BEIJING -- For years, single Chinese women in their mid- to late-20s have endured being called "shengnu," or "leftover women," by relatives, by the state-run media and by society. The message is : Marry, ideally by 25, or you're on the shelf.
Some are starting to push back.
"I don't accept that definition," said Li Yue, 34, who works at a nongovernmental organization in Beijing. "It's really ridiculous. Who says I'm leftover, and by whom? I don't feel I'm leftover, I feel I'm living the life I want."
"It's really annoying," said Wang Man, 31, an employee of a poverty relief N.G.O. in Beijing. "By now though, I don't care, as I think there's a plot behind it. It's an admonishment to women, it's telling us what to do, where and when. Everyone is trying to get us to sacrifice ourselves, to look after children, husbands, old people."
China has about 20 million more men under 30 years of age than women, according to official news reports -- largely the result of gender selective abortion, with many parents preferring a son to a daughter. So why is the phenomenon of "leftover women" apparently so widespread? Aren't desperate men snapping up available women?
Not exactly. Traditional attitudes demand that a man earn more than a woman, meaning that as women earn increasingly more they are pricing themselves out of the marriage market.
But as a result, partly, of the increasingly defiant attitudes of women like Ms. Liu and Ms. Wang toward a term that many still find terribly hurtful, a riposte to "leftover women" has been born -- and it's a clever one. Yes, they're saying, we're "shengnu." But that's "sheng" as in "victorious," not "leftover."
The pun that turns the tables on the prejudicial description is made possible by the fact that "sheng" has different meanings in Chinese depending on the written character: either "leftover" or "victorious" (or "successful," as some prefer). Chinese is filled with homonyms, making punning a popular pastime.
The redefining of shengnu has been abetted by a television series, started last July, that translates as "The Price of Being a Victorious Woman." It's an exploration of the romantic life and career of the fictitious, unmarried Lin Xiaojie, played by the Taiwanese actress Chen Qiao En. In the series, the quirky, pretty Ms. Lin has troubled romantic encounters with attractive men. But along the way she builds a successful career.
While some consider the series overly sappy, it has had the effect of spreading the concept of "victorious women" as a morale-boosting alternative to "leftover women," and delivering unmarried Chinese women more self-respect.
"In the series, the perfect metamorphosis of Lin Xiaojie from a 'leftover woman' to a 'victorious woman' shows you that in the working world too, it's better to be strong and in charge of your destiny than to let other people control your future," runs a summary of the series on the Web site of iQiyi.com, a major Chinese film and TV portal. It offers 10 pieces of practical advice to young women, including: Don't be bad but don't be too good, either. Learn not to be influenced by your colleagues. Don't fall in love with your boss.
Even the state-run media, which have long issued lugubrious warnings to young women on the perils of becoming a "leftover woman," are -- slowly -- joining in.
The official microblog site of People's Daily recently displayed a post suggesting that "leftover women" needn't despair.
"Leftover women, don't be tragic," it said. "There are 20 million more men under 30 than women in China. So how can there be so many 'leftover women?"' It provided a common explanation: "Isn't it because they're not 'leftover' but 'victorious', and their requirements for partners are very high?"
But it continued, in a less judgmental vein: "They're free, and can stand on their own feet. As China modernizes fast, 'leftover women' may turn into a positive term."
It's better to be "victorious" than "leftover," said Ms. Liu, the N.G.O. worker. But overall, she'd rather not have to choose.
"I think it's a very positive word," she said. "But it's also kind of odd because I never thought of this as a victory or some kind of a struggle."
"We should have the right to choose what we want to do. So do we really need such a power-filled word as 'victorious' to describe something so normal?"
Ms. Wang agreed. "I've heard of it and I think it's O.K., but I don't think it's a question of victory or defeat," she said. "It's just a way of life. If I had to choose, though, I'd tend toward 'victorious' for sure. Still, it all feels a bit tiring."
Meanwhile, there are still many over-25-year-olds, fretting under strong societal pressure to marry, who have internalized the cultural and social values that they are "on the shelf." China's minimum marriage age for women is 20, so the window of opportunity for those who want to escape labeling is small.
For them, "shengnu," with its double meaning, is, at best, neutral.
"I'm not completely proud of it," said Zhou Wen, 27 and unmarried, a secretary at an American marketing company in Beijing, "but it is at least a neutral word. Not bad at all."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.