What does it mean to be a single woman in contemporary China? Lin Xin’s talking heads doc Single Woman (单身女人, Dānshēn Nǚrén) is less concerned with the “Christmas cake” phenomenon than with ordinary middle-aged women who are living their lives without men. Many have been married before but are now divorced (Lin does not speak to any widows) while some are not strictly “single” having found someone new, but all have contradictory views on the nature of marriage, relationships, and independence even if united in their sense of disillusionment with modern men raised in a relentlessly patriarchal society.
The project appears to have originated with local novelist Dong Li who as we discover is known for the erotic quality of her writing and is certainly among the frankest of the women when it comes to speaking of sexual desire. Having divorced her husband in 1997, Li explains that she went on looking for true love but found herself feeling exploited by men who were often overconfident in their sexual prowess and largely viewed relationships as a transactional activity, offering to cure the sexual frustration they stereotypically believed must be plaguing her in return for material favours. Li raises this point consistently while talking with some of the other interviewees who in the main seem to be her friends, even recounting an outlandish story of a married lover who lied about having a wife but bizarrely insisted on eating the genitals of various animals in order to increase his virility.
Xiao Hua, a teacher, also mentions potential exploitation as an explanation for why she’s cooled on the idea of romance, explaining that after divorcing her adulterous husband even at the risk of losing contact with her son she found herself in a series of unsatisfying relationships with duplicitous men who milked her for money. Her rationale for turning someone down because “he was not qualified to love me” may sound cold and cynical, but has a degree of sense to it given her experiences with men who misused her or attempted to exploit what they saw as vulnerability in her perceived loneliness.
Like many of the women, Xiao Hua had also been a victim of violence, another factor subtly raised by Dong Li as she talks to her friends about their lives as single women. Ya Lan dated her husband for eight years and married him only after overcoming his family’s objections yet later became a victim of domestic violence and eventually divorced. Unlike Dong Li and Xiao Hua, she found herself entering a relationship with a younger man which was genuine in intent though she later found him lazy and immature, treating her perhaps more like a mother in need of someone looking after him while she longed for someone to look after her. After that relationship ended she declared herself happy with the single life but has since found a more satisfying match in a devoted retiree and now that her son has married is planning to remarry herself.
On the other hand, Chen Yuan is the only one of the women who has never been married and seems to have accepted the idea that she’ll remain single for the rest of her life though this does not appear to be her desire or intention. In fact none of the women except perhaps Dong Li entirely embraces the legitimacy of a woman’s right not to marry at all. Nevertheless, she firmly believes that a woman should be independent and that it is perfectly possible to be happy without a man even if she looks back with regret on the romantic choices of her youth wondering if she was perhaps too picky turning down a man who sincerely loved her solely because she was not sure he was really the one. Lili meanwhile married the man she loved and forged a conventional family but the relationship later suffered under the demands of everyday life raising children and her husband left her feeling that in the end they were simply incompatible. Despite the way it ended, Lili declares herself happy with married life but has no real desire to try again grateful in a sense to have experienced two different ways of living.
Her experience could then not be more different than that of Mei Xiang who is actually the first of the women we meet as she tells a disturbing story about being attacked by the husband of her husband’s mistress. The man in question was actually her second husband whom she’d been persuaded to marry on the grounds of his “honesty” despite her misgivings, her first marriage had ended due to animosity from her husband’s parents who tried to convince her to give their daughter up for adoption in order to try again for a son under the demands of the One Child Policy. Her husband was never able to stand up to his family who refused to see the baby and the marriage broke down though now she wonders if they were over hasty and couldn’t perhaps have worked things out if they hadn’t been so young and impulsive. She hasn’t quite sworn off the idea of marrying again, sure that there are good men out there it’s just that she hasn’t yet met one, but seems to have filled her life with her charity work and prioritised self-fulfilment over social expectation.
Ending on a rather ironic note, Lin takes us back to the school where Xiao Hua works as a group of children engage in a boys vs girls tug of war. Despite Mei Xiang’s declaration that there must be good men out there, Lin’s women haven’t had much luck locating them, each victims of deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes, but most haven’t given up hope of finding love and it seems deciding to be a single woman leading an independent life is still an unthinkable taboo. Nevertheless each of the women, Dong Li included, has found a degree of peace with their life choices and has at least the solidarity of her female friends to help her cope with a still unforgiving patriarchal society.
Single Woman is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.