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.
Helen Wang was born in Hebei province in Northern China, in 1960. She and her parents were forced to leave their home during the Cultural Revolution. Wang is now a retired English professor and still lives near the Beijing university where she taught for fifteen years. Here she reveals the hardship of life in China during the Cultural Revolution.
I was born in a very small town. Life was very simple. When I recall my life when I was a child, I feel I didn’t know anything much, even about China. I’d never been anywhere except my hometown, until I entered university.
What was day-to-day family life like?
Life was very boring to me, when I think about it now, because every day we worked for food. We starved all the time. I didn’t really have a childhood because I worked all the time, even when I was a child. For example, picking up broken glasses, toothpaste, waste paper, and getting a little money in return. When I was very little we didn’t have piped water, so even getting water I started very young. I carried two buckets everyday. I don’t have much memory of playing with other kids. I think every child at that time was working. I began to sew when I was six or eight years old, because my mother sewed for every member of the family. She worked, so she’d tell me “you do this: when I come home, you have to finish.” So it almost took me the whole day to finish, so I didn’t have time to get out. Like Mo Yan’s story, [we spent] everyday looking for food. Looking for food in the trees and in the fields, when all the crops were gathered, [we took] what was left. I grew up fed on potatoes and sweet potatoes, that was the main food for me. When I was in primary school, my classmates often took me home because I starved and fainted in the classroom. I was very thin. I never grew fat in my life.
What was the community like where you grew up?
I lived in a high school. My parents were teachers so I didn’t really get far out of the school. We lived in school and I learned in school and my parents worked in school. My grandparents were real farmers. So in summer and winter vacations, I did farm work. But when I began school, [it was] already the Cultural Revolution [1966-76]. So we didn’t really learn anything. Most of the time we were having meetings about class struggle and working in the farm fields. We lived at the farmer’s home. We did military training and work in factories when we were very, very small. At that time, there was no college entrance examination, so the main thing we learned, everything we tried was to find a job.
When I was in junior high, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I was thinking, “what should I do? There’s no reason for school, so what should I do?” So I began to learn to play musical instruments. I thought that would be good, because learning other subjects was no good. My father learned in Tianjin conservatory, so it is natural that I learned to sing, I learned to play, I learned to listen to music. But my father said, “no, this is no good for your future.” Most factories didn’t need people who could play a musical instrument. So, I began to learn to play basketball. I was in a basketball team. I was tall when I was young, but now I am just a normal person. I played for more than one year. I actually did very well because my motivation was to find a job, not to enjoy playing. So I did long distance running, I was a marathon runner. I really did very well in that small county. I was always number one when I was running the marathon. It was a very large county in Hebei province, now it is a small scale city.
I was chosen to play basketball at a higher level, at district level in Baoding, very close to Beijing. I was chosen to play basketball there and I was very happy. I thought I could probably get even higher if I played well so I really worked very hard. In Hebei province they wanted someone who could play well, so I went there too. They said: “let your parents come”, so my parents came. My mother was really very short. They said: “you have no future, you won’t grow any more.” So that was a disappointment, because I worked really hard toward finding a job and I couldn’t go any further because of my height. The other players were really tall women, they were like 180 [cm]. I was 168.
So I was thinking about doing something else, and in 1976 I graduated from high school. It was still the cultural revolution. At that time people were still having the meetings, and all of the country people were doing a lot of criticism on Deng Xiaoping. They needed people who could write Chinese characters, larger characters, on the boards, on the street. So I began to learn writing with brushes. I did that pretty well, and a factory needed such a person. I began to do this in a paper mill. They needed me because I could use a brush, but I was not a regular staff at the mill. I worked in the paper mill for two years until Deng Xiaoping started the college entrance examination.
I began to prepare for an education. But I couldn’t do the math and the science part. It would have taken me two or three years to make up for the loss during the Cultural Revolution. I said I would learn Chinese as my major, but they said I had to take the math test. I looked at English; you didn’t need the math test if you study English. But I didn’t learn any foreign language during the Cultural Revolution. At that time China was the enemy of the United States, the enemy of Russia, so I didn’t learn any foreign language. But the only way it seemed I could enter the university was by learning English. because for others I had to take the math test. So I began to learn by myself. It was a very strange English becuase I spoke English based on Chinese characters. Like, ‘cup’ I would say ‘ka – pu’. Luckily I passed the test. That was the beginning of my formal education. But before that my education, I don’t think it was called education at all. We weren’t learning anything, we were just in the countryside, in the army, in the factory. Most of the time in the army; like three or four months a year.
