Yesterday I was locking up my bike when a policeman barked at me. He was fifty metres away. He started walking towards me, and yelled again. No words, just sounds. Then he whistled. A high piercing tone designed to scare me off. He clapped his hands three times, loudly, and shouted again, a sound equivalent to “Oi!”
WRONG! That’s not how you speak to a human. Sorry. Try again.
He did not extend me the privilege of talking in words (wild idea, I know). Rather he made himself as big as possible and made as much noise as he could. I can only guess that he assumed this would startle me, shock me into submission, or get me to run away.
In case you hadn’t realised by now, I am a human. I am not a dog. But he treated me like a dog. Why? Because of my skin colour. This policeman took one look at me and decided that language would not have any effect.
Everyone knows foreign people cannot speak Chinese. Foreign people can only communicate in foreign languages. He gave up on communication before he even saw my face.
I turned to face him and asked him politely “where can I lock it?” He faltered, pointed and shouted incomprehensibly. He didn’t recognise his own language, coming from my lips. His preconceptions had deafened him. He continued shouting until I was out of earshot.
I was inexplicably angry. Kidding. I knew exactly why I was angry:
I am tired of being treated as a second-class citizen.
I am privileged: my nationality, my race, my class, my education, my sexuality, my physical ablity, and my earning power are all privileges. I am lucky to be where I am and to do what I do. But what I work hard to understand as my privilege is often mistranslated. Too often, people look to me as a shortcut to education, a commodity to exploit, an exile, an impostor, and an alien.
What really struck me was the familiarity of second-class treatment. Years before I moved to China I knew what it felt like. I have always known. Because I am a woman.
Like many women, I internalised my presumed inferiority at a young age, and have struggled with bringing it to bear ever since. Like many women, I have had to learn to recognise sexism and train myself to shout about it. Like many women, I have been combatting relentless sexism all my life. But this was about race, not gender.
I hadn’t trained myself for racism. I am lucky enough not to have needed to, but I think my impulse would be the same.
I was fuming. My immediate reaction was to lock my bike in a place even less convenient for them, thus causing significant anguish for three policemen in the area, revolution coursing through my veins. I pretended it wasn’t mine when they remembered how to use words long enough to ask. I was polite and I didn’t do any damage, but I refused to be reasonable. I rebelled. It gave me an overwhelming sense of empowerment.
2016 was characterized by sexism across the board, from President-elect Trump and Duterte to the Olympics and the music industry. We’ve lost a bunch of significant icons for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’d would rather forget all about it, for one night at least.
But the world has made some serious strides towards equality and liberation in 2016, with female heads of state taking power worldwide, and women standing strong together in the face of adversity. Here we take stock of the year to recognise how we’ve continued to move forward.
Taiwan elected their first female President, Tsai Ingwen, who is leader of the Democratic Progressive Party. Tsai has since vowed to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on mainland China, which considers the independently-governed island as a Chinese territory, desiring eventual reunion.
English musician David Bowie, who consistently challenged social norms of gender and sexuality with his androgynous appearance, music and performance, died of liver cancer. After his death, he was remembered as a unifying force: “a human bridge between the queer and the hetero-normative.”
American musician Kesha sued Dr. Luke, her music producer, for over a decade of sexual abuse which “put her life at risk”, including drugging and raping her. Sony refused to release her from her six-album recording contract, signed in 2005.
During proceedings, talk-show host Wendy Williams victim-blamed Kesha for not simply filming the abuse, stating: “business is business, and it sounds like it’s fair. If everybody complained because somebody allegedly sexually abused them … contracts would be broken all the time.”
Female stars, including Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, stood in sisterly solidarity with Kesha, with Swift donating $250,000 toward legal efforts to #FreeKesha
Police removed bail conditions on China’s Feminist Five who were arrested and detained last March for planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transport. One condition of the lifted bail was no travel outside their legal place of residence. However, police have not dropped the case and these young women could remain suspects indefinitely, despite committing no crime.
Aung San Suu Kyi took office as the first female political leader of Myanmar, after her National League for Democracy won a majority in the November Elections. The Lady became Myanmar’s first State Counsellor – the de facto head of government – a role created to counteract a constitutional clause preventing her taking office.
The death of American musician Prince, who famously defied categorization of race, gender and sexuality, shook fans worldwide. The Los Angeles Times called Prince “our first post-everything pop star, defying easy categories of race, genre and commercial appeal.”
