Leftover Women: The Revival of Gender Inequality in China

May 21, 2019
Directors Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia’s new documentary explores female oppression in China.

Set in Beijing, Leftover Women is an enlightening documentary made by award-winning Israeli directors/producers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, who have made films together and alone.

Their new film focuses on sheng nu, a derogatory term for women who turn twenty-seven but still haven’t married.

The directors chose three top-notch subjects, all with successful careers. Qui Hua Mei, 34, is a lawyer, whose attempts to find a man who believes in gender equality have invariably ended in disappointment. Meanwhile her entire family, which still resides in the village where she was raised, tries to guilt-trip her into marrying so it won’t be shamed anymore. Despite their relentless pressure, she resists. Xu Min, 28, works for a public radio station. She attempts to find a match at marriage events and contests, but her mother rejects all her choices. Gai Qi, 36, is a film professor at Normal University. A feminist, she has a jaded view of marriage. But she meets a man on the subway, and though he is younger and comes from a lower class, she agrees to marry him.

During the Tribeca Film Festival I had a chance to speak with Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia about their compelling new film and their three female subjects.

Your Directors’ Statement in the film’s press notes begins with outrage: “The One Child Policy in China encourages gendercide, and the result is that 66 million girls are missing.” I don’t consider Leftover Women an angry movie, but do you?

Shosh Shlam: No. It is a movie that gives a voice to women who feel pressure to marry from two directions: being part of a very traditional society in which children are expected to obey their parents and marry and have children; and being used as a tool by the government to minimise the threat to stability caused by there being thirty million more single men than single women these days in China.

Hilla Medalia: It’s definitely not an angry movie. Shosh and I did a documentary called Web Junkie about twelve years ago and we wanted to go back to China. In 2015, there was an event at which activists were arrested for handing out leaflets about sexual harassment. So, we decided to return to China and look into women’s rights, and we came across this phenomenon that we knew nothing about. Obviously, it’s unique to China and the pressure is so strong on young women there to get married, but it happens in many societies around the world, obviously in traditional societies and even the orthodox Jewish society but even in the West. Women have different pressures to conform. I always use as an example: when I come to Tribeca and Hot Docs and leave my two kids for two weeks, people go, “Ah, what are you doing?” If my husband did the same thing, nobody would say anything. There are a lot of pressures women have, including to get married.

Hilla Medalia

SS: It’s very important to mention that the term sheng nu in Chinese, and leftover women in English, was coined by the All-China Women’s Federation that is a part of the Chinese government. It is now an official term used in a campaign orchestrated by the government with sexist messages toward these unmarried women. I think this is the revival of gender inequality in China today.

You say the Chinese “government went so far as to launch a campaign to stigmatise unwed women.”

SS: It’s a big shame for the family if your daughter or son is not married. Parents with a traditional way of thinking put pressure on their daughters to marry, but also the government’s message is being directed at all parents. It is not just parents who are at match-making events and marriage markets searching for matches for their children, but the government is involved as well as organisers. So, tradition and political issues are combined. You can’t separate the two. It’s scary because women in China are pushed into marriage and there is a 50% divorce rate.  And that they are pushed into loveless marriages results in a lot of domestic violence. That’s another problem China is facing these days. Three years ago they established laws to protect women, because women who had complained about their husbands were told to go home and make peace with him, and they were unprotected. This phenomenon has many consequences.

There was a recent documentary called A Suitable Girl. It is about how women in India are pressured into marriage and how it’s likely that they will then give up successful professional careers and just stay in the home, as their new husbands expected.

SS: If you ask a Chinese man, even one who has been abroad and exposed to different cultures, the kind of women he prefers, he will tell you “a woman who will raise my children and stay home.” Chinese men are very traditional in their ways.

You mentioned earlier that this film follows Web Junkie, but, Shosh, I think your 2005 film, Be Fruitful and Multiply, which is about ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in Jerusalem being pushed to have baby after baby, is more the origin of Leftover Women.

