SHANGHAI — For the last two years, Karen Xie, 32 and earning a good salary at a media firm, has met on average one marriage candidate a month. They've all been Mr. Wrong.
Some were too short or too fat, she says. Some didn't express enough tenderness. For her last date, her parents fixed her up with a man from their hometown, Wuhan, 500 miles west of Shanghai. Xie knew it was over as soon as she laid eyes on him.
"He was a little bald, he had no hair in the middle of his head," said Xie, who has her own digs on the outskirts of Shanghai, which she and her parents bought to enhance her marriageability. "Maybe my standards are too high, but I don't require an apartment."
Every other day, Xie's mom gives her a call, which invariably turns to the subject of a husband. Her most recent retort: "The divorce rate is increasing. Isn't it better I stay single?"
In theory, women like Xie should have their pick of potential mates. China's one-child policy has created a lopsided gender ratio because many families prefer sons and choose to have sex-selective abortions. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, by 2020, Chinese men between the ages of 20 and 44 will outnumber women by 24 million.
Yet more and more professional Chinese women say they just can't find a man who is as accomplished as they are. Others say that after years of schooling, they want to enjoy their freedom past age 27, widely seen here as the proper time to settle down.
Branded — a bit derogatorily — as shengnu, or "leftover women," many of these educated, urban singles are coming under intense pressure to marry. Parents fear that their daughters will end up childless and lonely, economically vulnerable spinsters in a society that lacks the social safety net communism once promised.
It's not just mom and dad who want their grown daughters to find a spouse. Government agencies, academics and even some businesses are treating shengnu as the source of potentially serious social problems.
They've warned that if the ranks of such women expand, they could exacerbate population imbalances, lure married men into affairs and drive down real estate sales. (Home-buying, after all, is usually part and parcel of marriage here.)
For singles like Xie, it's become almost impossible to go about daily life without being reminded of one's marital status.
If it's not a call with the parents, it's a flier or email promoting a "marriage expo" or other matchmaking event. (A city-backed expo in Shanghai two months ago drew 20,000 people.)
Turn on the TV and you can watch "The Price of Being a Shengnu," "Go, Go, Shengnu," "Even Shengnu Get Crazy" — all with similar plotlines: Smart, beautiful, successful women try everything to get a man.
Shopping here can be a gut-check. "12 products to help shengnu forget about loneliness!" blared a recent ad for PC House, a home goods store. (Suggested items: a garlic peeler, rainbow-colored bedding and a one-seater couch.)
Even a visit to the website of the All-China Women's Federation offers little relief. The state-run feminist agency in recent years has published articles with titles like "Eight Simple Moves to Escape the Leftover Women Trap," and "Do Leftover Women Deserve Our Sympathy?" (The answer: No.)
"Shengnu are being demonized," said Sandra Bao, who founded a social group called Leftover Attitude in Shanghai to support unmarried professional women. "Parents are pressuring us, the media label us, there's a whole industry of matchmakers and others out there telling us it's a problem to be single."
Xie expects no letup from her parents. "They are very traditional," she said. "In their thinking, every person must have a family. I want to have a family, but in my own time."
The collective pressure seems to be working.
The average age of a woman's first marriage in China is indeed on the rise; in Shanghai last year, it was 27.3 years, up from 26.4 in 2007. But by age 35, more than 90% of Chinese women have married, noted Roseann Lake, a Beijing-based researcher who is writing a book on marriage in China.
"Chinese women are only left over for a limited time, which makes the fact that they're labeled 'leftovers' even more hideous," Lake said. (China's real leftovers, she said, are poor, uneducated men in the countryside, who receive little attention.)
Leta Hong Fincher, a doctoral candidate at Tsinghua University who has studied the issue, said the high marriage rate for Chinese women results in large part from the government's "remarkably effective propaganda campaign" stigmatizing shengnu.
"Because the leftover women thing has been pushed so aggressively, a lot of women have internalized this ideology," Fincher said. "They are really afraid they are not going to find a husband if they wait too long."
Fincher traces the shengnu hysteria to a 2007 State Council warning that China faced "grave population pressures" caused by its gender imbalance and said it was urgent to "upgrade the population quality." And what better way, she said, than to get top-notch women to marry and multiply?
Sun Peidong, a sociologist at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the phenomenon also reflects China's move toward a market economy.
"The public is experiencing unprecedented relaxation and freedom, especially in the field of marriage, family and sex," she said. At the same time, "the change of policies on housing, medical, education and many other aspects of social security means that ordinary people are forced to depend on themselves.... Parents worry about their and their children's future."
Many parents go to great lengths to help their children find mates. Lake said she knows of one mother who posed as her daughter online to set up dates for her.
Others turn to matchmakers. In Shanghai, there are about 130 such agencies, some of which charge more than $16,000 in fees, according to Zhou Juemin, head of the Shanghai Matchmaking Assn.
On weekends, in a section of Shanghai's People's Park known as Matchmaking Corner, middle-aged women comb through sheaves of papers strung out like shorts on clotheslines. Each lists a single person's age, height, education and other vital statistics, along with a photo.
Given that Chinese women traditionally pair off with men of equal or higher income, education and age, it can be difficult for top-tier women (and bottom-rung men) to find matches. Adding to the pressure, some women insist that a groom have a house.
On a recent afternoon, two mothers named Zhang and Yu sat under a magnolia tree in the park, talking about their daughters, both in their late 20s.
"In our time," Yu said, "I didn't pay much attention to the material side. I just wanted to select a man who could make good conversation."
Then again, she said, an apartment wasn't an issue when she was young. "In the socialist economy, my company would give me an apartment if I got married."
Though the pressure on shengnu looks unlikely to go away any time soon, a modest empowerment backlash has emerged.
Bao's Leftover Attitude group has more than 2,000 members nationwide. And in bookstores, self-help titles about landing a man now share space with offerings like "Do Not Marry Before Age 30," by Los Angeles-based author Joy Chen.
This generation of Chinese women, Chen said, is facing unique challenges.
"For 5,000 years, marriage represented our sole source of stability," she said. "Now it's all different. Marriage is not necessary for survival, and we have new dreams, but we have no role models."
Those dreams, researcher Lake said, include a sense of equality with one's partner, and even romance.
"Shengnu get a bad rap as being really selective and snobby; their standards are too high. And they are very high," she said. "But the highest of them is that they want to fall in love. And in China, that's a really high standard."
Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.