Female Judge in New York, Judge Shirley Kornreich, ruled against Kesha’s motion to end her contract with Sony, even after attorneys argued that it was “slavery” to force her to work with companies associated with her rapist and former producer, Dr. Luke. Kesha stated: “All I ever wanted was to be able to make music without being afraid, scared or abused.”
Tsai Ingwen became the “most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world” when sworn in as President of Taiwan, when she vowed to promote democracy and freedom, and refused the idea Taiwan was part of “one China”.
Philippine citizens elected “proud womanizer”, Roderigo Duterte, in the Presidential election. He began as he meant to continue: by wolf-whistling and serenading a female journalist in a nationally televised press conference before taking office. Since his election, he has pursued the brutal execution of drug dealers, with a death toll of 6,000 in six months.
Despite all hopes (and votes) of the British youth, the island nation voted to leave the European Union in the national referendum. Brexit voters, many of whom were among the elderly population, were disappointed to learn they’d been lied to during the long campaign. The promise to re-route large sums of money into the National Health Service was immediately refuted by UKIP party leader and leave-campaigner Nigel Farage, who promptly resigned. Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, also resigned, leaving the country to wonder why he’d proposed this referendum in the first place.
Amid the post-Brexit chaos, Britain’s second female Prime Minister, Teresa May took office after all the male contenders played themselves out. British media ironically embraced sexism by reporting on the PM’s husband’s attire on the day they moved into Number 10.
Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic nomination, making her the first female Presidential nominee of a major party in US history. Her opposition, Bernie Sanders, called for a unanimous nomination, and civil rights leader John Lewis said: “Tonight we will shatter that glass ceiling again.”
China overstepped it’s bounds in the South China Sea, by creating artificial islands with military runways on reefs in territories claimed by other countries, inviting major international dispute with the Philippines. The issue came to a head when an international tribunal favoured claims from the Philippines and China refused to acknowledge the ruling. In an October visit to Beijing, Filipino President Duterte had seemingly brushed the matter aside, stating a realignment with mainland China’s vision, snubbing long-term ally the United States.
A UK police force made strides towards fair reporting of sex crimes, in a decision to record misogyny as hate crime. Panic ensued, but, as Laura Bates stated: “fears of innocent men being locked up for compliments were proved misplaced when women instead reported abuse and assault.”
Tokyo’s first female governor, Yuriko Koike, took office after winning a landside in the July election. To the displeasure of many politicians it seems – one politician implied her leadership abilities are compromised because she’s “a woman past her prime in thick makeup.” Comparing her battle for office to Hillary Clinton’s, Koike once said: “Hillary used the phrase ‘glass ceiling.’ It’s often a sheet of steel in Japan.”
A woman in France was forced by a group of policemen to remove her clothing on a public beach in Nice after France banned the burkini citing concerns about terrorism related to religious clothing. Images show at least four policemen surrounding the woman, who sat on the beach with her family wearing leggings, a tunic, and a headscarf.
Female athletes suffered as Olympic Games commentators seemed to compete for the “most sexist” award.
Hong Kong held its legislative elections, with the highest turnout of voters in the territory’s history.
New statistics about the gender pay gap show how factors like race, age and education also affect the chasm between men and women’s earnings over their lifetimes. In the US, there’s a negative correlation between education and earning power. Similarly, earnings decrease with age: the older a woman is, the smaller percentage of a man’s wage she earns. As a result of gender- and race-based wage gaps, student debt is all the more crippling for women of colour.
North Korea tested nuclear warheads for the second time this year, in the most powerful detonation unleashed in a North Korean nuclear test so far.
New data displayed a significant rise in the birth rate of babies born to women over 45 in the UK. There were 1,578 babies born to mothers aged 45 and over in England in 2009, but in 2015 there were 2,119.
Women the world over were not all that shocked by the release of an audio recording of Donald Trump telling a reporter how he likes to pick up women: “Grab her by the pussy”, is a statement he brushed off as “locker-room talk”. In a moment of solidarity against the oligarch, women across America revealed stories of sexual harassment and abuse by Donald Trump, which he consistently denied.
The more allegations emerged, the more Hillary Clinton seemed the obvious champion for women’s rights across America. The majority of people using the early-voting system were reportedly Republican women whose husbands wanted them to vote for Trump. Predictions showed Clinton to be the next President.