What was your military training like as a child?
We did very simple things, we were very young. At 12 years old, we learnt to walk very evenly, everybody doing it at the same time. It took a long time to become like this. We did how to sit, how to stand up quickly, like an army. We learned how to rescue wounded soldiers, so how to carry them and how to bandage their wounds. We did short distance fighting, with knives. Also with real guns, one time. But because we were so young, we might have made mistakes. I don’t think I could shoot well. Most of the time we did short distance fighting, with real knives.
Do you think your family life was typical of China at that time?
Not very, because my childhood was during the Cultural Revolution and my parents were teachers. Teachers had bad luck during the Cultural Revolution. If my parents were workers, it would probably have been very normal, except being very poor. Everybody was poor. But my parents, being teachers…
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s wife represented one party and premier Zhou stood for another party. Everybody had to take sides, but children, like me, wouldn’t. Adults had to take sides, whether you stood on this side or on the other side. My parents chose the wrong side, Zhou’s side, not Mao’s wife’s side. But my eldest sister chose the right side. My other sister wasn’t home for several years, because they hated my parents for being on this side. They argued, all the time, they really argued. I don’t think my elder sister, still, now, is very close to my parents, because of that.
My eldest sister is twelve years older than me, so when I was very little she was already a red guard. She was very lucky during the Cultural Revolution. She had almost everything.
Before I entered school, when I was about six or seven years old, one night a student came to my home [in the school] and told my father: “you have to run away, because they want to arrest you.” So that night we ran. We didn’t have anything. Took one quilt, my parents and me. We didn’t even have a bicycle, so we really had to run, on foot. We ran for the whole night, and we ran to a very remote countryside. It was s isolated from the world, nobody knew about the cultural revolution, so we stayed there for two or three years. I was late for the first year of primary school because I was there. I remember that time very well, because we starved all the time. What food could we eat? My parents didn’t work. If the farmers gave us some food, we had food. If they didn’t give us food, we didn’t have food.
I remember my mother sewed a lot of pockets into my coat. I’d put on the coat with a lot of inside-out pockets and go to the fields and take some food in the pockets and run back quickly so that they had food.
I did that very very often when it was harvest season. Everyday I went to the fields. A lot of farmers, if they saw me, they would tell the brigade leader and she would use a whip to punish me, because I am taking food from them. So I had to run away quickly. The farmers were not rich either. Everybody was poor. A lot of people starved to death. So that was life. We couldn’t take a bath. We didn’t have clothes to change, because we ran away on foot and couldn’t carry much. My mother was a math teacher so she taught me some math before I went to school. We used sticks on the floor, we didn’t have paper and pen. I even wrote a story when I returned to school, about what the landlady was like. An old woman, I remember her well because we lived with her and everyday you had nowhere to go, nothing to do. For me, I went to the fields. I ate there, got full, so the food I carried was all for my parents. I wouldn’t eat at home. Eat in the fields, and get food for my parents. This went on every other day, for three years. Later on we moved closer to school, but still we couldn’t enter school because we worried there would be a change for the worse. So, we lived closer to the school but we still lived at another person’s home. What did I do? I was about seven years old and I worked for the landlady. She sold noodles. Everyday I helped her, so she let us live there for free. My mother also helped, by growing sprouts to sell. We lived there for two years I think. Until finally, in 1973-4 we entered school. It was a kind of migrant life, but worse.
My parents didn’t have a salary for ten years and they didn’t make up for that. When we were home, they had broken open the house and nothing was left. My elder sister brought some stuff for us.
What happened to your other sister?
My other sister was ‘sent down’ to the country side. She was very young, only two years older than me. Because my grandparents were farmers, and since she had togo to the countryside, my parents decided that going to her grandparents home would be better than going to a strange place. So she lived with my grandparents. She was safe but she was a farmer at that time.
