publisher colophon
  • Talented Celebrity Rene LiuSpokesperson of the Left-Over Women (Sheng Nu)

In her song "Happy Road" ("Xingfu de lu") on the album Heard (Tingshuo), the Taiwanese singer-actor-writer Rene Liu sings:

I will walk down this road of love by myselfIf I am lonely, please don't just cry for mePlease give me your good wishesThe roads are unknownAnd nobody has a mapBut I know where I am nowI walk on this road of loveAnd one day I will find my happinessEvery expression on my face can be readThey are full of my storiesI will find my happinessLet's wait til that day and cheer for me1

This is a typical Rene Liu song, which creates an image of a confident and strong "left-over" women figure that also highlights Liu's celebrity status as a mature and optimistic single woman. Her articulation of single womanhood in her songs, writing, and films demonstrates strategies and a successful process of public identity and celebrity construction in the Chinese context. Via her pop songs and celebrity image Rene Liu reveals the circumstances of her own life, and her emotional status as an older single woman, and builds connections between her own experiences and feelings and those of her fans, many of whom are contemporary Chinese professional women living in metropolitan cities. During this process of connection, Liu fulfils her social function as a celebrity in a contemporary society. She achieves this by serving as an identity exemplar with whom her fans (mainly single urban women) can [End Page 68] identify, whom they can follow and imitate in their own struggles for public acceptance and tolerance. This process of unification also reveals how Rene Liu and her production team have ingeniously noticed and used the link between Liu's individual temperament and private life, and the focus of the public's attention and concern, which is a perfect selling point for Liu's public persona and celebrity creations. There is a general consensus that celebrities are effective in finding certain market niches to promote themselves and distinguish themselves to consumers, and Rene Liu demonstrates that celebrities can position themselves very effectually in a crowded market by engaging with a prevalent social concern of a particular historical moment and a particular demographic group.2 In Liu's case, although she did not consciously use this social phenomenon about "left-over" women as a marketing strategy at the outset of her career, it became apparent that as she matured and aged over time, she herself was becoming one of these left-over women. Her public profile subsequently evolved to focus on this particular social entity when public concern increased due to the rising numbers of middle-class, educated women reaching and surpassing "marriageable age" in the 2000s.

The left-over women social phenomenon has emerged over the past two decades in the pan-Chinese region of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. This article focuses particularly on the left-over women phenomenon and its development in the mainland region (hereafter all the discussion conducted in this paper revolves around this region unless Hong Kong and Taiwan are mentioned), which has been attracting much attention and is the subject of heated debate in government, public, and academic arenas.3

Left-over woman is a term originally coined in 2007 by the Beijing Women's Federation (founded by the Chinese Communist party in 1949), which refers to unmarried females in China who reach the age of twenty-seven. The notion of a left-over woman denotes a highly educated, middle-class, professional single woman who is working in a well-paid job (thus financially independent), and who cares more about her self-value and her own career, personal success, and prosperity than about conventional gender roles and ideology. These women are often reported and portrayed ridiculously and satirically in columns, news reports, and cartoons in the state-run media. The state-run media have stimulated impassioned debate about these urban and successful but discriminated against left-over women. Left-over women are frequently painted as being money-oriented and snobbish women who harbor unrealistic expectations about their future husbands. Thus, over the past few years, the official media have pressured women to be "less materialistic and ambitious and lower their criteria and hurry up to find a husband before they become unwanted."4 The frequent exposure and aggressive lampooning of the [End Page 69] left-over women in state-run media is a state-organized campaign aimed at instilling panic in accomplished, socially mobile women, and causing them to rethink their predicament and to marry sooner, which will then help to address the gender imbalance that, unless corrected, could ultimately lead to social instability. The Chinese government exaggerates the negative side of the left-over women phenomenon in order to achieve its goals of social and political stability.5

Employing the refined, charming, and intelligent urban single women image created in Rene Liu's songs, screen roles, and biographical and creative writing, this essay helps explain how celebrity culture functions as a powerful discursive force in challenging the state-led propaganda. In contrast to those scripted and inflated explanations that state institutions attribute to left-over females, Rene Liu's public persona as a gracious, attractive, and successful professional single woman counters the deleterious rendering of this group in the state media and entertainment rhetoric. Through this affirmative make-over of the left-over woman image, Rene Liu amalgamates her own views of the likelihood of both leading an idyllic single lifestyle and ultimately finding a soul mate and also effectively disseminates her celebrity aura as a representative and lucrative cultural signifier and product.

Celebrities and celebrity culture have become increasingly integrated with, and influential to, the lifestyle and perspectives of contemporary Chinese people. Via routes ranging from make-up and fashion to visions of love and family life, both local and international celebrities serve as prototypes and identity models for their fans.6 Recent research on celebrity fashion focuses more on "contextualiz[ing] how the individual celebrity is represented and [examining] the roles performed by the celebrity-as-commodity in the construction of contemporary forms of identity and community."7 For example, celebrity womanhood can embody new standards of neoliberal femininity that are concerned with self-responsibility, obligatory accomplishment in education and work, and self-reinvention in Western societies.8 It may also denigrate idealized femininity and relegate it to lesser status because it is seen as being in opposition to the socially independent "have it all girl" of neoliberalism.9 This transnational discourse of control of women in the service of global capitalism (or neoliberalism) is localized in China via the leftover women social phenomenon, which is a transnational phenomenon that women confront in the age of neoliberalism rather than being endemic to China.