Xi Jinping was announced “core leader” of China, an honour only three previous leaders (Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Chairman Mao) have been given. The new title is a sign that, “willingly or not, senior Communist Party officials have bowed to his dominance.”
Hong Kong and mainland China clashed over the chaotic swearing-in of young Pro-Democracy politicians, several of whom referred to the mainland by a racial slur, ‘Shina’, and one called it the “People’s ref**king of Shina”. Protests erupted in the streets of Hong Kong as a result of Beijing’s interference in legal proceedings.
Women mourned the reinforcement of the glass ceiling as Donald Trump won the US Presidential Elections, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was infinitely more qualified for the job. Protests ensued across the United States and further afield. Many were upset to learn that no, allegations of rape and sexual abuse do not ruin a man’s career.
Moroccan TV normalised domestic violence with it’s make-up tutorial showing how to cover bruises.
Protests that broke out on the streets of the South Korean capital in November came to a head as the people called for President Park Geun-Hye to resign amid allegations of corruption. Park, the first female President and daughter of President Park Chung-Hee (in office 1961-1979), was suspended from office on 9th December to wait out impeachment hearings.
I turned 27, which puts me at risk of becoming a “leftover woman” – a shameful term invented by the government affiliated All China Women’s Federation to guilt unmarried women.
British musician George Michael was found dead on Christmas morning. George Michael was half of the first western act to play in the People’s Republic of China. Wham! toured China in April 1986.After Wham! separated Michael came out as gay, thus challenging notions of masculinity and sexuality, while remaining a sex symbol for the majority of his life.
Mother-daughter actresses Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher died 24 hours apart in the last week of the year. Debbie Reynolds was known for her wonderful singing voice, heard alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connell in Singin’ In The Rain (1952). Carrie Fisher was best known for her portrayal of Sci-Fi’s earliest strong female character, Princess Leia. The Star Wars character runs an empire on her own after both her brother and lover disappear with no explanation.
Guy uses Chinese whispers to ask for a date. Remedies for dating in inauspicious circumstances. Women tell true stories of their dating experiences in China.
Back in high school they tell us, “you cannot date anyone, because you have to focus on school.” The moment you get admitted to undergrad they’re like, “clock’s ticking! You have to get married or at least start dating as soon as possible before you become too old.”
During my sophomore year, my parents started to introduce all these random guys to me, saying, “my friend has a son who also studies in Nanjing”, or “my co-worker’s cousin’s nephew is from Nanjing and he’s studying to be a doctor, do you want to meet him?” I kept saying “no thanks,” and “not interested.”
But in the end, I think it was junior year, my parents set me up with a guy who was like 29 years old, and I was only 22. This guy was doing a PhD in Australia and he was also from my town. The thing is, he was 29 but he had never dated anyone. For me, that was a huge signal. But my parents liked that about him. My mom said, “Oh my god, he’s never dated any girl before, that’s really good!” I thought there must be something wrong with him but my mom loved it. He’d been living in Australia for a couple of years, so it just didn’t make any sense to me. I thought maybe he was gay and couldn’t tell anyone.
In high school, and in university, I was always a top student. And typically, Chinese guys like girls who are top students, so a lot of guys would hit on me. But the way they did it! They would just tell others they like me, and tell people to ask me out. Only after graduation would they actually talk to me, telling me how much they liked me. I told them to shut up. This guy was exactly like that.
I went out with him on one blind date and I didn’t dislike him, so we went on two or three more dates and my mom loved him. I teased my mom saying, “why don’t you go marry him?” His whole family liked me too. But the thing is, he was such a mommy’s boy. He would tell every single detail of our date to his mom, even what I said, every single sentence, he would tell his mom.
On my end, whenever my mom asked how the date went, I would only say, “it was fine.” “What did you guys do?” mom asked, “talk” I replied. “What did you talk about?” “I don’t remember,” I told her. But on his end, he told his mom every single thing.
There was another problem. Whenever this guy wanted to ask me out, he could have wechatted me, messaged me, or called me. But he didn’t. He would first tell his mom, who told her sister, who told her cousin, who knows my cousin, who told my aunt, who told my mom, who would tell me. The families are distantly connected, and that’s how he asked me out on a date. This happened twice or three times. I hated it. I hate guys who can’t take the initiative. I stopped seeing him.