What did it mean to be a girl during the Cultural Revolution? Was there a difference between girls and boys?
The idea at that time was: girls should be like boys. This was said by Mao. You can’t be weak, you have to be strong like girls. If you look good, then it is a symbol of bourgeois, so we looked like men. Last year I watched the exhibition from Poland. Poland was a socialist country at that time, I think it was very similar. Women at that time dressed to deliberately look bad. If you looked good, you’d be accused of being bourgeoisie. So we did the same work, we did as the boys did, heavy work. Actually we couldn’t have nice clothes. Even if we wanted to we didn’t. No girls wanted to look good. But I actually really wanted to look good. So you know what we did? We did our collars. If we all dress in blue and grey, everybody dressed in blue and grey. We had some flowers on the collar, so you can just see a little bit of this. If you really turned the collar out, people would see it, so we didn’t show it.
Also, we would plait our hair and tie it with a little bit of coloured ribbon. That was as much as we could get away with. I was the youngest. The youngest usually wears the clothes that the elder sister had. When they grew up, they give them to you. So my pants always started very long, but quickly got too short. Because I was thin, my mother just had to add to the length. I had the same pants. Every time they got too short she added more, in different colours!
I had a relative from Tianjin. My relatives were sent by the government to work in Hong Kong. So when they came back, they gave us gifts, like an automatic umbrella [mimes opening an umbrella] pah! – it was really curious. They dressed so well, and they gave me some clothes. So I put them on at home. When I went to school I put on my blue coat but at home I wore my beautiful dress.
Of course, boys and girls – we were still conscious that we were different. So boys and girls would draw a line in the classroom at school and neither could cross the line. Girls played with girls; we played separately. But, secretly, I would hear boys say: “hey! You have big bright eyes.” But not loudly. [laughter]
Read on: part 2 of this interview coming Saturday 12th November
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.
he / she
nánhái(zi) / nánshēng
nǚhái(zi) / nǚshēng
sir / mr.
tàitài / fūrén
honey (US) / love (UK)
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.
Four months ago, I made the courageous decision to cut my 12 inch hair off entirely. Here’s a video of the day, the event, and the aftermath:
A huge thank you to my good friends Maxi Battaglia and Ponita Reasmy for making this video possible. It is a wonderful record of a major moment in my life.
If you’re curious about why on earth I would make that choice, here’s a little summary:
1. Short hair on women looks badass.
2. Binary gender stereotypes are best challenged on the body.
3. My sister lost a significant portion of her hair to cancer treatment.
4. The charity receiving my donations makes wigs for children dealing with hair loss from cancer treatment.
I wrote about my reasoning in an article named Four Reasons I’m Shaving My Head For Charity published by Aliljoy just days before the big shave.
While these four things are all great reasons, I think the biggest by far (for me) is challenging binary gender stereotypes. I’ve always taken an interest in challenging the authority of patriarchal social values that dictate and categorise the value of a woman’s behaviour and appearance.
Gender stereotypes are very clearly played out on the body. I’ve long imagined the female body as the ideal space for these to be challenged. To reference the ever-relevant Judith Butler, gender itself is performed: the gendered body is “the legacy of sedimented acts” (523).
When the body is both my private, personal space and my public, political sphere, I believe it the one place I can instigate my personal challenges to the world around me. Long hair is one of the primary things that makes me recognisably female, and one of the few that is distinctly impermanent. Cutting off all my hair – pushing my appearance to the extreme – is the ultimate act of rebellion against binary gender norms that surround us all.
Not only was this a personal challenge, but through the change to my appearance I challenged the people around me. I challenged my parents, my boyfriend, my friends, my boss, my students, passersby, and anyone who saw me in the three months my hair was unusually short for a woman. I challenged them to react and, in reacting, to show me their true views of what was appropriate for a woman my age to do with her hair.
The worst reactions?
The shock on my boss’s face when I told him my weekend plans. Six young students screaming their lungs out at my altered appearance. My boss telling me (with relief) that I looked like a ten-year-old boy, once my hair had grown a few inches. Being addressed as “sir” on a plane.
Being told: “you look super hot / badass / edgy.” Getting praised for my bravery. Having a friend copy my new hairstyle within the week. The look of admiration on my teenage students’ faces when I went back to work.
