Given China's unbalanced sex ratio, if more women opt for the single life, that simply leaves more unmarried men at the bottom of the social ladder. According to Wang's analysis of China's 2000 census, just 1 percent of college-educated men remained single at age 40, but among men in the lowest income and education bracket, fully 25 percent were single at 40. If some 24 million largely rural bachelors remain in remote villages to care for aging parents, who in turn will care for them? Moreover, a greater proportion of single men, in any society, is often linked with increasing rates of crime and violence. As one common Chinese slogan has it, a harmonious family is the cornerstone of a harmonious society. Clearly, Beijing is worried that the inverse is also true.
CERTAINLY, A VISCERAL ANXIETY about marriage and romance pulses through nearly every aspect of contemporary Chinese culture. Take the tremendous pressure on young men and their families to buy apartments and cars to make them more attractive in the marriage market. According to research by the Baihe matchmaking website, 68.3 percent of women in China's most developed cities say a man must own a home before they'll get married. Or take the popularity of the nerve-racking dating show Fei Cheng Wu Rao (Don't Bother if You Aren't the One), in which a bachelor faces an inquisition by 24 young women standing behind lighted podiums, presidential-debate style. Or the glib yet lovelorn features in women's magazines, from Chinese Elle's recent slide show, "Love Guide: 8 Types of Men Whom Sheng Nu Love Most in 2012" (starring happy canoodling couples), to Chinese Bazaar's advice article "From Senior Sheng Nu to Queen of the Wedding Veil."
Yet the editor in chief of China's Cosmopolitan, Xu Wei, told me that, after helping popularize the term sheng nu, she is now trying to downplay it: "We want instead to convey more positive images for modern women." Besides, she explained, "leftover ladies" is really a bit of a misnomer -- it's women's own standards that are changing so quickly.
The singletons I interviewed in Beijing were anything but dowdy. At 5 feet, 9 inches, the slim woman who slipped into a seat at the table at trendy Opposite House cafe was, in fact, an utter knockout. Annie Xu has a strikingly angular face, large wide-set eyes, shoulder-length hair, and flawless skin. She is 30 years old and alternates between feeling panic and contentment. At one point, she told me, "Thirty is a very dangerous age," and at another, "I am 30 years old; I am not afraid of being alone. It's just like, when you pass the age, everything is just OK."
College-educated and financially independent, Xu is a whip-smart journalist for one of Beijing's most respected newsmagazines. She is, in short, a catch. She is also, somewhat to her own surprise, increasingly convinced that devoting her time and attention to work constitutes time better spent than dawdling on disappointing dates or "friends with benefits" (she's seen too many of both, she confided). She still hopes to get married one day, if she finds the right partner, but when I asked what would happen if she were still single at 50, she said, "I think it's OK. I am most afraid of marrying with the wrong man."
Before our meeting, I had asked her to read the recent Atlantic cover story about unmarried American women, "All the Single Ladies," to see whether it resonated. Yes, she told me, pointing especially to this passage: "When Gloria Steinem said, in the 1970s, 'We're becoming the men we wanted to marry,' I doubt even she realized the prescience of her words."
A generation ago, when Chinese society was simpler, there were fewer choices. But today, with colossal economic upheaval -- and a yawning chasm between China's winners and losers -- your spouse may be the largest single factor determining whether, in the words of one infamous female contestant on Fei Cheng Wu Rao, you ride home on the back of a bicycle or in a BMW. And that just crystallizes the problem: China's educated women increasingly know what they want out of life. But it's getting harder and harder to find Mr. Right.