In the case of Rene Liu, her construction of single womanhood, in the Chinese context, sheds light on the emerging and contradictory gender norms for women as prompted by the global trend of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism reflects a global pattern of gender and labor through challenging the public-private [End Page 70] divide by recruiting women into the global labor market. However, during the implementation of neoliberalism, it is often locally confronted with contradicting and essentialized gender ideologies.10 For example, in South Korea it takes the form of ageism against professional women. In Singapore it is reflected by the cautioning advice by the late Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew for female PhDs to get married as soon as possible. In the case of China, the left-over women phenomenon also generates a state-led campaign that endeavors to push these single older women into marriage, which further reveals the ongoing societal control of women and how the Chinese state has been articulating and rearticulating the marriage discourse for social management and stability. In contemporary China, marriage remains a social institution that exerts a tight grip over people's private and public lives. Therefore Rene Liu's meticulous packaging of female singlehood speaks to the changing marriage paradigm and contradictory conceptions of womanhood that are recast in sync with China's socioeconomic changes, and it reflects the vicissitude of gender and marriage in concert with China's social and cultural transformation. By representing the contemporary Chinese neoliberal urban single woman who has been "left behind" in marriage, Rene Liu engages with the controversy of the left-over women social phenomenon and has successfully built up her public image as a cultural icon in the sinophone entertainment world. Her public profile as an older professional single woman living in the metropolitan setting has won her an enormous fan base of single middle-class urban women who have life goals similar to Liu's and those of the characters she creates in her songs, television shows, films, and writing.

rene liu's celebrity image: a talented single woman

Rene Liu is a very popular celebrity in the sinophone entertainment world. She is most famous for her public persona as a mature, professional, urbane, single woman. Liu was born in 1970 to an affluent family with a high social profile in Taipei. Her grandfather served as a Class 1 general in the Army of the Nationalist Party of Taiwan. Liu grew up in her grandparents' house because her parents divorced when she was two years old. After finishing her high school studies in Taiwan she went to New York State University to complete a bachelor's degree in music, majoring in piano. After spending three years in America completing her degree, Liu returned to Taipei at the beginning of the 1990s and—as a result of various coincidences—she became the assistant of Bobby Chen (Chen Sheng), a Taiwan-based pop music composer, producer, and singer. After another three years working in Chen's music studio, Liu began to create her own album in 1995, with Chen as her music producer.11 [End Page 71] Based on Liu's voice and personality, Chen composed many songs for her, among which is her most representative and popular single—the 1995 "Crazy in Love" ("Weiaichikuang"), on the album The Prettiness and Sadness of Siao Yu (Shaonu xiaoyu de meili yu aichou), which cost Chen 3 million new Taiwan dollars and three years to record.12Liu's voice has no particular outstanding qualities; however, she invests so much emotion into her singing that her songs create a feeling of frankness, purity, and sincerity. As the majority of her songs focus on love stories, Liu has skillfully built an image as a single woman who is longing for love and enjoying love fantasies, while encountering numerous setbacks in her journey to find love. Luckily, even though this single woman character created by Liu in her songs gradually ages and matures, she still harbors the expectation of perfect love and enjoys single-hood when love is absent from her life. Since 1995 Liu has released nineteen albums and has continued pursuing and polishing her single woman profile in her songs (even after she eventually married at the end of 2011), such as in her 2013 album, The Intimate Stranger (Qinai de luren).13 In addition to singing, Liu's career as a professional actor began in 1995, and she has played roles in more than forty movies, television serials, and stage dramas produced in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China. Although she never received any specialized training in acting, her natural, vivid and poignant performances in many film roles have won her dozens of best leading and supporting actress awards and nominations at both Chinese and international film festivals.14

In addition to singing and acting, Liu writes prose and has published several collections of short stories in which she recounts her life with friends and relatives and shares her experiences of love with her readers and fans. She has also penned other fictional texts, such as novellas, which feature Liu's literary talent and artistic temperament. Her novella Happy Birthday (Shengri kuaile) was adapted into a romance movie with the same title by Jingle Ma (Ma Chucheng) in 2007, which featured Liu in as the leading female character.15 In 2012 the short film Love, Limited Edition (Aiqing xianliangban 2013), was adapted from Liu's novella with the same title, with Liu working as actor, director, and screenwriter.16 The characters created and played by Liu in her novellas and films align with her image as a mature, single, middle-class woman who experiences joys and difficulties while seeking her "Mr. Right."