Probably the most common among my Chinese students, though, was an impulse to tell me I still looked beautiful. It was as though, like Samson’s strength, a woman’s beauty fades with a snip of her locks. This is precisely the stereotype that I wanted to challenge. I can’t assume it worked on everyone, but once they got used to my short hair many students – new and old – have praised me for my chic new look.
During two trips to Burma (Myanmar) in the past year, I initially felt surprised to experience widespread enthusiasm to speak openly to me, outsider as I am. The openness I was so frequently greeted with amazed me. Locals felt completely at ease about discussing the politics of their threatened totalitarian regime in my presence.
The people’s unfaltering hope and excitement were palpable as I commenced my initial trip in August 2015, arriving just six weeks after the announcement of a national election to be held on November 8th. I found myself in the midst of nation-wide political campaigns, which began just days before my visa expired. I returned in January 2016 and was in Yangon the week the new Hluttaw (national assembly) convened for the first time. Since February, newly elected President Htin Kyaw has taken office and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been granted the position of State Counsellor, the position “above” the President she had outlined during election speeches last autumn. Considering this is the first time a woman has held a position of significant power, the previous military regime having controlled the nation for over 60 years, Burma is bound for major change.
With a powerful female figurehead now at the country’s helm, it is high time for the women of Burma to come to the fore. Their unique voices can finally be heard by the international community and their previously untold stories can be deservedly shared with the world.
Thus, I am proud to announce the launch of a series of interviews with women of Burma. Numerous encounters on my travels around Burma kindled this project into existence over several months, with several individual and group interviews occurring in early 2016. However, the initial idea was sparked by two very different women, whose names I never learned and whose uninhibited conversation seemed to offer as much to them as to me.
All interviews were conducted in person, with the participants’ full consent for publication. However, the first two encounters took me by surprise. Given the spirit of the conversation, I believe they demand publishing despite explicit consent not being given. I feel it only right to honour the two women whose words became instrumental to this project. These women made it clear they wanted their voices to be heard by anybody in the international community they could reach.
Women travellers, Thanbyuzayat
31st August 2015
After a 5am motorcycle lift from the beach resort at Setse to the small town Thanbyuzayat, I learned that my bus was an hour later than anticipated. Disappointed, I found myself spending an hour consuming a Burmese breakfast of warmed but still near raw egg and strong Burma tea. I watched the daily procession of monks file through the streets collecting their breakfasts from neighbourhood women with buckets of rice. I would soon board the bus for a 13-hour ride from Thanbyuzayat to Yangon via Mawlamyine. My two weeks of solo travel in Burma were coming to an end.
Women don’t go anywhere alone.
I travelled alone. As in most places, I was warned against travelling alone. Of course, I know that travelling solo anywhere is potentially dangerous. I had travelled abroad alone before. I was aware of the possible dangers, and I felt well prepared to take care of myself. But this warning had a different origin. In Burma the primary concern was not safety but adhering to socio-cultural norms. While I was happy to follow other social rules I’d read about, Lonely Planet’s advice against solo women travellers went unheeded.
I was sitting alone on the bus somewhere between Mawlamyine and Yangon, minding my own business, when the woman sitting next to me switched with the woman in the seat in front of her. She offered me fruits I didn’t recognise and began to chat amiably, taking me under her wing, as many other women had, for the duration of the journey.
“My husband asks, ‘will you be okay, going alone?’, I’m forty-two, I have two children, I can look after myself!”
The two women were travelling together with a third who was sitting directly in front of me, but only one was confident about her English speaking ability. She was a Church minister and Sunday School teacher from Mon State, going to Yangon to visit a man from her local parish who was in hospital in the city.
It was she who brought up the problematic social expectations I had been sensed during every journey for two weeks previous. She openly voiced her opinions: Women don’t go anywhere alone. Their parents stop them. Husbands and boyfriends are just like extra parents – they worry, they want to check that you are safe. “My husband asks, ‘will you be okay, going alone?’, I’m forty-two, I have two children, I can look after myself!”
