental disorder. They detail the awakening, participatory development and action items to bring therapy up to par with this global health issue.

“The potential for therapists to be unhelpful and even harmful through an unexamined, exclusive reliance on conventional psychotherapeutic methods” she writes, is because “our theory and practice are at best culture-bound and at worst oppressive” and “the vast majority of us were trained according to conventional psychotherapeutic models. The 50-minute individual talk therapy hour, derived from White middle-class culture, remains the primary tool in most therapists’ toolboxes.”

Smith and Sandil describe several therapy models that could benefit Shengnu.

  1. Critical psychology parses the cultural and historical determinants narrowing psychological treatments from oppression cues
  2. Social justice psychology gained momentum from an early enthusiast, George Albee, Ph.D., who upheld many mental disorder deviations are actually symptoms of oppression
  3. Liberation psychology spotlights oppressive social conditions with particular focus on internalized oppression, social transformation, communal healing and liberation
  4. Critical social work subscribers are remarkable, the authors affirm, for “their unshrinking willingness to engage in unambiguous sociocultural analysis”


Smith and her fellows explain therapists can approach treating the emotionally disturbing “human consequences of life in an unjust society” by participatory action: plan, act, observe and reflect.

The authors encourage this framework – along with community collaboration – will infuse elasticity to the “little-questioned psychological tenets.”

The Sovereign Health Group keeps you abreast of mental health issues all over the world. America is the great cultural melting pot and each individual here carries his or her own unique societal contribution. Therefore, Sovereign Health customizes treatment to each individual with mental health, addiction, eating disorder or co-occurring issues. Call our 24/7 helpline to learn more.

About the author

Sovereign Health Group staff writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at

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