Based on her numerous talents, Liu was awarded the title of being the most gifted woman in Taiwan's entertainment circle. With a fresh and pure outlook, Liu leaves a good impression on her fans and is representative of an elegant, intellectual woman. This image of Liu is evident in two roles she played in the mainland television drama series April Rhapsody (Renjiansiyuetian 2000) and The Legend of Eileen Chang (Shanghaiwangshi 2007).17 April Rhapsody is a love [End Page 72] story about a poet, Xu Zhimo (1897–1931), and three ladies—Zhang Youyi (his first wife), Lin Huiyin (his lover), and Lu Xiaoman (his second wife). Of these three love stories, that between Xu Zhimo and Lin Huiyin is the most influential and legendary. Xu Zhimo was the most renowned romantic poet in the Republic era of modern China, while Lin Huiyin was also a highly recognized talented beauty of the same period. The romance between Xu and Lin—two gifted and charismatic people—still garners curiosity and veneration among contemporary Chinese readers and audiences, with many books and television works dedicated to telling the story. Liu was first approached to play the Lin Huiyin role, yet she rejected the role because she did not consider herself attractive enough. However, because she liked the script, she chose to play Zhang Youyi, also an exceptional, modern woman, who runs a family business and is generous and open-minded enough to divorce Xu when he falls in love with other women. In The Legend of Eileen Chang, Liu stars as Eileen Chang (1920–95), who is recognized by contemporary Chinese literary critics and readers as one of the most intelligent and brilliant female writers of the Republic era. Chang's Old Shanghai novels still enjoy huge popularity among present-day Chinese literary fans for their poignant portrayal of petit bourgeois love and a profound scrutiny of convoluted and sometimes distorted female sentimentalities. Chang's novels have been adapted into numerous films by famous directors such as Ang Lee (Li An, Lust, Caution/Se, Jie, 2008) and Ann Hui (Xu Anhua, Eighteen Springs/Banshengyuan, 1997).

The following sections discuss Rene Liu's artistic performances and creations in their relationship with the left-over woman phenomenon, and how, through these entertainment activities, Liu has built a public image and serves as a spokesperson for single contemporary Chinese middle-class females. This contemporary single woman icon, signified by Liu's celebrity image, mirrors the love and marriage issues in current China and reflects the difficulties of gender and marriage that parallel the vicissitudes of China's socioeconomic make-over.

marriage of urban older women in twenty-first-century china

In modern-day China, marriage remains a social custom that wields a firm power over people's private and civic lives. Regarding the left-over women, on one hand, the Chinese government spreads practical and planned propaganda to get them married in order to solve the mounting civil, fiscal, and communal anxieties confronting the current Chinese government and society. On the other hand, traditional Confucian thinking still dominates the marriage concepts [End Page 73] held by many Chinese people, in particular with the older generation. This conservative, Confucian thinking emphasizes the necessity for women to marry when they are of marriageable age and that women should play a supportive role in their family, in terms of shouldering household duties, giving birth to children (to continue the family line), and caring for children. Instead of being undermined during socialist rule, the patriarchy was maintained primarily through the unequal sexual division of domestic work within the family.18 "Both the revolutionary strategies of the preliberation period and the development policies of the socialist construction era perpetuated and reinforced rather than destroyed the traditional family system and ideology."19 This "cultural family" type that is portrayed mainly by Chinese scholars and the cultural elite highlights the "overarching and enduring influence of traditional values, particularly Confucian ethics, on family behaviour."20

Chinese parents still feel ashamed if their daughters fail to get married by their late twenties. The nervous and responsible parents of the left-over women endeavor to set their daughters up with a man by utilizing their social connections. Under this situation, many Chinese left-over women live under pressure all the time. Ironically, in order to avoid endless questions about why they do not have boyfriends, and rumors that they are abnormal and have physical or mental disability, some of them choose to rent a boyfriend to bring home during the Chinese New Year. This extraordinary measure has even cultivated a new business opportunity.21

Although most parents would feel the shame and see the situation as deleterious, for a few parents, unmarried daughters are seen as very useful as they can care for parents during their lonely, illness-plagued old age. Under these circumstances unmarried daughters (as is often the case since the one-child-family policy in the PRC) are often regarded as free labor and an extra income for their parents. Chinese parents today still have substantial authority over women's marital lives. Even educated professional women have had to often deal with parental interference in their marital issues. Similarly, parents also exert influence over men's marriage. Mothers-in-law prefer daughters-in-law to be obedient; they thus do not pick women with independence and education, which might also contribute to the left-over women phenomenon.22

In today's China, despite some improvements in the circumstances of women in areas such as education equality, women encounter and endure no less oppression than prior to the Opening Up reforms.23 A vital sexism is revived.24 More ironically, many of the earlier advances that Chinese women gained in the Mao era have been eroded in recent years by the gradual reemergence of traditional patriarchal attitudes.25 This label—the left-over women, is "so obnoxious that it breaks down all the work [we] have done to be a better [End Page 74] person."26 In order to reclaim the word left-over, some stubborn and strong Chinese left-over women have started to take action on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter). For example, homonyms are regularly used online for the character sheng (left-over) that translate as "victorious" or "triumphant." In addition, left-over women are proud to be left-over, and they think they are triumphant women, and left-over is going to become a badge of honor.27

In light of the preceding discussion, Rene Liu's public image and celebrity persona serve as a representative example in explaining the "optimistic" attitudes of the left-over women while sometimes neglecting the harsh reality that is faced by left-over women. Before Liu married her husband at the age of forty-two, she had several unsuccessful relationships. Liu, like other left-over women who are thirty-five and older—is labeled a "Great Sage Equal of Heaven" (qitiandasheng), which is a play on the name of the legendary Chinese figure of the Monkey King.28 With an attractive outlook and successful celebrity career, Liu is called the "golden leftover woman."