SS: Be Fruitful and Multiply is a mirror of this. We have two conservative societies where women are oppressed. In my earlier movie, the women become baby-machines to fulfill this commandment by men. Having literally 17 children, giving birth year after year, these women suffer a lot of depression after giving birth and they have shorter life spans than the men. In China women are pressured to get married by 25, there [Jerusalem] they are pressured to marry at 18 and right away they become mothers. It’s similar.

Shosh Shlam

HM: As far as the film goes, it was a hard process to find protagonists. We posted we were searching for unmarried women and a lot of them came. They wanted to talk and share their situations, but the problem was that they did not want to be filmed. And when women agreed to be filmed their families wouldn’t allow it. Qiu Hua Mei, the lawyer, was one of the first we filmed. It was more difficult finding two others. We narrowed it down and finally went with Xu Min and Gail Qi.

My favourite scene in your movie is when Qui Hua Mei has a date with a man from the country. At first, she is cheery and hopeful because they seem to have a lot in common. But then he says that in his family he wants to be the dominant figure. And we see her face change from enjoyment to disappointment.

SS: We called him “The Chauvinist.” When she found out he was from the same province, she was excited and had hope.

One reason she finds him promising is that he tells her that his mother is the Queen in their family and that his father treats her with more respect since she started earning more money than him. Hua Mei probably likes hearing that because as a lawyer, she could make more money than him. 

HM: What’s important to know is that because she comes from a village, it’s much harder for her to find someone who is educated and successful. That added to her excitement.

SS: She could find someone as educated as she is, but he must come from the same background. If he comes from a higher level, a higher class, he and his family won’t want her because she came from a village.

It’s interesting that it’s almost always the mother who pressures the daughter into marriage, although she herself was forced into a marriage when she was young.

SS: It’s always like this, in every culture. Always it’s the mothers.

Do you think the mothers understand even to a small degree that they are doing something harmful to their daughters? 

SS: They believe 100% that they are doing the right thing. Hua Mei told us that when she was born, her mother was upset that she had another daughter. The grandmother wouldn’t even come see the new baby because it was another girl. Her mother couldn’t deal with having another girl and all during Hua Mei’s childhood, she would insult her, telling her “You don’t look good,” or “You don’t belong to our family.” And when Hua Mei finally brought someone home, she was told, “If you marry him, I’m not your mother anymore.” They have had a complicated relationship.

HM: On the one hand she’s sad and upset by the pressure her parents are putting on her to marry and she’s fighting them, but on the other hand, she has a lot of respect for them, she wants to obey them, and she doesn’t want to disappoint them. So, she has these complexities within her.

She says she loves them and doesn’t want to “cause my parents worry.”

SS: They are proud of her for being the only one in the family who studied and got an education. When she tells them she wants to leave for France to study, they encourage her. But they won’t stop pressuring her because she is still single. That’s forever.

HM: Or until she gets married.

It says in the press notes that each of the three women goes through a transformation. What is Xu Min’s transformation?

SS: She stands up to her mother for the first time. She tells her how feels and reminds her that she rejected every boy she brought home.

It’s a great scene, so intimate and powerful, and their argument escalates. I have never seen a scene like that. How were you able to silently be in that space with them during their very private moment and film it?

HM: You have to be very sensitive. You have to know when to step back and when to go in. That is the art and skill of documentary filmmaking in general.

SS: This was a very personal scene, so, yes, we had to film it with sensitivity. Before it, we show Xu Min meet with a woman who is an expert on feminine well-being and relationships. After speaking to her, Xu Min has the courage to open up to her mother. She had told us that she was very angry at her mother but didn’t know how to express it. We said, “If you want to create a dialogue with your mother, go ahead.” It was not easy for her and it went very far. It was very difficult for us to watch it. But I think she gained from it.

I know it was difficult for her mother to hear Hu Min challenge her for the first time about her failures as a mother.

