Jakii Zhu is among a growing number of women in China who are finding their paths to happiness and financial independence through hard work and a good education rather than a marriage certificate.
The 32-year-old senior features editor at Cosmopolitan magazine in Beijing is a prime example of a new breed of women who celebrate being single and revel in the fact that they don't depend on the opposite sex for stability in their lives.
Three years ago, Zhu's family tried to persuade her to quit her job and marry her first love in the United States. Instead, she decided to end the eight-year, long-distance relationship as it had grown impractical.
'I don't regret that at all,' she said. 'If I was allowed to turn back time, I would do the same.'
Today, her job affords her unique experiences and takes her places overseas she otherwise wouldn't see - such as Taiwan, where she went last month on a business trip - and lets her dine at posh restaurants. And she believes she gets more enjoyment out of her career than she would if she had a regular nine-to-five job.
'My job has given me a great sense of success and opened my eyes, because I am exposed to fresh ideas and interesting people every day,' said Zhu, who graduated in 2006 with a communications degree from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
Juggling work, family and friends is a fulfilling life for women such as Zhu who are educated, open-minded and goal-oriented. But when they get to a certain age, usually around 28, some people begin to label them shengn? Putonghua for 'women left on the shelf'. They also hear others call them '3S women', which stands for 'single, seventies (the decade in which many of them were born) and stuck'. But while the labels aren't welcome, the lifestyle is, and for many of these women the ideas came while studying or living abroad.
There's an old Chinese saying that goes 'the emperor's daughter does not have to worry about finding a husband' - meaning it is easy for an attractive woman to marry.
But that logic does not necessarily stand in today's booming mainland economy. Since about five years ago, when a fashion magazine coined the term shengn? the label has entered mainstream vernacular, and in urban areas people are slowly starting to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude towards single women.
Connie Wang, who has done marketing and PR work for leading sports brands such as Nike and Li-Ning, said that because some women knew they could live alone and earn a living without a man, they developed higher standards for potential suitors. 'Marriage is not the benchmark for happiness,' Wang said. 'Without love, you can still enjoy your life, but without friends, life would be miserable.'
Despite the freedom that comes from not being tied down, Melanie Wang, 42, admits that she sometimes envies her classmates and their teenage children. 'But I don't pity myself, because they also envy my lifestyle with so much freedom,' she said.
An art-marketing professional in Beijing, Melanie Wang believes that freedom and love should be complementary goals, not contradictory ones. 'I won't sacrifice a part of my freedom if I don't click with someone,' she said.
She invests her spare energy in creating a healthy inner self and self-growth. For instance, chatting with artists, who are full of creative ideas and concepts, generates a purely spiritual pleasure.
Whether married or single, life was 'full of possibilities', Melanie Wang said. 'One door closes and another one opens,' she said. 'There's nothing to regret. You can be happy either married or single. Just let it be.'
Melanie said she put heart and soul into every romance just like artists put heart and soul into each canvas. 'All the men I loved gave me strength and power, and made my life so colourful and meaningful.'
Connie Wang, 30, is cute, single and extremely happy with her life, which includes scuba diving, cycling, jogging and skiing. 'We don't have to rely on someone to lead a stable, happy life, which is quite different from the generation of my parents,' she said.
Analysts agree: it's the financial independence offered by professional white-collar work that has liberated a small, elite group of modern Chinese women to lead satisfying, single lives.
The mindset of women relying on men was being challenged by women who pursued independent lifestyles, whether they were married or not, said Professor Huang Lin , who researched feminism at Capital Normal University in Beijing.
While older generations of women had little choice but to find a husband, women today who retain relatively high salaries no longer regard marriage as a safety net or a meal ticket.
'Women pursue not only a sense of stability in a relationship,' Huang said, 'they also think highly of other elements, including a higher quality of life through spiritual or emotional interactions and a feeling of sharing both joy and sadness.'
Career-driven women, she said, could live life on their own terms, especially as the rising divorce rate in first-tier cities raised doubts about the alleged link between marriage and happiness. 'The downside of marriage has surfaced in modern society, where many couples lead worse lives in marriage than when they were single,' Huang said.
The divorce rate has now risen for eight straight years, with the majority of divorcees aged 22 to 35. The rate has surged past one-third for all marriages in first tier-cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. 'To be honest,' Zhu said, 'if I could choose, I would stay in a relationship but not get married. It's just a piece of paper.'
Capable single women no longer rush into marriage simply because they have been dating someone for so long, or because they want to bag a good bachelor while they still can. Just as some Chinese men sought out women who were less successful than themselves, Huang said, some single Chinese women seemed to want a smarter, more capable man.
Women like Zhu would like to settle down, but not by lowering her standards. 'Increasingly, more women regard dating as a social life rather than just a road to marriage,' Zhu said. 'The ultimate goal of dating is not only marriage but also fun and self-growth.'
Single women still face pressure to find a partner, but it no longer comes solely from their parents. 'The real pressure actually comes from myself,' Zhu said. 'When I travel somewhere beautiful or see a good movie, it's a completely different feeling from if I see it with a man I love.'
It's natural to want to share joys and sadness with someone a person loves. 'I don't believe any woman truly wants to be alone forever, even if they are very tough and independent,' Zhu said. 'The idea of dying alone frightens me.'
But she still enjoys spending time on her own. She said that would always be the case, married or not.
'I like reading a book with the smell of aroma therapy while listening to lounge or jazz music on a rainy day,' she said. 'How luxurious that is. But it's unthinkable for a married woman with a kid.'
The number of couples on the mainland who filed for divorce last year, a 14.5 per cent increase over the previous year