Liu confessed in an interview with Chen Luyu ("China's Oprah") in 2009 that her friends call her a "ganwunu," a term imported from Japan to describe single women who have no interest or active involvement in relationships.29 In the preface to one of her collections of prose, Talk Love Downstairs (Xialou tanlianai), Liu wrote that she has become the "spokesperson of loneliness," and people all think she is an "affection clean freak."30 Some tabloid newspapers and magazines even suggest that Liu is a lesbian. However, in 2009, when Liu was approaching forty, she explained to Chen Luyu that she had not thought about marriage because she had not yet met the right person, yet she believed she would eventually meet someone with whom she was willing to spend her life.

At the end of her 2003 album My Defeat and Greatness (Wo de shibai yu weida), Liu recorded a soliloquy about herself:31

During these last years, I have been busy and traveled to many cities. I have been perplexed and even lost. I have started to doubt if all the things that I have now are what I have dreamed of previously. Therefore, I keep traveling to strange cities that I have never been to, although I am not sure what I am looking for in these places.32

Here Liu reveals her own life situation as being unpredictable and full of bewilderment and uncertainty but also draws parallel with the emotional state of many contemporary Chinese women living in metropolitan cities. In this way, Liu builds connections between her own experiences and emotions and those of her fans, via her pop songs and celebrity image. Furthermore, during this process of connection, Liu fulfills her social utility as a celebrity functioning [End Page 75] in contemporary societies, by serving as an identity archetype with whom her fans (largely single professional women) can identify and whom they can follow and imitate in their struggle for public approval and forbearance.


Although there has been perplexity and bewilderment during her search for true love, the single woman image upheld by Rene Liu is still optimistic and confident. The creation of this brave and strong left-over woman icon not only boosts Liu's image among her followers; it also caters to the psyche and life pursuit of urban independent women. Rene Liu explains the theme of her 2010 world tour concert, Taking Off the High-Heeled Shoes (Tuodiao gaogenxie) as:

High-heeled shoes represent so-called "affection." Every woman is longing to wear a pair of perfect high-heeled shoes that belong to her however, sometimes women also want to take off their high-heeled shoes that hurt their feet, in order to rid themselves temporarily of the "constraints of happiness." I hope that women can free themselves from the constraints of the high-heeled shoes, and join in my world of music in a relaxed and comfortable state.33

This observation suggests that the attitude toward love promoted by Liu is that although there may be confusion and setbacks in women's search for love, women should not be stuck in this situation and should adopt an optimistic stance toward singlehood. These innovative female figures who have emerged in Chinese society "chose nontraditional relationship forms over marriage such as staying single, cohabitating with their partner, or finding support in nonsexual friendship groups," and "they hoped to attenuate traditional household role stereotypes and to gain more freedom and personal satisfaction."34 In other words, to these innovators, casting off their left-over status is less important than their quest for egalitarianism, or else they could be alleged as "voluntary leftovers" who would deliberately not choose marriage if it clashes with their egalitarian ideals.

In an interview about her married life, Liu revealed that the most significant factor that led her husband to propose to her was that he was frightened by how much she enjoyed her single life (therefore she might not even think about marriage).35 On Valentine's Day in 2014 Liu posted an entry on her microblog site at Sina Web:

This Valentine's Day, those who have lovers do not need my wishes, for you have someone to give them already. Those who do not have a lover, I wish you happiness even though you are currently alone. Believe me, [End Page 76] you are able to make yourself happy even if you are single, for I have been single before myself. Best wishes for the single people among you.36

This entry received thousands of comments, retransmissions, and "likes," in support of her viewpoint, and highlighted the communication and interaction between Liu as a celebrity and her fans, which also indicates the effect celebrities have on their followers. Although Liu is highly admired and worshiped within her fan circle, her contented-single-woman identity might also be the catalyst for dreams by her supporters. Being a celebrity with a luxury lifestyle, and living without her parents from when she was a young girl, Liu does not need to worry about the "troubles" and "difficulties" of the majority of the left-over women. In other words, Liu's left-over persona over-simplifies the plight of single, urban middle-class women and fails to shed light on the stressful life these women endure from official criticism and defamation, economic discrimination, social and moral constraints, parental pressure, and so on. Liu reveals to us an embellished and de-ideologized emblem of a single woman advantageously separated from the diverse underlying impairments that are forced on single women in China.

Interestingly, in a 2003 television drama, Pink Ladies (Fenhong nulang 2003), adapted from the Taiwanese writer Zhu Deyong's graphic novel of the same title, Liu changed her public image from a talented single lady enjoying singlehood to a marriage maniac, Fang Xiaoping.37 Fang is a kindergarten teacher in her late twenties who is desperate to marry after a series of ill-fated love affairs. In the show Liu is remodeled as an "ugly," buck-toothed, dimwitted girl, based on the original book. Liu was chosen for this role partly due to her acting skills and partly due to her widely circulated image as an "exemplar" single woman. Liu playing a role in extreme opposition to her previous public image enhanced the entertainment of the series and consolidated her classic left-over woman profile.

