Sheng nu, when translated, is a derogatory term that describes women who are over the age of 25 and unmarried. The slang term, “3S Women,” meaning “single, seventies (1970s), and stuck” is sometimes used in place of sheng nu.
The term was made popular by the All-China Women’s Federation; oddly this is a state agency that was established in 1949 to “protect women’s rights and interests.” However, the exact etymology of the term is not conclusively known, although it is thought to have entered the mainstream in 2006.
It wasn’t until 2007, after the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China had released an official statement, where they defined sheng nu as an “unmarried woman over the age of 27,” and then added it to the national lexicon.
In a subsequent statement the ministry expanded the meaning as a “failure to find a husband” due to “overly high expectations for marriage partners.” The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) then mandated the All-China Women’s Federation to publish a series of articles that would stigmatize unwed women who were in their late twenties.
The All-China Women’s Federation, in March 2011, published a highly controversial article titled: ‘Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy’ shortly after International Women’s Day. Here is just an excerpt:
“Pretty girls do not need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family. But girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult.
“These girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don’t realize that as women age, they are worth less and less. So by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old — like yellowed pearls.”
There was originally more than 15 articles available on the website related to the subject of sheng nu, but they have now been subsequently removed — it also included matchmaking advice and tips. The phrase has quickly gained momentum, and while the label may be relatively new the message isn’t, with China’s foremost ancient thinker Confucius, writing:
“The Chinese girl was brought up, then, as now, with matrimony in view as her goal.
“The woman follows the man. In her youth she follows her father and elder brother; when married, she follows her husband; when her husband is dead, she follows her son.”
However, he does not state that women should be persecuted because they marry for love and not out of duty, or even that they should be married before a certain age. Xu Xiaomin of The China Daily described the sheng nu’s as “a social force to be reckoned with,” while others have argued the term should be taken as a positive to mean “successful women.”