After that my aunt kept trying to set me up. I only ever said no. Whenever I said no, she would say, “you’re so picky, and you’re already 25 years old. If you keep saying ‘no’ like that, you will be single forever.” Actually it was not just my aunt; it was my mother, and my grandparents on both sides, and my cousins, my parents’ cousins, even my parents’ friends, and their coworkers, people I barely know. Every time, they would say, “When are you going to start dating? You don’t want to be leftover forever!”
I really hate that phrase, ‘leftover woman’. But I’d rather be single and stay happy.
– People’s Republic of China, 25
When I was studying in Beijing, I planned to spend a few days at Harbin ice festival with a guy I was dating. We weren’t even officially dating, but we didn’t know how to say, ‘we’re just sleeping together’ in Chinese. We went just before Chinese New Year, we were in our early twenties and having fun discovering China one day at a time.
When I told my boss my holiday plans, she told me there were rules: I must not let moonlight touch my skin. I had to wear red underwear on the night of the spring festival. “Do you have red underwear?” she asked. “Do you know where to buy some? Do you need my help?”
Once we’d made it to the northern city of Harbin for the ice festival, wrapped up in thick clothing and prepared for temperatures of -11 °F, we spent time chatting to locals. One day we met a group of local men, who praised our Chinese ability and asked a lot of questions about us. They asked the guy I was dating whether I was his girlfriend. He said “yes”, telling a little white lie in an attempt to avoid further clarification. This led to a bunch more questions: “why aren’t you married? How old are you? When are you getting married? You should get married this year.”
When we finally got a word in edgeways, we said “we’re both 24.” This demanded intervention: “when exactly did we turn 24?” We were both currently 23 and would turn 24 in the coming year. This was our zodiac year, the year of the Yang.
This launched a tirade of angry warnings: “you cannot get married this year!” Suddenly, we found ourselves in dangerous territory: your zodiac year is supposed to be unlucky, and you have to do as much as you can to counter your fate and appease the ancestors. Hence wearing red underwear on the night of spring festival. One man shouted at us: “curse on both your families!” Apparently, if we got married and had a child that year, our family would be cursed.
My date turned to me, taking my mittened hand gently in his own. “If I can make one promise to you this year, it’s that I will ask you to marry me.” Under the circumstances, it was the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to me.
– United States of America, 27
Learning that an ex is married. Walking away from a Tinder date. Getting set up by your boyfriend. [part 1]
Humiliation by comedy in a Beijing bar. Parents say, “break up with him” because boyfriend is not Chinese. [part 2]
A Chinese first boyfriend who ruined dating for years. Suffering through sleep apnea on a first date. Offered money for sex with a stranger. [part 3]
Date says more attractive with clothes on. Does an open relationship translate to open dates? Getting an I.O.U. for accepting a drink. [part 5]
These stories are shared by the women who experienced them in their own words. All stories took place in Beijing, China, unless otherwise stated. Identities are kept secret out of respect for the individuals in the stories.
Narrate China is a video project by China Narrative Collective, an international collective founded in 2016, with a focus on life in China. Our videos aim to vividly share stories of real life experiences in China and make intimate perspectives accessible online.
On the Way
A young Chinese entrepreneur tells the story of his experience in China’s busiest transport hub just days before Spring Festival. The young man’s view are challenged by a lone child he meets in Guangzhou train station as the country’s workers head home for Chinese New Year.
Japanese beauty brand SK-II’s video, “Marriage Market Takeover”, was released in April this year and went viral. The video follows a number of single Chinese women who have reached or surpassed the age at which they are expected to get married, and must bear the brunt of social stigma about unmarried women.
The video sheds light on a major social issue; that of the Sheng Nu or ‘leftover woman’. Interviews with these women and their parents highlight the criticism and pressure faced by unmarried young women across China. SK-II created an exhibition of these women’s profiles near the regular Marriage Market in Shanghai’s People’s Square, clearly stating that marital status does not define them. Later we see their parents’ reactions to this display, in a deliberately public attempt by SK-II to bridge the generational gap:
Find out what these women courageously say to reconstruct the mutual respect between generations and increase society’s understanding to finally change their destiny in the film.
At a time when feminism is growing in China and yet the movement remains largely underground, the need for women’s empowerment is routinely ignored in China. As stated by one of these women: ‘not getting married is like the biggest sign of disrespect’ to her parents, and society as a whole. The film taps into that need directly. It now has over 2 million views on Youtube and almost 3 million on Youku (the Chinese alternative to Youtube, which is not accessible in China) and became a major talking point on social media across the country in the Spring.