left-over women in love: love fantasies and setbacks

The enhanced economic, marital, and social independence and power gained by Chinese women during the momentous social, political, and economic changes over the last thirty years have also changed the marriage and love paradigms for many contemporary Chinese people. The left-over women phenomenon serves as one of the more prominent changes to marriage and attitudes toward romantic love. The neoliberal image of the left-over women fits into the overall discourse of the Chinese state's economic neoliberalism pursuits; however, it clashes with the established Confucian and socialist expectations [End Page 77] on an ideal woman in the Chinese society. The dominant narrative that has been popularized by the state-run media attributes the left-over women phenomenon mainly to the unrealistically high prospects these women set up for their marriage, and their persistent assertions of independence. A Xinhua news article explains that the reasons for women becoming "leftovers" are their feminist mindset, their overconfidence, and being excessively fastidious. It seems that all left-over women have somehow developed a "psychological disorder," and they thus suffer from a "tragic fate."38 Likewise, the Chinese Ministry of Education (2007) pointed out that the unmarried status of the left-over women is a result of their own "overly high expectations for marriage partners," suggesting that "they are the ones to blame for their own competence and independence."39 In contrast to these scripted and exaggerated reasons the state institutions ascribed to the left-over females, Rene Liu's public image as a refined and charming middle-class single lady reverses the negative portrayal of this group. Through the positive revamp of the left-over woman image, Liu consolidates her own beliefs in the possibility of both leading an ideal single lifestyle and eventually finding a soul mate, and she also successfully promotes her celebrity image as a representative and profitable cultural signifier and commodity.

The left-over female figures that Liu has created in her songs, films, and prose have high expectations regarding love and marriage, but this is not due to their irrationally high expectations of their future spouses or to their "psychological disorder"; instead, it is because of their steadfast faith in true love and finding a soul mate. These female characters do not fear being single, nor alone, and do not surrender to their parents' pressure to marry after entering the age range of a left-over woman, but instead they wait until they find their ideal partner. When they are not in relationships, they dream of perfect and eternal companionship; when they encounter setbacks in love, they are brave enough to quit. Liu's personal life experience and media roles provide a meticulous and vivid rendering of the complexity in the love stories of these courageous left-over women. In her song, "A Lifelong Loneliness" ("Yibeizi de gudan") on the album Love and the City, she sings:

I am always lonelyAnd live a single lifeThe person I love has never appearedAnd those who love me I do not likeThere was one I could have possibly lovedBut he has leftI have thought of settling for imperfect love [End Page 78] But found that it is worse [than having no love]Therefore, I try to be optimisticAnd lead a single life.40

In another song, "Happiness Is" ("Xingfu jiushi") on the album The Intimate Stranger (Liu 2013), the lyrics read:

Happiness is not to insist on when it is time to end the relationshipAnd to cherish love and ask for nothing when it is time to enjoy itHappiness is to forgive but never ignore your true feelingsAnd one becomes more mature when they know how to love themselves.41

In one of her collections of prose, One Woman's KTV (Liu 2001), Liu writes:

I do not know how to express my love for you, therefore, I could only sing from my lowest pitch to my highest note. Maybe I will never realize my wonderful dreams, and never achieve humble tolerance. But, this is me.42

In these lines Liu expresses her emotions while also representing the thoughts of many left-over women who harbor strong ideals about love and are unwilling to tolerate an imperfect relationship. Well-educated, intelligent, and autonomous, these petit bourgeois or middle-class metropolitan women (most of whom are white-collar workers) long to spend their lives with a soul mate, and so they struggle in their journey to find love. In Maoist China there were barriers to singlehood, such as the forbidding of premarital sex and cohabitation, and no house allocation by a government work unit before marriage, but now that these barriers have all crumbled, women need not get married unless they find someone just right. In the future, China's big cities will be filled with left-over women.43 These seemingly unconquerable difficulties faced by women during the early stage of socialist China have been removed by the changes of government policy and moral regulations, and also due to the economic and individual autonomy gained by contemporary Chinese women.

In her 2012 short film Love, Limited Edition, which was adapted from her novella of the same title, the pursuit of perfect love is clearly demonstrated. In one scene the character, Fang Xiaoying—a pretty, single woman in her mid-thirties (played by Liu, who is the only main character in the film)—travels to Paris alone. She visits the tomb of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir on a rainy day, and admires their eternal love, even though they remained unmarried. The design of the film plot reflects Liu's emotional journey, like the earnest words she writes in her prose, revealing what true and perfect love [End Page 79] means to her. These genuine and poignant expressions of emotion resonate with many left-over women who are also "stuck" in love.

Another scene of the short film shows Fang sitting on the bank of the river Seine on a snowy afternoon, drinking red wine, crying and talking to herself. She is first melancholy and recounts the setbacks in her past relationships. She then gradually begins to laugh as she cries, and admits that at her age, there is perhaps only small encouragement and desire to travel alone to a strange city, which signifies her stubbornness in seeking true love. The theme song of the film, "Passing" ("Jingguo") further reveals the complicated feelings of the single woman, Fang:

I will leave you quietly, although I will cherish the memory between usEven if I do not know what I am giving up, I will still move forwardHaving experienced happiness and sufferingI am clear-mindedDuring the next journeyEvery step will give me peace of mindHaving experienced the best and the worstI will rememberFor tomorrowI will not force myself.44

In Love, Limited Edition Liu directed her own love stories and essentially played herself—a pretty, talented, and independent metropolitan single woman who longs for love, experiences setbacks in relationships, and is brave enough to end unsatisfactory relationships. However, she does not give up hope of one day finding her ideal partner—a true soul mate. In a 2005 interview with Liu and Bobby Chen by Patty Hou (Hou Peicen) on Pink Protein—a popular Taiwanese talk show—Chen "interrogates" Liu as to why she is still single in her mid-thirties and makes a bold, joking suggestion that she should consider her elderly driver, Zhang, to be her husband.45 Chen's open questioning of Liu's relationships drove her into an extremely embarrassing situation because she could not give Chen an acceptable answer.

