Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

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In the early years of the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party sought to transform gender relations, but those gains have been steadily eroded in recent decades during China’s transition to a post-socialist era. In fact, women in China have experienced a dramatic rollback of rights and gains relative to men. In Leftover Women, Leta Hong Fincher exposes shocking levels of structural discrimination against women and highlights the broader damage this has caused to China’s economy, politics, and development.
Drawing on cutting-edge data from a Sina Weibo survey of some three hundred men and women as well as in-depth interviews with both men and women in China over several years, Leftover Women debunks several major myths about the status of women in China’s post-socialist period. This reprint edition of the critically acclaimed book Leftover Women offers a unique, inside view of urban, professional women in China’s emerging middle class and provides an insightful analysis of Chinese society today. 

From the Author

Li Fang is relieved that she found a husband just in the nick of time. The parents of the university graduate and former human resources manager in Beijing feared that their only daughter was getting old and might never be able to marry. Li worried that she would pass the ‘best child-bearing age’ and might no longer be able to give birth. She is 26.

1 China’s “leftover” women
2 How Chinese women were shut out of the biggest accumulation of real-estate wealth in history
3 China’s giant gender wealth gap
4 Back to the Ming dynasty
5 Wives caught in China’s web of abuse
6 Fighting back

Editorial Reviews


Named a favorite feminist book for International Women’s Day in 2016 by Verso and New Left Review. Named one of the top 5 China books of 2014 by Asia Society’s ChinaFile. Named one of the best foreign policy books of 2014 by FP Interrupted. Named one of the best Asian books of 2014 by Asia House.

“Leta Hong Fincher’s ‘Leftover Women’ offers a…chilling account of the pressures on Chinese strivers…One hopes that “Leftover Women” will soon be translated into Chinese, as it is likely to resonate deeply with urban educated women” – New York Times Book Review

“Leftover Women should carry a health warning: this book will severely raise your blood pressure. Leta Hong Fincher’s subject – researched through statistical analysis, sociological surveys and extensive first-hand interviewing – is the toxic vitality of sexism in China today”- The Guardian Book Review

“A compelling piece of original research…Leta Hong Fincher, an American journalist-turned-academic, argues that the same party that pushed through the elevation of women’s status in the 1950s is now trying to engineer their return to the kitchen” – The Economist Book Review

“A powerful — and provocative — argument that China’s female shortage, far from empowering women, has actually resulted in a situation where urban women’s rights are increasingly imperiled….It’s ‘Backlash’, China-style, on a scale Susan Faludi never envisioned, touching the lives of 650 million women, almost a fifth of all the women in the world” – L.A. Review of Books

“A timely, rich and intricately written book on gender equality in China…Hong Fincher’s work paints a broad and pervasive picture of women’s rights in post-socialist China gradually eroding” – The Telegraph

“Important and interesting…gender relations, in many ways so much more advanced in China than in India, are going backwards as traditions that were seemingly flattened by Mao re-emerge”- Financial Times

“In ‘Leftover Women,’ Leta Hong Fincher convincingly argues that an orchestrated state campaign co-opts women to marry and buy marital homes, often to the detriment of their careers and financial independence” – Wall Street Journal

“Leftover Women makes a significant contribution to the study of gender in China…Fincher demonstrates how devastating and difficult it is to combat gender inequality since even the most privileged women are systematically disempowered, demoralized, and effectively dispossessed” – The China Journal Book Review

“Hong Fincher, a doctoral candidate at Tsinghua University, describes a state-sponsored backlash against economically independent single women in urban China, and the growing wealth gap it enforces, in this highly suggestive study…The book serves as a vital introduction to gender issues in urban China” – Publishers Weekly Book Review

“As an inquiry into the political economy of gender discrimination in China, Leftover Women is an important and innovative study, well deserving of the publicity it has already received, as well as more to come”  – The China Quarterly Book Review

” ‘Leftover Women’ is a chilling portrayal – often told through the voices of the women themselves – of the rapid deterioration of women’s equality in China. If you think you know China, you don’t until you have read this book”  – China Law and Policy

“Former journalist Hong Fincher was largely responsible for introducing the Chinese term sheng nu, for unmarried,”leftover” women over the age of 27, to the world with a 2012 op-ed in The New York Times…A must-read for anyone interested in the modern condition of Chinese women” – South China Morning Post

“Gender oppression is not a product merely of cultural expectations or stereotyping, as much mainstream feminist writing would have us believe…Fincher deftly links the machinations of state power to the headlines gracing the covers of women’s magazines, and the minutiae of family relationships to trends in the real estate industry” – Bookforum

“China has seen a rollback of female rights, as Leta Hong Fincher vividly portrayed in her ground-breaking 2014 book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in Modern China. Hong Fincher starts off by illustrating the case of the ‘leftover woman’, a single 27-plus female who is unanimously mocked and scorned.” – The Telegraph, by Jemimah Steinfeld

“In her thoroughly documented book Leftover Women, sociologist Leta Hong Fincher shows in vivid detail how women in China have suffered a rollback since those early days, especially when it comes to property rights.” – The Christian Science Monitor, by Dan Southerland