Reading this in China? Watch SK-II’s Marriage Market Takeover on youku.
The short film really seems to be pushing for personal change for the featured women, and social change for China in general. What isn’t fully clear from this short, emotive, and quite informative, film is that it is, in reality, an advertisement. In some ways this seems subtle: the company aren’t selling a product, just enhancing the brand. However, this is a major contemporary marketing technique: sell the story and the ideology, then the product will sell itself. You just have to find their mission statement to see how this double-sell works:
We at SK-II believe that your destiny isn’t set at birth – it’s defined by the decisions you make, the chances you take, and whether or not you follow your dreams.
We also believe that everyone can have beautiful, crystal clear skin, and that feeling beautiful gives you the confidence to challenge the “little dictators” that hold you back.
The prestige beauty brand are using the tagline ‘change your destiny’ to sell beauty products. SK-II are using women’s empowerment as a marketing tool. They took advantage of a group of women trapped by their social situation in order to increase the visibility of their brand, which was an incredibly successful marketing ploy. As feminist author Andi Zeisler states: ‘modern feminism was co-opted by the market almost as soon as it was born.’
Almost since the suffrage movement began, years before the invention and advertisement of a ‘ladies cigarettes’ in the USA, companies have been using the language of empowerment to sell products. There is a ‘history of drawing on feminist language and theory to sell products […] driven by the idea that female consumers are empowered by their personal consumer choices’ (Ziesler).
More recent – and perhaps more obvious – examples of feminist ideals being used to advertise products include the Always “Like a Girl” campaign, which was dubbed a ‘social experiment’ all in the name of empowering women through feminine hygiene products.
Another is FCKH8’s controversial video entitled ‘Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism’, which was designed to offend a huge demographic and sell everyone else a T-shirt, while possibly exploiting child actors.
The language of empowerment is ever more prevalent in advertisements aimed at women. But it is not the chosen product, but the choice itself that matters in this particular brand of “empowertising” as Ziesler calls it. Looking over the history of advertising for women’s products, the company will normally target their female audience in one of two ways:
make women feel bad about themselves, then offer a product that will solve the problem created by the advertisement, and explain exactly how it will improve life;
make women believe that buying or using the product will make a difference to the lives of others, or to the women’s empowerment movement in general.
It seems to me that SK-II’s brand of ’empowertising’ does both of these things at once. However in an age of ‘marketplace feminism’, where a lot of brands are doing this, perhaps the Japanese brand is doing something subtly different, offering a little more. They are a company, not a non-profit. Their aim is to make money, not put the world to rights. So, while they are using empowerment as an advertising tool, as a friend put it: “at least they’re advocating these ideas.” In other words, at least their advertisements empower women, rather than diminish women.
What is truly striking about this short film is that these are real women (and their real parents) sharing the truth about their real lives. While other brands are using actors and shooting in studios, this genuinely occurs in the outside world and – we are led to believe – actually has an affect on the women featured in the film. If all beauty advertisements created positive social change in even a handful of women’s lives, the industry would be a different place.
Recently, on a flight home to China after a week away, I was mistaken for a man.
Moments before we landed in the southern city Guangzhou, a flight attendant reached over to my chair and pushed the button that made my chair spring upright. It was an awkward moment, in which he assumed that invading my personal space would be easier than communicating, perhaps because I was obviously desperate to finish the movie.
Assuming his English was not strong, I forgave him his trespasses – it’s often hardest to remember necessary phrases in a second language at the moment they require use. Then my brain caught up: what had I heard him say, despite the movie climax? I turned to my boyfriend for reassurance. He was grinning: “Did you hear what he called you?”
I rewound the exchange and my brain processed it; he’d said, “Excuse me, Sir.”
I’d never been addressed as ‘Sir’ before.
It dawned on me that my outward appearance was not decidedly feminine. I was wearing jeans and an oversized hoody belonging to my boyfriend, I didn’t have any makeup on, and my short hair was plastered down on my head.
I’ve never had hair this length before. Until recently, it had always been long – an obvious indication of femininity, even when everything else I wore looked neutral or masculine. Now, apparently, I’d switched sides in one swift haircut.
Admittedly, it had been a pretty drastic haircut – one that I’ve both been praised and criticized for, particularly by unsuspecting students and my very shocked boss. I’d gone from Rapunzel to G.I. Jane in a single June afternoon.