There were rumors about a love affair between Liu and Chen, in which it was claimed she was the "third party" in his marriage. However, Liu openly denied these rumors on Pink Protein, and Chen also clarified the matter in a short interview regarding the news of Liu's marriage, in which he stated that he had finally received justice because Liu had found her "Mr. Right." Liu is a celebrity with almost no rumors about her love life (except those regarding Chen, which were proven false), even though she is in the entertainment [End Page 80] industry, which led to her being misunderstood as "abnormal" or a lesbian. However, her marriage at the age of forty-two disproved these claims and demonstrated her patience and stubbornness about remaining single until finding her ideal partner. Liu's luck in finding her husband in her early forties brings hope to many left-over women in a similar situation.

Although rumors of Liu's affair with Chen were proven false, she has played many third party roles in her films. In contemporary China—including Hong Kong and Taiwan—extramarital affairs, third parties, and second wives have become hot topics of social and ethical concern, arguably due to the rapid Westernization of moral standards along with the economic globalization trend. Shen Yan, the thirty-seven-year-old director of Chinese-Style Divorce, and a divorcee himself, expresses this from experience as he expounds on his drama: "There is too much pressure and temptation out there. It's becoming a nightmare. Every family worries. Is the man going to meet someone today? Or is he going to be seduced? What's going to happen? . . . Everyone lives in constant fear."46

As urban left-over women have many advantages, they have set some common standards for their future spouses, such as being economically and professionally stable and having personal charisma. However, a man does not normally attain such personal and social status until middle age, and most of these middle-aged men usually married when they were young. This paradoxical situation leads to many left-over women falling in love with married men and becoming the third party in their marriage. Therefore, the left-over women are not just a cause of unease for parents who may crave to see their daughters married off; they are a foundation of disquiet for married women, who perceive them as a peril to conjugal constancy and fiscal safety. This difficult role of single women in Chinese society is not something that cropped up since the 1980s. In the historical context, women getting involved with married men was already an issue in Nationalist China. Back then there widespread beliefs about the value of companionate marriage among the educated elite in breeding a better society, and that career women were destined to be mistresses to married men who had been betrothed in childhood to uneducated village girls.

In The Personals (Zhenghunqishi 1998), dentist Du Jiazhen is a single woman in her mid-thirties (the female lead played by Rene Liu), who develops a relationship with a married man. When Du falls pregnant, the married man is preparing to ask his wife for a divorce when he dies in an air accident. Without knowing the truth and believing that the man has left her, Du has an abortion and places a marriage-seeking announcement in the newspaper. This film depicts Du in a predicament in which contemporary left-over women [End Page 81] possibly find themselves, the third party role they play in relationships, which creates trouble and confusion for themselves and all parties involved.

Although many left-over women are highly educated and intelligent, the potential remains for them to be involved in unfruitful and immoral love relationships and to place themselves in dilemmas such as in the case of Du Jiazhen. In another film, 20, 30, 40 (Ershi, sanshi, sishi, 2004), Liu co-authored the script and played the role of the middle-aged flight attendant Xiangxiang.47 In this film Xiangxiang has two lovers—one a married doctor and the other a young, single recording director—but she is still thinking about her ex-boyfriend. This role depicts the open yet confused mental state of successful older single women living in metropolitan cities. On the one hand, contemporary urban females are bold and liberal enough to chase the love of which they dream, disregarding moral constraints, which demonstrates their unconventional individuality and strong personalities. On the other hand, they feel bewildered when facing multiple choices and encounter difficulties in seeking their ideal partner. These paradoxical situations faced by left-over women in their relationships not only reflect the intricate ethical and social conditions of contemporary Chinese society but also describe a new contemporary Chinese female who can adapt to the transformation of society in terms of making choices about love and marriage.


From the early 1990s to the beginning of the 2010s, Rene Liu's celebrity career paralleled her single life. Over these twenty years Liu sang, acted, wrote, and directed stories about her own love and emotions, which resonated with many metropolitan petit bourgeois and middle-class white-collar single females. Through her songs, film and television roles, concerts, prose writing, interviews, and microblog entries, Liu successfully built her public image as a spokesperson of singlehood, left-over women, and "loneliness." Through effectively building her public persona and celebrity career on the phenomenon of the left-over women, Liu's role as a celebrity is exploiting, tapping into, and deploying this prevailing social apprehension to carve out a space in a crowded market to promote and differentiate herself to consumers. Consequently, Liu successfully connects herself and her celebrity creations with this prevailing public concern and profits from it. In her finessing of the left-over women phenomenon in her songs, screen roles, and biographical and creative writing, Liu's iconic status as a left-over woman furthers our knowledge of celebrity as a powerful discursive force in the dynamic sociocultural sphere and a commercial phenomenon in the competitive cultural marketplace of [End Page 82] present-day China. Moreover, as a typical representative and a spokesperson of this particular group of mature urban white-collar single women, Liu's case foregrounds a novel trend about ideas and values regarding love and marriage issues that deserves and warrants critical attention from scholars of feminist and gender studies.