Despite clearly feeling the bounds of these gender norms, she maintained a positive view on her culture, insisting that the strong sense of Burma-wide community outweighs a feeling of restriction:
“People don’t earn very much, we don’t have money to travel, but people look out for each other, and help one another wherever they go. We are not rich in money, but we are rich in kindness.”
She had reached out to make sure that foreigners understood as much as they could of the cultures in Burma. Her words have stayed close with me ever since. They seem to encapsulate an ambiance I felt throughout my travels in Burma.
Women’s education, Yangon
1st September 2015
‘Things will only change if she wins. If they let her in, there will be changes. If not, things will be stable.’
Pausing at a busy junction in downtown Yangon as I waited to cross – a heavy bag on my back, obviously a tourist – an older Burmese woman muttered under her breath telling me it was safe to cross. The midday heat had begun to settle between the traffic and would not lift until the usual downpour around four. The woman moved slowly but was still close enough when we reached the curb opposite to continue the conversation. My impulse was to speed ahead but she wasn’t finished with me. I slowed my pace to match hers and listened.
She told me: All the young people in Burma are getting a bad education at the national schools and are having to pay for extra tuition (with the same teacher) outside school time – a scheme deeply entrenched in the country’s economics. ‘They do not learn good English,’ my companion assured me. ‘Even the doctors here do not speak English; if you explain your symptoms in English they will presume you want to pay the “international price” in US Dollars, not Burmese kyat.’
The woman explained: This is all because ‘the education minister will not get out of his seat’ (either to do any work or to make way for a minister who will do the work, she went on to explain). When she grew up, the British education system was still in place – that is the reason she speaks English so well and is able to voice her opinions to me so plainly. Now only private international schools, which are prohibitive and exclusive through their expense, teach good English. ‘That’s why the Number One sends his children overseas, to western schools. Everyone knows he’s been putting money into overseas banks for years; he is ready to flee if anything goes wrong for him here.’
When this loquacious older woman shared her political views with me, I didn’t have to ask who ‘she’ was; she needn’t be named. She’s been on my mind constantly since I began seeing her photo pasted next to her father’s portrait or twinned with posters saying NATIONAL LEAGUE for DEMOCRACY above people’s houses, outside shops and in restaurants all across the country. Aung San Suu Kyi, it seemed, was all anyone could think about.
If they let her in, there will be changes. If not, things will be stable.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been the national beacon of hope since 1988, when she founded the opposition party National League for Democracy. Everyone knows her name, but she is often referred to as ‘The Lady’, or simply ‘she’. She has spent almost 15 years imprisoned in her own home since 1989, separated from her family who were based in Oxford, England and not granted visas to visit her.
It took Suu Kyi and her party 28 years to gain power in the national government. She spent those 28 years either under house arrest, showing support for her people’s protests against the army government or undertaking nation-wide campaigns to unite the many ethnic groups in Burma.
I sensed from context and her tone that when my new friend referred to things remaining ‘stable’, I was to infer that unchanging political leadership in Burma would mean only bad things for the education system already in dire need of alteration. Education was a primary concern many of my new acquaintances in-country raised with me, especially in early 2016 after NLD had begun to adopt political power. Many people have faith in the changes NLD will bring, but worry that things cannot change fast enough for today’s students. How the Burmese education system will develop, only time will tell.
What a month this Women’s History Month has been! Living in China, it’s often easy to feel some level of disconnect from the fourth wave feminism of London or New York, but this month in Beijing has reminded me that women all over the world are fighting for the same thing: equality.
Feminism is viewed as a western concept all too often: a luxury for socially empowered, financially independent women with free time on their hands. A quaint pastime for the descendants of those women who believed that getting the vote would be the end of women’s rights issues and gender inequality, and were sadly disappointed. Of course, that’s not the reality for the majority of feminists.
Many of the issues individuals fight against are trivialised (from without and within), because of the shadow cast by the privilege of western women in comparison to women in other parts of the world. Some find it hard to fight their own corner because it appears eclipsed by the overwhelming adversity faced by women worldwide. Disconnects between western feminist strongholds and developing world feminism can often be misconstrued, to global feminism’s disadvantage.
Happily, there is a lot to be said for global sisterhood. Women of the west must support women of the east; women living in developed countries can support women of developing countries; because women living worlds apart are combatting similar issues and coming up against similar hurdles.
