By Kristal Sotamayor

The one-child policy was introduced to China in 1979, written into the national constitution in 1982, and subsequently ended in 2015. Over the 36 years of the policy, entire generations have been marked by the effects of the state’s control on women’s reproductive rights. The films One Child Nation and Leftover Women both reflect and examine the policy and its legacy from different perspectives. 

Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, One Child Nation looks back at the influence of the policy on Wang’s experiences. The film pairs Wang’s personal narration with an intimate cast of interviews including family members, formerly-convicted child traffickers, and artists. Juxtaposing One Child Nation’s investigation into the past, Leftover Women follows three women’s journeys as they navigate the repercussions of the policy.

These women feel the immense pressure to marry and have children to rectify the legacy of the policy; a country with a higher ratio of men to women and a decreasing working-age population. From these two different angles, One Child Nation and Leftover Women depict the experiences of women who navigate the effects of government-controlled reproduction.

The one-child policy in China’s constitution stated that “both husband and wife have the duty to practice family planning” and that “the state promotes family planning so that population growth may fit the plans for economic and social development.” This message was reinforced through propaganda and harsh punishments. As Wang explains in One Child Nation, “I grew up seeing reminders of the policy everywhere… All of them blended into the background of life in China.” In 2015, however, the Communist Party ended the one-child policy, allowing all married couples to have up to two children. The propaganda that once promoted one child were converted to messages endorsing two children. Wang’s investigation into the policy’s effect on her family began around the same time as the end of the policy when she herself became a mom.

Orphan babies newspaper ad from China, from One Child Nation
From One Child Nation: Chinese adoption agencies ads of abandoned/orphaned babies

Cradling her newborn baby in her arms, Wang interviews her mom, Zaodi Wang; “At the time, ultrasound gender tests were not allowed. When I was about to give birth to your brother, your grandma put a bamboo basket in the living room and said, ‘If it’s another girl, we’ll put her in the basket and leave her in the street.’” In Chinese culture, the bloodline is passed down through the male side. Women are thought to “marry out” of their birth family to join that of their husband’s family and care for the in-laws. That tradition makes male children more desirable for the longevity of the family name and to sustain the parents as they age. 

Elders in China often reach retirement age without the necessary pension or funds for health care; making sons seem an investment toward retirement. This lead some families to abandon female babies in public spaces in the hopes that the baby would be adopted by another family. The abandoned babies would oftentimes die. Sometimes, the baby would be trafficked by orphanages and adopted to wealthy families abroad. In the US, nearly 3,000 Chinese children were adopted in 2012.

“It is a taboo topic for the Chinese government, which acknowledges the problem exists but also does not make public statistics about the number of children kidnapped or the number of children sold into adoption. Because of the implications for the tens of thousands of families in the United States and elsewhere in the West who have adopted children from China the topic is often taboo outside of China’s borders, too.” (From The Atlantic)

As a result of the one-child policy and the tradition of male heirs, there is currently a national gender imbalance. In China, there are 30 million more men than women.

Bride photoshoot in China

Leftover Women explains that “the government sees this as a threat to social stability and pressures women into early marriage. Women who are still single by their mid-twenties are labeled ‘sheng nu‘ (leftover).” The shift to a two-child family planning policy has added extra pressure on women to have children but has not led to an increase in birth rate. According to the BBC, in 2019, the number of babies decreased by 580,000 to 14.65 million; a nearly 4% decrease from the previous year.

Leftover Women follows three young women’s journeys navigating the social expectation to marry — Qiu HauMei a 34-year-old lawyer, 28-year-old radio host Xu Min, and Gai Qi a 36-year-old Professor of film and television. HauMei, in particular, faces great pressure from her family to get married. In a heated conversation, her father states, “The law says people should get married in their ’20s. You’re in your ’30s and still not married?” 

The pressure to get married often leads women to visit matchmakers and attend matchmaking events in search of a husband. In Leftover Women, Xu Min seeks partners both in-person and online. 

[Ad campaign for the Jiayuan dating website]

One popular dating site in China, Jiayuan, pairs singles between the ages of 24 and 35. Online dating is used primarily as a tool for finding long-term relationships and, potentially, marriage. Just as in the US, the sites are helpful for singles with busy schedules and work commitments. But some employers might even participate in the pressure to marriage by giving women extra vacation days during the New Year, which is a key season for blind dating. If women get married before the end of the year, a company might pay them double their annual bonus. 

“Jiayuan and Baihe, China’s most popular dating sites, had around 126 million and 85 million registered users in 2015 respectively (Tinder had about 50 million active users in 2014). In contrast to a slew of popular dating apps in the West that are commonly associated with a casual “hook-up” dating culture, Chinese online dating services are typically used by those in search of lasting connections and relationships — although this gradually may be changing. Chinese online dating services have grown increasingly popular as they draw on traditional Chinese dating values such as material security and marriage-focused relationships, and expand connections beyond the screen with offline events and relationship counseling services.” [–From the article “Love On The Cloud: The Rise Of Online Dating In China,” by Jialin Li & Anna Lipscomb]

For women, the government’s pressure to marry is an inescapable reality in their lives.

In addition to pressures at home, the laws in China on family planning restrict a woman’s right to preserve her own eggs. When Qui goes to a fertility clinic, she is informed by the doctor that egg freezing is illegal; “We don’t have a place that freezes eggs. We have a sperm bank but not for eggs.” Instead, women have to leave the country in order to preserve their eggs. In One Child Nation, the legal pressures to have an only child were evidenced by the harsh punishments imposed on women. 

Xu Min at a blind date event, in Leftover Women
Xu Min at a blind date event, in Leftover Women

For some, having a second child could mean that their houses would be destroyed, large fines imposed, or forced sterilization. In some circumstances, women were tied up for induced abortions. In a conversation with Huaru Yuan, the midwife that delivered Wang and all the babies in her village, Yuan explains, “I really don’t know how many [babies] I delivered. What I do know is that I’ve done a total of between 50,000 to 60,000 sterilizations and abortions… But I had no choice; it was the government’s policy.”

The legacy of the one-child policy is complex but the effect on women is clear. In One Child Nation, women and families are scared by child separations and deaths. In Leftover Women, you see the immense societal pressure for young women to marry, give birth, and rebalance the gender crisis and low birth rate. 

The one-child policy, however, extends beyond the borders of mainland China. Throughout the globe, many children adopted from China have been trafficked into orphanages. Women are currently being trafficked from Myanmar, due to the gender imbalance, to marry Chinese men. The lesson from the impact of the one-child policy is that when a government regulates a woman’s reproductive rights, it is detrimental for the world.


Roseann Lake, author of Leftover in China, talks about how unmarried women are changing the culture in China

Kristal Sotomayor is a bilingual (English & Spanish) director and cinematographer based in Philadelphia. Currently, she is the Communications and Outreach Coordinator for Scribe Video Center and a Festival Programming Coordinator with the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival. In addition, she is working on a documentary about the Latinx immigrant community in Philadelphia.