Shenshen Cai

shenshen cai, PhD, has broad research interests in contemporary Chinese literature, film, theatre, and folklore studies. Shenshen currently works as a Chinese lecturer with Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. She is the author of State Propaganda in China's Entertainment Industry (Routledge 2016), Television Drama in Contemporary China: Political, Social and Cultural Phenomena (Routledge 2016), and Contemporary Chinese Films and Celebrity Directors (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2017). She has recently published articles in Social Semiotics (2015), Asian Studies Review (2015), and Asian Theatre Journal (2016). Contact details:


1. Ruoying Liu, Tingshuo/Heard (sound recording, Virgin Records, 2004).

2. Anthony Fung, "Marketing Popular Culture in China: Andy Lau as a Pan-Chinese Icon," in Chinese Media, Global Contexts, ed. Chin Chuan Lee (London: Routledge, Curzon, 2003), 257–69; Anthony Fung, "Western Style, Chinese Pop: Jay Chou's Rap and Hip-Hop in China," Asian Music 39, no. 1 (2008): 69–80.

3. The left-over women phenomenon is most observable among the educated females living in the metropolitan regions such as Beijing and Shanghai. Based on the statistics published in the Beijing-based Global Times, the number of leftover females in the capital of the PRC is more than 500,000.

4. Marta Cooper, "Over 27? Unmarried? Female? You'd Be on the Scrapheap in China," Telegraph, April 31, 2014,

5. The Chinese state's attempts to manage the disastrous side effects of its own policy in population control—the one-child policy—has led to widespread abortion of female fetuses in preference for sons. Thus, in China, there are about 20 million more men than women of marriageable age. The party's fear of these agitated men, who are unable to find wives, has been enhanced by the eruption over the past few years of hundreds of "mass incidents" (read: protests) throughout the country. See Leta Hong Fincher, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (London: Zed Books, 2014).

6. In the sociocultural context of today's China, celebrity culture similarly generates various social functions in terms of forging prototypical identity genres and creating [End Page 83] novel concepts of love and lifestyle. The Taiwan-based singer and composer Jay Chou (Zhou Jielun) presents himself as "unconventional" for "Gen Y," (which refers to contemporary youth who consume cultural products, brand named goods, and current styles to underline their unique identity). In regard to his public image and pop songs, Chou presents a persona with whom this particular group of youth can identify in their struggle for identity—namely, youth rebelliousness, impudence, and noncompliance. See Fung, "Western Style, Chinese Pop." In another example, the popular Chinese mainland male dan (female impersonator) Li Yugang has successfully built his transgender performance and stage role into a new cultural emblem that transgresses and eliminates the boundaries between femininity and masculinity, refined and popular aesthetic appreciation, and marginal and mainstream artistic and life experiences. Chengzhou He, "Trespassing, Crisis, and Renewal: Li Yugang and Cross-Dressing Performance," Difference: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 24, no. 2 (2013): 150–71.

7. Elaine Jeffreys and Louise Edwards, "Celebrity/China," in Celebrity in China, ed. Louise Edwards and Elaine Jeffreys (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 1–20.

8. Kim Allen and Heather Mendick, "Young People's Uses of Celebrity: Class, Gender and 'Improper' Celebrity," Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 34, no. 1 (2013): 77–93; Kim Allen and Jayne Osgood, "Young Women Negotiating Maternal Subjectivities: The Significance of Social Class," Studies in the Maternal 1, no. 2 (2009),; Jessica Ringrose and Valerie Walkerdine, "Regulating the Abject: The TV Make-Over as Site of New-Liberal Reinvention toward Bourgeois Femininity," Feminist Media Studies 8, no. 3 (2008): 227–46.

9. Allen and Mendick, "Young People's Uses of Celebrity"; Angela McRobbie, "Post-Feminism and Popular Culture," Feminist Media Studies 4, no. 3 (2004): 255–64; Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (London: Sage 2008).

10. Jane Bayes, Mary Hawkesworth, and Rita Kelly, "Globalization, Democratization and Gender Regimes," in Globalization, Democratization and Gender Regimes, ed. Jane Bayes, Mary Hawkesworth, and Rita Kelly (Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 1–14.

11. Liu describes her job in the music studio as mainly carrying the guitar for Chen, buying meals for her co-workers, and cleaning the studio toilet.

12. Ruoying Liu, Shaonu xiaoyu de meili yu aichou/The prettiness and sadness of Siao Yu (sound recording, Rock Records, 1995).

