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November 9, 2011

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Choosing to be single (for now)

FRIDAY November 11 is China's Single's Day and there's a rush to get married, a flurry of match making parties and high anxiety on the part of many single women desperate to tie the knot. But some singles say not so fast. Yao Minji reports.

Zhang Lin, 39 years old, almost got married when she was 32, and then she overheard an elevator conversation that really made her stop and think about what she wanted.

She was riding the elevator in her parents' apartment building when she overheard a neighbor's conversation with her grandson. The neighbor in her 60s kept complaining to the first grader about his mother.

She said his mother had "abandoned" him that day so she could take her yoga class and would again leave him with grandma the next day when she went to the hair salon.

Zhang says she still remembers the words: "She spends so much time and money on exercise, beauty and spas, rather than fulfilling her duty to take care of you, her child. How ridiculous! She can't reconcile herself to the fact that now she is married and therefore must sacrifice her personal life for family."

Not very nice things to tell a child about his mother.

The phrase "sacrifice personal life for family" was the last straw for Zhang, who at that time was already on edge and concerned about the future as she prepared for her own wedding.

She canceled the ceremony. The wedding was off. There was a huge uproar in both families, but Zhang stood fast.

She had already been fed up with well-meant suggestions from relatives - be prepared to have a family, be prepared to make sacrifices, don't be too self-centered.

"Why must I sacrifice a personal life for a family? It's not as though I need a husband to support me. If the quality of my life will be lowered in a marriage, then I don't want to get married," Zhang tells Shanghai Daily.

Zhang is a consultancy manager at a Chinese investment company, working on commission.

"I want to be free to spend my own money and time as I choose."

Zhang is one of many unmarried women who choose to put off marriage for a while, though they are not giving up on the idea.

These women are often in big cities with very high marriage costs, and also more acceptance of singles. Most are highly educated and economically independent white-collar professionals, or even "gold collars." Thus, they can afford to stay single.

The latest population consensus, released on November 1 by Shanghai Statistics Bureau, shows a sharp increase of the number of single women in the city.

Single women 15 years of age and older represent nearly 20 percent of the total female population in Shanghai, up 2.2 percent from the year 2000, while the same group of men increased only one percent to 23.6 percent.

It also shows that around 46 percent of these unmarried people are college graduates or those who hold advanced degrees, up 23 percent from 2000.

"The number of single women who choose to stay single has increased. As they get more independent, single women start reflecting upon the role of women in traditional marriages," says Chen Yaya, assistant researcher with Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Chen submitted research on the status of urban single women at a national forum on domestic issues early this year. She has studied and given questionnaires to single women on some of China's largest Internet forums. Most of those interviewed are bachelorettes, single, unmarried women in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

Chen found that 30.35 percent of the women are saving to buy property, which may well indicate that they have plans to remain single in the future, at least for a while, and are preparing for it. Women also buy their own property, something traditionally done by husbands who buy the home.

Many sociologists note these women have economic autonomy, making them independent socially as well as financially. Marriage has become a choice, not an economic necessity as in the past.

"Today, women must be very practical in calculating whether a prospective spouse is indeed worth marrying," says Nancy Yang, a 27-year-old office manager for a foreign enterprise in Beijing.

"The man needs a stable job, a high salary and a car; he must already own a suitable apartment or be easily able to afford one. What's required is a lot of data collection and analysis to reach a conclusion about a suitable marriage."

Like many other bachelorettes, Yang doesn't reject the idea of marriage completely. But she and many others are baffled by or just tired of all the money matters that must be settled in advance.

"I will consider marriage one day, if I meet Mr Right, basically marrying for love. But the fact is that waiting for love isn't always so realistic.

"In fact, more people, especially women, get married because they need a companion, financial support, or spiritual support, or they can't take the family and social pressure on women to get married. But I would rather wait than compromise since I am quite independent financially and spiritually."

Investment for future

The derogatory term shengnu, or "left-over women," is often applied to Chinese women in their late 20s or 30s.

Yang's parents are also relatively more open-minded and tolerate of her ideas. They are trying to persuade her to marry but they're not pressuring her, yet.

Yang has just started working after getting a master's degree. She is already considering long-term investments for her future, including stocks, properties, life insurance and many others.

For this article, Shanghai Daily interviewed eight unmarried professional women in Shanghai and Beijing, who are aged from 25 to 39. All of them have considered, either in detail or in general, how they will support themselves after retirement.

All, except Yang, have already made some investments.

Zhang Lin, the 39-year-old who changed her mind about marriage in an elevator, has bought an apartment in Shanghai's expensive Xuhui District and invests one-third of her income in a fund.

She says she still wants to get married, but adds, "It has to be based on the fact that neither of us sacrifice anything for the marriage, otherwise we will regret it in the future."

Christie Zheng, a 36-year-old accountant, is also planning for her future security and retirement. She has six different insurance plans, costing nearly 3,000 yuan (US$472) per month, more than a quarter of her income. She spends another 1,000 yuan, in addition to her housing fund, to pay the mortgage on an apartment she bought five years ago.

Zheng broke up with her boyfriend three years ago because she decided she just didn't want to get married at the time. The man, at the time 35 years old, got married a year later.

"I'm aware that some of my relatives, acquaintances and friends call me spinster, eccentric, weird, or left-over behind my back. I don't care since I've waited for this long. I've heard it all. I shouldn't just get married for the sake of other people," Zheng says.

"Marriage doesn't mean success for woman anymore, at least not in my opinion. One can always get married if she is determined to, it is more difficult not to get married."

Rather than social pressure, Zheng is more concerned about having a child, not for the sake of support when she gets old, but because she loves children.

"That is the main reason that I might still get married one day, to have a child. It is very difficult to be a single mother here in China, and difficult for a child to be out of wedlock."


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