Xiangyin’s gender agenda

Online backlash after town tells women not to leave


Chinese births dropped over 40% between 2016 and 2020

Chinese women are used to being categorised into unpleasantly named groups. Women who aren’t married by their late twenties are shengnu or ‘leftover women’. Those who conduct affairs with married men are xiaosan, or ‘little three’. And last week another new term came to prominence – that of nuanchuang or ‘bedwarmer’.

The phrase was used in relation to a new country-level plan in Hunan province to encourage rural women to stay in their villages and marry locally rather than head to the cities in search of work.

The shortage of marrying-age women in Xiangyin county is “a societal problem, which has impacted the creation of a new socialist countryside and a harmonious society”, the government document said.

The policy – posted to the Xiangyin government website – urged local authorities to “educate rural women to love their hometown… and make their best effort to balance the male-female gender imbalance.”

A follow-up article by an academic affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences then said the county needed to “warm the beds of rural men” so that they “feel happy”. This was an unfortunate turn of phrase at a time when millions of Chinese women are challenging the sexist attitudes of previous generations, as well as refusing to adopt the more traditional roles expected of mothers and wives.

A revealing poll released this month by the Communist Youth League of 3,000 urban women between the age of 18 and 26 found that 44% of those surveyed had no intention of getting married – which could exacerbate the impact of an existing gender imbalance in Chinese society, where the country has millions more men than women.

All this means women have more choice if they want to wed, while many simply don’t want to sign up to a life of hard grind and traditional values by marrying a man from a small town or village. Instead, they hotfoot it to more urban climes where they can work in better-paying jobs. They rarely come back.

This has led to the emergence of a growing number of villages lacking any women of marriageable age, which has triggered a series of other damaging trends, including the trafficking of potential brides from neighbouring countries or other parts of China.

It has also put some families in a much more powerful negotiating position in being able to demand aggressive ‘bride prices’ for their daughters – something the rural authorities have tried to discourage (see WiC427).

Commentators claim men don’t have the same freedom to leave their villages in the way that many women do, because sons ultimately have responsibility for the family land.

In Xiangyin in Hunan province births dropped over 40% between 2016 and 2020, and the number of marriages fell from 6,620 in 2018 to 3,700 last year. Government policymakers and academics have suggested various ways to overcome declines like these, ranging from funding for rural matchmaking services to advocating for polyandry (see WiC301). Yet none of the proposals have had much of an impact on the rural exodus.

Xiangyin’s latest effort to encourage women to stay put has made headlines. But the overwhelming response from women to the plan was a furious one, confirming their concerns that the local government sees women as just baby-making machines and facilitators of male happiness. “Sick” was how one woman described the news from Xiangyin. “Women will just run away even faster now,” warned another.

Media outlets also criticised the promoters of the nuanchuang idea as out of touch with modern realities. “To solve the problem of the difficulty of marrying older men in rural areas, we should encourage various ways and methods, but no matter which is used, there is a bottom line: it can’t be at the expense of women’s rights,” wrote Caijing. took a similar line, lamenting that campaigns such as the one in Xiangyin were self-defeating. “It is exactly this kind of feudal thinking — that women should ‘wait on’ men, do the housework, give birth and raise their kids, and put up with abuse — that has turned so many women off the very idea of marriage in the first place,” it lamented in a widely republished commentary. Sure enough, Xiangyin’s cadres soon came to the same conclusion, removing the provocative policy paper from the local government website.

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