SS: And she leaves. She couldn’t bear it. Surprisingly, she didn’t stop the dialogue at the beginning because we were there.

HM: It helped that by that time we had filmed Xu Min for a while. You develop a relationship with the people that you film.

Tell me about your third subject, Gai Qi. She’s the least eager to get married and thinks of marriage as a compromise.

HM: When we met her, she was an activist, a feminist, who didn’t have plans to marry. Suddenly she met the man and quickly got married and was pregnant. We thought it was very interesting to follow her and show her compromise. Because she married a man who is seven years younger and comes from a village and though he went to college, he is not from an intellectual family like her own. Even the child for her was a compromise.

SS: She said, I’m not going to play this game, I am not going to go to a match-maker. From the beginning, she wasn’t going to follow the rules. But she was the first to get married! This was very interesting! We had thought, “She will be the one in our film who breaks all the rules.” Then she got married and was pregnant so quickly. Now what do we do?

HM: We felt her story weaved together with the other two stories allowed us to give a fuller picture.

She marries and becomes pregnant but she doesn’t stop teaching.

SS: She got an assignment in Guangzhou. And she told him, “I’m going there, and if you don’t want to follow me, we’re breaking up.” And he followed her.

He comes across as a great guy, totally devoted to her.

SS: He’s a great guy because he followed her. In China, it’s a rarity that a man follows the women. But Gai Qi sets the tone in their marriage.

HM: He’s amazing. To us and you he is a great guy, but also remember there is a gap in their backgrounds. Their backgrounds are important to everyone around her.

There is a peculiarity that I see in her story. Getting married is rarely, if ever, presented as a feminist act. But in her case, I see her marrying him as a feminist act because it represents rebellion on her part. She marries someone who is younger and has a background that is considered inferior to her own. She is going through with this marriage despite the pressures on her to not accept his proposal. I’m going to do it no matter what anyone says or whatever the tradition is!

SS: I agree. When we tried to talk to her about background and classes, she refused. She said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Deep inside her, she knew what she was doing. You see it as a feminist act and maybe you’re right, because she is rebelling against convention.

HM: Even at her wedding, she feels like a foreigner among the villagers.

SS: You see her alone on the bed. Even before the wedding, she tells her mother, “You’re more excited than I am.”

You filmed her just sitting on the bed and thinking. And I see that she is coming around to the idea of this marriage, and is starting to feel excited herself. I think she now believes, “This is good. I’ve made the right decision.”

SS: When she told us that she was getting married, we asked if we could film the wedding. And right away she agreed. She didn’t feel it was a shame for her.  Maybe that’s part of her rebellion.

Are the stories of the three women all in flux?

HM: I think so. In terms of the film, there is a complete ending for each. But obviously their lives will continue and it will take them somewhere.

SS: Gai Qi is married and the two others are on their way.

Hua Mei wants to get married but doesn’t think she has to. What will happen to Xu Min?

HM: She will probably get married.

SS: She will marry a man who is approved of by her mother.

So, you’re cynical about her future.

HM: Not cynical. That’s just her character, who she is, and that’s her relationship with her mother.

So, her confronting her mother didn’t change her? She still seeks her mother’s approval?

HM: We interviewed another woman from China who talked about how a lot of Chinese feel they owe their lives to their parents. And Xu said she felt the same thing for her parents, they gave so much to her. She confronted her mother and something happened but she has the deep sense that she has to obey.

SS: She is the one who will obey 100 percent. Although Hua Mei obeys – when her mother didn’t approve of a man she brought home, she broke up with him – she still has her own way of thinking that she follows. But Xu Min will obey even after that conversation with her mother.

Too bad. I want her to pick someone who doesn’t meet her mother’s standards.

HM: Maybe that will happen. Then we’ll make the sequel.

Leftover Women is screening at the Sydney Film Festival, which is on between June 5 – 16, 2019

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