But western feminism doesn’t write the rules for global feminist movements.
Just because they don’t get to vote for their government, or don’t have the economic stability you do, or don’t have access to the resources you take for granted, doesn’t mean those women don’t fight for their rights just like you. In fact, you might be surprised at how far they have gone to get rights women around the world deserve.
Here are five Chinese women who have inspired me this month, and the overriding messages they’re sending, as they each make their contributions towards changing China for future women.
Defiance: Xiao Tie
Thirty-year-old bisexual LGBT activist Xiao Tie is the director of Beijing’s LGBT Center and one of Beijing’s most prominent young figureheads. Her campaigns for LGBT rights have gained international attention, most notably those protesting ‘gay conversion’ treatment, that is still a widespread problem in China.
Xiao Tie’s demeanour is bright and her humour infectious, but it’s clear she’s struggled with gaining authority and respect in her work. Even in her industry, Xiao Tie feels the pressure of gender bias on her appearance. She has recently changed her hairstyle to look more ‘feminine’ and ‘serious’, so she will actually be treated as the director of the centre she founded. Xiao Tie humorously admits that she’s been told she suffers resting bitch face, but that it is somehow appropriate: two other organisations she works with are Beijing Bitch and Slut International.
Xiao Tie was due to speak at a Women’s Day panel event on Saturday 12th March, as part of Beijing’s annual Literary Festival, discussing women’s rights around the world. That morning, she got a call from the police telling her not to go. She went. Xiao Tie was intercepted outside the venue, and told she would be detained if she tried to join the activities indoors.
Two weeks later, she and her two best friends, Wei Tingting and Fan Popo, dominated the same space for a LGBT panel discussion of the tumultuous year that was 2015. They had no qualms about expressing their defiance of the authorities, despite having first hand knowledge of the consequences: Wei was one of the ‘Feminist Five’ detained for 37 days in March 2015. These three know precisely where their activism could lead, but they keep coming back for more.
Determination: Lijia Zhang
Lijia Zhang, 51, burst onto the global literary scene in 2008 with her first book, Socialism is Great! A Workers Memoir of the New China, the story of her rebellious journey from life as a disillusioned factory worker to becoming a writer and journalist in English.
Lijia Zhang is a role model for women across China and worldwide. At 16, Zhang’s mother dragged her out of school, sold her textbooks and forced her to take a job at a local factory producing intercontinental ballistic missiles so she could contribute to the family income. Watching her dream of studying at university dissolve as she spent her days checking pressure gauges among a roomful of condescending older men, she may have resented her position but Zhang knuckled down to work nonetheless. Frustrated by her limited opportunities as a young woman in a male-dominated industry, she taught herself English and got a degree through the factory programme. That was just the start; her determination and courage never failed.
Zhang says there has always been a rebellious streak in her: as a young woman she read Jane Eyre hidden within the folds of The People’s Daily; spearheaded a factory walk-out in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989; and is now a public speaker and an advocate for women’s rights in China.
Research for Zhang’s first novel, Lotus, took her to brothels in southern China and into volunteering for a non-governmental organisation in a northern Chinese city, distributing condoms to sex workers, where she became familiar with the joys and challenges of their daily lives.
Zhang discussed these issues, her experiences, and her role in Chinese feminism at her annual engagement at the Beijing Literary Festival, where she recently spoke on a panel on women’s rights in contemporary China.
Courage: Wei Tingting
Wei Tingting is a feminist, gay rights and women’s rights activist in Beijing. As project manager at the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, Wei helped establish an AIDS Walk along the Great Wall, held annually. She’s represented Chinese women at conferences in India and South Korea, and helped collect material for a documentary film about bisexuality in China. She also staged a production of The Vagina Monologues during college in Wuhan.
During Wei Tingting’s public appearance at the Beijing Literary Festival last weekend, she seemed utterly blasé in discussing her 37 days in a Haidian detention centre this time last year.
Having studied Anthropology, at first she thought of her detention as fieldwork: ‘oh, I’ve never been into a women’s detention centre before,’ she remembered aloud. She joked about how difficult it was to clean the toilet after having her spectacles confiscated for the duration of her imprisonment. Surprisingly, she met her girlfriend during this time behind bars. They had to keep their relationship secret, talking in hushed tones and snapping apart after every kiss. They knew they were being watched.
