The 30 second television advert begins with a tense family dinner scene. A young woman turns apprehensively towards her mother and says ”Ma Ma…”
Her mother cuts in, bangs down her chopsticks and says scathingly (in Mandarin of course) “If you don’t bring home a boyfriend next time, then don’t call me Mum!”
Next minute, there’s a knock at the door and a well-dressed young man appears with a bouquet of flowers. “This is my boyfriend,” the daughter says proudly. Her now beaming parents, whip out their best (Ikea) tableware and home decorations, inviting him in.
Let me tell you, today, in much of China, that scene is too not far from the truth, but this latest Ikea advertisement has caused an almighty uproar amongst local netizens.
In 2007, the China Women’s Federation, coined the phrase ‘Sheng Nu’ for all Chinese women who were not married by the ripe old age of 27!
Translated, Sheng Nu means ‘Leftover Women.’
That may have only been ten years ago but traditionally China has long made matrimony the final and ultimate goal for a Chinese girl. Even ‘Confucious’ is known to have said, “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.”
Marriage is about fulfilling ones duty and having societal stability rather than love.
The ‘one child policy’ introduced in the early 80’s saw families favouring sons over daughters meaning an astronomical number of abortions and female babies abandoned.
Today that means there’s a dire shortage of women when it comes to pairing up in matrimonial heaven. Currently there are 117 boys for every 100 girls. Men outnumber women by 33.66 million. But while ultimately men are the ones having more difficulty finding a match, women still face heavy pressure from family and society.
So much so, many are resorting to renting ‘fake’ boyfriends to take back to their home villages, during the annual Chinese New Year holiday.
A lot of young Chinese I’ve spoken with, say, despite being highly educated with thriving careers, the pressure from mum and dad is very real. Older generations still feel they need to ‘save face’ in their immediate communities and if their daughter, turns up unmarried without children, it’s terribly embarrassing.
“A parent is always on standby to sacrifice everything for their children.” a friend in her fifties says. It’s widely accepted they will be the one’s looking after the grandchildren while their children work and in return their child/ren will look after them in old age.
A lot of parents are even taking matters into their own hands, fronting up, weekly to ‘marriage markets’ with their children’s statistics on a piece of paper. Height, gender, education, job, and property ownership!
“My mother keeps calling me and reminding me I only have a couple more years to find someone,” comments a weary 25-year-old friend.
Another married friend, Monica, says, “Almost all Sheng Nu are really good students in school; they don’t have the time to go outside with friends or meet people. Their parents introduce them to potential husbands, but when they meet, they struggle to communicate ..they just know how to study. It’s a big problem.”
Men though aren’t escaping the wrath of unsatisfied parents.
“My mother told me I must get married and it’s her duty to see that I do.” says 28 year old Leo. “I argue with her that the choice is mine, why is it your duty?” “She says, she’ll lose face, all my friends say, why don’t you plan a marriage for your son?” She says, When I’m with friends who have grandchildren, I feel bad and embarrassed and walk away.” Leo says, “She is transferring her pressure onto me.”
I ask one friend if it’s weird to her, that I got married so late at 37, mainly because I’ll never forget those first few visits to the hair salon in Xi’an, when they all looked at me like I was from Mars, especially when I told them how old I was when I tied the knot! “And you think your ‘Sheng Nu’ have got problems!” 😆
Encouragingly though, many of China’s young educated women I talk to are pushing back against the leftover stereotype and waiting until they find love, regardless of their parents expectations.
Hence why Ikea’s latest ad hit a sore spot.
Lu Tiao from the hair salon says, “I want a soul mate with a modern day approach who will support my career.”
There’s even a new Chinese term that means ‘Naked Marriage’ – getting married purely for love without a house, ring, ceremony or car. Still – in a culture where many are still clinging onto the Chinese family idea of having many generations under one roof, it’s a tough one to get their head around.
Ikea’s been forced to withdraw the ad and issue a nation wide apology, admitting it got it’s normally intrepid research, terribly wrong.
This is China.