In many cultures, long hair is considered one of the primary things that renders a woman recognisably female. As both a biological by-product and cultural construction, the tie between hair and identity is strong, despite – and perhaps because of – the fact that hair is one of the few impermanent physical features. The social norms surrounding long hair and femininity go fundamentally unchallenged, despite the increasing commonality of women choosing to cut their hair short. (Especially in China, where most middle-aged women seem to have short hair, many young students choose to don a more androgynous hairstyle, and yet the extensive history of long hair being sexualised continues.) Therefore I view the outdated social expectation linking ‘woman’ with ‘long hair’ as a gender stereotype.
Returning to work after the summer months, during which my hair had grown pretty quickly, my boss told me: “Oh, you look like a ten-year-old boy.” This was apparently preferable to the “thug” look I’d been sporting when I left in June, but still lacking in comparison to his notions of “appropriate”, which could describe my appearance when I was hired. I shrugged it off while inwardly floundering, because how could I possibly respond to that?
What a thing to say to your much younger female employee, to whom you should be offering respect as a teacher and coworker. To be clear, there was no cultural misunderstanding: he’s American and I am British. We speak (almost) the same language.
We all know that gender stereotypes pervade society, but it can still be a shock to find this sexist tendency just sitting in the annals of your boss’s psyche when suddenly ‘bam!’ it hits you in the face.
I don’t care whether others think I look pretty. I don’t care whether I look the way people expect. I do, however, have a problem with people projecting their archaic image of what woman means onto me and other strong, independent women. I am offended by the implication that an impermanent change to my appearance makes me any less capable of doing my job.
Many of my female students felt the need to reassure me, “You still look beautiful.” These are young adults reading a BA in English, who with years of study under their belts could not possibly be oversimplifying their comments. Knowing several identify as feminists after an 8-week class unit on women and gender, I was disappointed by their implications of hair as the source of beauty, as this shows a reluctance or inability to question the social norms that surround women and long hair in Chinese culture. Every last one intended that to be a compliment; none of them landed.
What continues to overwhelm me is the extent to which ideas about gender are rooted in language. Now looking back – back past those overzealous students, past the outdated opinions of my boss, to the gendered mistake of the flight attendant – what’s the theme here?
It is all about language.
Despite the similarity of comments across several languages, I couldn’t help but look to the differences between Chinese and English for some answers. Of course, I don’t mean to target any language over the next. Germanic and Latinate languages have two or three genders built into everyday grammar. Both French and Spanish, for example, have speakers around the world referring to feminine tables and masculine cups of coffee.
In English, our most basic pronouns are gendered. But in spoken Chinese, ‘he’ sounds identical to ‘she’: tā. I wondered whether the flight attendant had simply misspoken… so I went further.
In Chinese, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are about as different as the words in English but imply more equality: ‘nánrén and ‘nǚrén translate into ‘male person’ and ‘female person’.
Major differences abound in polite forms of address, however, and all are gendered, starting with ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. The formal way to address a man is ‘xiānshēng’, which means ‘Mr.’ or translates as ‘first born’ – a nod to China’s preference for boys. ‘Xiānshēng’ often follows a name, as Mr. would precede a name in English, but can also stand alone.
Some say that a level of flattery is always necessary to get what you want from Chinese women, but they’re probably just tired of being referred to as ‘prostitute’ simply for being unmarried.
‘Xiǎojiě’ is sometimes used to address a woman in Chinese. Xiǎojiě directly translates as ‘little sister’ (or ‘small elder sister’) but means ‘miss’ or ‘young (unmarried) woman’. It is also now slang for prostitute, so is a dangerous term to use because it is very easy to cause offence. Another is the word for a married woman, ‘tàitài, which can be used as ‘madam’, ‘mrs’, ‘married woman’, and ‘wife’ – but tàitài isn’t usually used for strangers as it normally follows a name, as Mrs. would precede a name in English. Similarly, fūren is rarely used outside the context of referring to a woman as someone’s wife, as it literally means ‘husband’s person’.
A respectful form of address for any male worker is ‘shīfu’, which is a polite way to say ‘master’ or call someone a ‘qualified worker’, but is used as the way many Americans say ‘sir’. I most regularly hear shīfu used when talking to cab drivers or in reference to the ‘worker’ who comes to fix things around the house – a nod to the gendered nature of manual labour (and creating awkwardness when you don’t know what pronoun to use for a female cab driver). Chinese men will often use the term ‘gēmen’ when talking to other men. Gēmen (‘dude’ or ‘brother/brethren’) reinforces a sense of male solidarity, which pervades Chinese culture.