She laughs off the details – sharing one small room with 28 other women for over six weeks, not being able to tell the guards apart because she couldn’t see – because she knows what five young women’s 37 day imprisonment has done for the feminist scene in China. The detention of Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi) repeatedly made international news, put pressure on the Chinese government, and kick-started an unprecedented era of widespread feminist activism across China.
“I thought this incident would be the end for us young, female activists. But the reaction has started an era of magnificent, new activists. They cannot catch all of us and block us all.”
– Wei Tingting
Xue Xinran, 58, gained China-wide popularity in the nineties with her radio show ‘Words on the Night Breeze’ (1989-1997), which focused on women’s issues and voices. She became known for travelling widely across China to meet her interviewees, and later began to write the stories of the women she’d met along the way. Xinran moved to London in 1997 where she worked at SOAS, became a regular contributor to the BBC and Guardian, and fought a mugger who tried to steal her laptop containing the only copy of her first manuscript. Xinran is a public speaker, advocate for women’s issues, and the founder of The Mothers’ Bridge of Love, a charity aiming to change adoptive and birth culture in China.
While Xinran’s life experience is fascinating in itself, the stories she retells about the women of China are unparalleled. Her first book, The Good Women of China (2002) became an international bestseller and has been translated into thirty languages. Subsequent books have told the real-life stories of one Chinese woman who went alone to Tibet in search of her missing husband and came back a devoted Buddhist, the uneasy relationship between China’s migrant workers and the cities they flock to, and the heartbreaking narratives of mothers who have lost or had to abandon their children. Her latest book focuses on the only children brought up under China’s one-child policy.
Not only has Xinran’s belligerent curiosity brought these stories to the fore, but she has given a voice to hundreds of women whose voices had previously gone unheard – given them a voice loud enough to be heard worldwide.
Sisterhood: Xiao Meili
Twenty-something Xiao Meili is a Chinese women’s rights activist whose campaigns in recent years have gained international media attention, challenged the Chinese authorities and landed some fellow campaigners in jail.
Xiao Meili’s best known campaigns include her 2,000km walk from Beijing to Guangzhou to raise awareness of sexual abuse in 2014, and her protest against domestic violence in 2012 that saw Xiao and two friends wearing bloody wedding dresses in public on Valentine’s Day. She is the mastermind behind the Chinese “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, which you can buy on her Taobao site (Chinese e-bay), and the 2015 contest in which women posted pictures of their hairy armpits on Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter).
Last year, Xiao Meili was campaign leader for the incident that led to 37 days of imprisonment for those 5 young Chinese feminists, including Wei Tingting. It was just days before International Women’s Day. They simply wanted to distribute fliers about sexual harassment on public transport in Beijing and Guangzhou. On March 7th, seven campaigners were arrested, five of whom going on to be detained for 37 days. Although she organised the campaign, Xiao Meili was not detained.
Xiao Meili could have kept her head down after the arrest, but instead spoke out, posting a picture every day for the duration of her friends’ detention, drawing attention to their plight. Not for a moment did she consider abandoning her friends, no matter what the consequences. She stood by her fellow women, stood up for what she believed and showed everyone the real meaning of sisterhood.
While all of these women, young and old, have drawn inspiration from the west or cite the western feminist movement as a source of powerful ideas, each is advocating issues specific to her position in contemporary Chinese society.
Each of these women believes in the power of the individual voice: the problems faced by every woman are specific to her community, there is no-one with a deeper understanding of her life, and if anyone is qualified to speak about combatting those issues, it is she.
By giving those individual voices a platform, whether in international media, documentary films, nation-wide campaigns, international conferences, novels, or safe communities, these five women bring Chinese women’s voices to the world.
So, if ever you’re in doubt of where the feminist movement is taking the world, look to China for a reminder of the myriad ways women worldwide are fighting for equality.
A version of this article appeared as What these 4 Chinese women have taught me this Women’s History Month on Aliljoy.com
A feminist anthropologist exploring the realities of culture, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Asia