13. Ruoying Liu, Qinai de luren/The intimate stranger (sound recording, Bin Music, 2013).

14. For example, her acting in her first movie Siao Yu (Shaonu xiaoyu, motion picture, Taiwan: Central Motion Picture Corporation, 1995) won her a Best Leading Actress [End Page 84] award at the Asia Pacific Film Festival. In 1997 she won a Best Leading Actress award at the Tokyo International Film Festival for the film Murmur of Youth (Meili zai change/Murmur of youth, motion picture, Taiwan: Central Motion Picture Corporation, 1997). In the following year, her performance in The Personals (Zhenghun qishi/The personals, motion picture, Taiwan: Central Motion Picture Corporation, 1998) again won her Best Leading Actress at the Asia Pacific Film Festival and a Press Award Special Mention in the 2000 Festival Paris Cinema. Her role in Double Vision (Shuangtong/Double vision, motion picture, Taiwan: Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia and Nan Fang Film Productions, 2002) won her Best Supporting Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards. In 2005 her acting in A World Without Thieves (Tianxia wuzei/A world without thieves, motion picture, Beijing: Taihe Film Investment Company, Media Asia Films, Beijing Forbidden City Film Company and Huayi Brothers Media Group, 2005) won her Best Leading Actress in the Hundred Flowers Film Prize in Mainland China.

15. Shengri kuaile/Happy birthday (motion picture, Hong Kong: Meiya Film Corporation and Sil-Metropole Organisation, 2006).

16. Aiqing xianliangban/Love, limited edition (short film, Shanghai: Shanghai Jiujin Reader Culture Corporation, 2013).

17. Renjian siyuetian/April rhapsody (television serial, Beijing: Beijing Film Studio, Beijing, broadcast on China Central Television Station in 2000); Shanghai wangshi/The legend of Eileen Chang (television serial, produced by Hunan TV and Broadcast Intermediary Company and Shanghai Sanjiu Culture and Broadcast Company, broadcast on Sichuan Satellite Television in 2007).

18. Phyllis Andors, The Unfinished Liberation of Chinese Women, 1949–1980 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983); Judith Stacey, Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Margery Wolf, Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985); Yi Zhang, "Untangling the Intersectional Biopolitics of Neoliberal Globalization: Asia, Asian, and the Asia-Pacific Rim," Feminist Formations 26, no. 3 (2014): 167–96.

19. Pun Pun Ngai, Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005), 61.

20. Yunxiang Yan, Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949–1999 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), xii.

21. Waifong Chau, "Sheng nu–China's Leftover Women, Single and Unmarried in Their Late Twenties and Beyond," HugChina Web, August 2, 2013,–04–17.html. [End Page 85]

22. Sandy To, "Understanding Sheng Nu (Leftover Women): The Phenomenon of Late Marriage among Chinese Professional Women," Symbolic Interaction 36, no. 1 (2013): 13.

23. Tracy Cui, "Left-Over Women in China—a Misread Story and Gender Oppression," blog article, April 16, 2014,

24. Fincher, Leftover Women.

25. Jeb Kinnison, "Leftover Women: The Chinese Scene," personal website, viewed July 31, 2014,

26. Cui, "Left-Over Women in China."

27. Cooper, "Over 27? Unmarried? Female?"

28. Leta Hong Fincher, "Women's Rights at Risk," Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture Spring (2013): 38.

29. Chen Luyu is one of the celebrity hosts of the Hong Kong–based commercial satellite television channel Phoenix Television. Her talk show A Date with Luyu—which is the Chinese version of The Oprah Winfrey Show—is highly popular among Chinese audiences. See the "Exclusive Interview with Rene Liu," February 2, 2009, A Date with Luyu, television broadcast, Hunan Satellite Television station, viewed April 27, 2014,

30. Ruoying Liu, Xialou tanlianai/Go downstairs and talk love (Beijing: Knowledge Press, 2003).

31. Ruoying Liu, Wo de shibai yu weida/My defeat and greatness (sound recording, Virgin Records, 2003).

32. All the translations of Rene Liu's original works appearing in this essay are the author's.

33. Tuodiao gaogenxie/Taking off the high-heeled shoes, 2010, Rene Liu's world tour concert, viewed April 20, 2014,

34. To, "Understanding Sheng Nu (Leftover Women)," 13.

35. "Interview on Rene Liu's Post-Marriage Life," January 8, 2014, Sina Web,

37. Fenhong nulang/Pink ladies (television serial, broadcast on Shanghai Television channel in 2003).

38. "Leftover Women: A Tragic Fate?" Feminspire, posted January 31, 2013,

39. To, "Understanding Sheng Nu (Leftover Women)," 2.

40. Ruoying Liu, Love and the City (sound recording, Rock Records, 2002).

41. Liu, Qinai de luren. [End Page 86]

42. Ruoying Liu, One Woman's KTV (Beijing: Writers Publishing House, 2001).

43. Christina Larson, "The Startling Plight of China's Leftover Ladies: China's Men Far Outnumber Women, So Why Is It So Hard to Find a Good Husband?" FP Web (Foreign Policy: the Global Magazine of News and Ideas), April 23, 2012,

44. "Jingguo/Passing," theme song in Love, Limited Edition (short film, 2012).

45. "Exclusive Interview of Liu Rene and Bobby Chen," December 15, 2005, Pink Protein, television broadcast, viewed April 25, 2014,

46. Xi Gu, "Traditions of Arranged Marriage and the Old Faith in Communism Are Merging with Consumer Choice. This Has Brought Romantic Freedom—Which Comes with Its Own Problems," New Statesman, June 12, 38.

47. Ershi, sanshi, sishi/20, 30, 40 (feature film, Taiwan: Red on Red and Tang Moon International Productions Company, 2004). [End Page 87]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.