One that continues to surprise me is ‘měinǚ’, which is used as a synonym for ‘madam’ or ‘miss’, means something close to ‘honey’, ‘darling’, or ‘love’ and is far more common than xiǎojiě, tàitài, or fūrén. Měinǚ (which translates as ‘beautiful woman’) is the go-to pronoun for a woman you don’t know, particularly if you want to avoid offense regarding age. The term can be used genuinely, and innocently, between strangers, but it also connotes a level of sleaziness in certain situations. The average women can think of a moment when she’s been addressed as ‘honey’, ‘darling’, or ‘love’ in an overly familiar tone by someone she doesn’t know. Usually this false intimacy is trying to get her to buy something, and it grates. Měinǚ is similarly used by salespeople, housing agents, and customers who want better service.
Nǚshì is also used as ‘lady’ or ‘madam’, and is more neutral than měinǚ but less commonly used because there is possibly a class element at work here. Some might say that a level of flattery is always necessary to get what you want from Chinese women, but I think they’re probably just tired of being referred to as ‘prostitute’ simply for being unmarried.
Finally, there are the familial terms of address that commonly get used outside the family setting. For men, there is shūshu, which means uncle and implies that the individual being addressed is older than the speaker. This is what a parent or grandparent would instruct a child to call an adult male who holds the door for the family: “Say ‘thank you, shushu.’”
The equivalent for women is ‘āyí’. As it means auntie, āyí implies familiarity, but is also used for any woman older than the speaker. Children to young adults, young adults to older women. However, it is also used to describe female workers, like cleaners, cooks, babysitters, live-in child-minders, and often implies the woman is middle-aged or older. Yet it still retains its original meaning and is used without thought about a hired worker one moment and a family member the next.
How are we to believe Mao’s statement that “women hold up half the sky”, if China’s women are being downtrodden by the very language they speak?
On the opposite end of the age spectrum, come nánhái for boys, and nǚhái for girls. These pronouns are commonly used from infancy through teens and into the twenties. Similarly, nǚshēng and nánshēng refer to a young person’s student status, whether at school or university. Around twenty, young men begin to reject such infantilising terms, preferring something akin to ‘big boy’ or ‘man’. But many women continue to use nǚhái throughout their twenties and even into their late thirties, if unmarried. The reason, perhaps, being the lack of an alternative with positive connotations; unmarried women would rather be infantilised than referred to as an old woman, as a prostitute, or as ‘leftover’.
One of the most stigmatised and problematic terms in Chinese is ‘shèngnǚ’, or ‘leftover woman’. Unlike all the other pronouns listed above, shèngnǚ is rarely used in direct address or to refer to individuals. However, it is commonly used to refer to a major social issue in China, in news reports, advertisements, and other media. Women who have chosen to focus on their career instead of getting married at a young age, or have simply not found the right person to settle down with by the age of 27, are referred to as ‘leftover’. While a woman in this situation may not hear herself referred to as a shèngnǚ, she might instead be told by relatives and friends: “no-one will want to marry you.”
One of the most problematic gendered terms in English is mankind’, which rests on the outdated principle that using ‘man’ to mean the human species, is gender neutral. Here, apparently, the Chinese have got it right: ‘rénlèi’ means ‘human’, ‘humanity’ or literally, ‘people kind’.
What does all of this say about Chinese society? Well, it seems clear that all terms of address, whether formal or familiar, are gendered in some way. Every pronoun seems to carry some kind of connotation, but those for women tend to have more serious, offensive or damaging implications than those for men.
Chinese women constantly hear references to their age, marital status, appearance, and sexual availability, simply when being addressed by the people around them. Girls and young women grow up into this culture, knowing that their language is lacking something essentially positive and uplifting for women. Not to mention the use of gendered pronouns for those people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, how does any woman find her own sense of identity and self worth within this restrictive, dogmatic system?
How are we to believe Mao Zedong’s statement that “women hold up half the sky”, if China’s women are being downtrodden by the very language they speak?
With conversations about gender becoming ever more prevalent worldwide, and contemporary social movements problematizing traditional notions of sexuality and gender, it is increasingly more important that our use of language reflect the reality of life in China. My ultimate remedy? Find new pronouns.
A feminist anthropologist exploring the realities of culture, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Asia