“In this commanding book Hong Fincher argues that China’s international image, celebrating the increasing education and wealth of its women, masks an alarming slide back towards deep gender inequality – and that the very education and wealth of Chinese women is being used against them…Hong Fincher pulls no punches in her excoriation of this injustice, and yet her book is accessible and fascinating – an important work for scholars as well as those wishing to broaden their understanding.”
– Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK & Ireland) Book Review by Carina Hart

“A brilliant study which explores comprehensive issues ranging from female property rights from a historical perspective, women’s emancipation during the Maoist era, the relationship between domestic violence and women’s lack of property rights, to gender and activism on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues. The book deserves to be read by anyone interested in China or particularly in issues affecting Chinese women.” – China Information Book Review

“It is forceful in argument and rich and detailed in observation…It shows how women are shut out of ‘the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history’ and is no doubt a ‘must-read’ for China studies and gender studies professionals as well as anyone else who is interested in Chinese society, [and] gender relations.” – Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies Book Review   

“Important and provocative…Through deft investigative scholarship, Fincher shows how multiple institutions including markets, laws, banks, families, the media, and the state interact to exclude women from property title, even as the legal system maintains a semblance of formal gender equality.” – Gender & Society Book Review by Eileen Otis 

“[A] hard-hitting study of gender discrimination in China backed up by many examples and interviews…Chinese women’s status and also wealth (particularly valued in terms of property ownership as well as other financial assets) have failed to keep up with their male peers.” – Asian Affairs Book Review by Michael Sheringham 

 “While Chinese women remain amongst the most empowered in the region on many parameters, including labour force participation, literacy and maternal health, Fincher’s book adds another criterion of inequality in property ownership at a time of enormous real-estate accumulation and related wealth generation. In doing so, she demonstrates how discrimination against women can be subtle, almost invisible, yet devastating in its outcomes.”- Grist Media Book Review by Pallavi Aiyar

“Hong Fincher’s great insight here is to link a theory of patriarchy back to a wider critique of China’s high home ownership rates and real-estate boom over the last decade, and the economic dynamics and welfare failures of the post-socialist regime.” – Open Democracy

“A brilliant, compelling, and innovative study of contemporary China and one of the most important sociological inquiries into the political economy of gender. Leta Hong Fincher’s richly detailed research and critical analysis of gender politics in ‘Leftover’ Women provide an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to understand the key socioeconomic transformations in postsocialist China.” – Lydia H. Liu, Columbia University, co-editor of The Birth of Chinese Feminism

“Hong Fincher’s careful exposé and moving interviews are liable to leave the reader indignant.” – Reuters Book Review by Katrina Hamlin

“Making the most of her experience as a journalist and her training in sociology, Leta Hong Fincher draws on previous breakthrough works in Chinese gender studies and her own interviews, while proving equally at home summarizing statistics and telling poignant tales of individual experience. The result is an engagingly written, thought provoking work on a crucially important but often overlooked subject. Essential reading.” – Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know

“In lively and accessible prose Hong-Fincher demonstrates conclusively that urban professional women have been disproportionately disadvantaged during China’s breakneck economic development and largest wealth accumulation in human history. Hong Fincher exhaustively cites media, government statistics, her own interviews, and her Weibo survey results to substantiate the fact that gender inequality in China has reappeared with a vengeance and shows no signs of abating any time soon.” – Rebecca E. Karl, New York University, co-editor, The Birth of Chinese Feminism

“Modern Chinese women are under pressure in a society that often locks them out of social equality, property rights, and legal protection from domestic abuse.This is the reality that China scholar Leta Hong Fincher puts forward in her study of resurgent gender inequality in China. Her book is a well-researched and riveting read, including a number of gripping personal accounts straight from China’s so-called ‘Leftover Women.’ For any curious observer of China or women’s issues, this is one to read.” 
– Kristie Lu Stout, Anchor/Correspondent, CNN International

“The reality, according to American journalist Leta Hong Fincher, is that while economic gender gaps are (gradually) closing in most parts of the world, they are actually widening in China. Her book is a rigorously researched investigation into the position of urban women in the country.” – Time Out Shanghai

About the Author

Leta Hong Fincher is an award-winning journalist and the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Sociology from Tsinghua University, Beijing. Her book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, was named one of the top 5 China books of 2014 by the Asia Society’s ChinaFile, one of the best foreign policy books of 2014 by FP Interrupted, one of the best Asian books of 2014 by Asia House, and one of Time Out magazine’s top 10 China books of 2014.

About the Video

A century ago, Chinese feminists fighting for the emancipation of women helped spark the Republican Revolution, which overthrew the Qing empire. After China’s Communist revolution of 1949, Chairman Mao famously proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky.” In the early years of the People’s Republic, the Communist Party sought to transform gender relations with expansive initiatives such as assigning urban women jobs in the planned economy. Yet those gains are now being eroded in China’s post-socialist era. Contrary to many claims made in the mainstream media, women in China have experienced a dramatic rollback of many rights and gains relative to men. Leftover Women debunks the popular myth that women have fared well as a result of post-socialist China’s economic reforms and breakneck growth. Laying out the structural discrimination against women in China will speak to broader problems with China’s economy, politics, and development. —Zed Books

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