Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Women Defend 'The Vagina Monologues'

And the response has been less than enlightened.

When 17 female students at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), one of China's most prestigious colleges, posted photographs of themselves holding up messages like "My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom," they probably didn't expect to cause such a stir on Chinese social media. The women posted the photos on Nov. 7 on Renren, an online community website popular with university students, to promote an upcoming campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, U.S. playwright Eve Ensler's controversial 1996 play. Each woman was photographed holding up a whiteboard with messages such as, "My Vagina Says: Don't Treat Me as a Sensitive Word," "My Vagina Says: 'I Can Be Sexy, But You Can't Harass Me,'" and "My Vagina Says: Someone Can Enter If I Say So." The photos quickly found their way to many other social media websites, including Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, and generated thousands of comments -- most evincing an ugly strain of misogyny.

Many male Internet users made comments passing judgment on the women's looks and supposedly loose sexual mores. A significant number of commentators compared the students to prostitutes. One Weibo user commented, "If no one told me they are from BFSU, I would think they are whores." Another commented, "What are we teaching in our schools? Are they the future of our country? They are a bunch of sluts. I feel so much pain for how far the Chinese civilization has fallen."

Over the past three decades, China's reforms have transformed the country's economic and social landscape, with women's sexuality increasingly advertised, commoditized, and monetized in the process. Prostitution is rampant and pictures of scantily-clad girls saturate China's Internet. While a minority spoke up in support of the girls, the photos still offended a surprisingly large number of Chinese Internet users, who viewed the students' open discussion of sex as another sign China's traditional values were going by the wayside. 

The commoditization of sex seems to have cultivated the widely held view that relationships between men and women, including marriage, are an implicit exchange of sex for money. One online commenter on the photos complained, "The reality is that some women can't control their lower halves and open up their legs. But when it comes time to find a husband, they ask the guy to have a car and an apartment and also provide for the family."

Given strident online reaction, one could be forgiven for thinking China had never encountered The Vagina Monologues before. In fact, despite a brief ban on public performances of The Vagina Monologues in Beijing and Shanghai in 2004, the play was publicly staged from 2009 to 2011 in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen to sold-out audiences, although producers sometimes had to omit the word "vagina" from the title in publicity campaigns.

The disconnect between the elite, educated women at BFSU who take a feminist view of their sexuality and the Chinese public that insists on objectifying it is real and troubling. Then again, performances of The Vagina Monologues around the world have often provoked uncomfortable conversations -- and this incident may be an opportunity for the Chinese society to tackle issues of feminism, sex, and violence against women in an increasingly patriarchal society. 

Renren/Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

Crying Lone Wolf

After explosions in a provincial capital, Chinese debate whether anti-government violence is acceptable.

On the morning of Nov. 6, an unknown assailant or group of assailants reportedly detonated several bombs outside the provincial government headquarters of Taiyuan, the capital of northern China's Shanxi province. China's state-run Xinhua news agency stated that the bombs appear "home-made," with ball bearings and even a circuit board discovered among the detritus, while photographs circulating on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, depict cars and tires riddled with shrapnel. The attack, which reportedly killed one and injured eight, comes at a sensitive time: barely a week after a deadly car crash near Tiananmen Square that Beijing called an act of terrorism, and just two days before Chinese senior leaders discuss the nation's future at a meeting called the third Plenum.

Online responses to the attack highlight the important debate occurring in China between those who sympathize with anti-government violence and those who don't. The attack is big news there: The top three searches on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, all relate to the explosion, and an announcement about the explosion from the local police's official Weibo account is the #2 trending post, with over 8,000 related comments. Among the hundreds of comments sampled, a surprisingly large portion expressed sympathy for the perpetrator (or perpetrators). One Weibo user wrote that under enough government pressure "common people ... are all possible terrorists." Another wrote that "people explode" when the pressure is high enough.

Many users went even further, directly cheering or encouraging the violence. Examples of angry, even violent rhetoric abound: One user asked whether "any of those dog-fuckers inside" the government building had been killed. Another wrote, "No matter how bad it is, you should not hurt innocent people; you should blow up a few corrupt officials!" One reasoned, "Anyone who harms the masses is a terrorist! But harming an official is vengeance." 

Most commenters did not discuss what particular complaint may have given rise to the bombing. Some speculated the attack had to do with Taiyuan mayor Geng Yanbo, who has made some enemies since taking office in February. Geng earned the nickname "Geng Chaichai" (roughly, "Geng Smash-smash") while mayor of Datong, a smaller city in the same province, for his controversial propensity to displace ordinary citizens in favor of ambitious construction projects. After the bombing, one Weibo user joked, "Geng Chaichai, come back to Datong; the big city is too dangerous."

Other users pushed back against the tide of encouragement. Many wrote that it was wrong to harm "innocent people" (although even statements of sympathy often appeared to exclude government officials.) Some confronted cheering netizens more directly. "I don't know what is wrong with people who are praising this," one user wrote. In a widely-shared comment, one user described a lunch-room argument with a colleague hours after the bombing. The colleague was a fenqing, or angry youth, who seemed "extremely sympathetic" to the Taiyuan killer, who the youth thought might be someone oppressed by the government. "I walked over to him," the user wrote, "and dumped my lunch on his head." 

Although the government has not yet named any suspects or motives for the crime, web users have noted that the bombs detonated around the time government officials head to work. A special commission from Beijing arrived in Shanxi just six days before the bombings to investigate corruption, increasing the possibility that someone was seeking high-level attention to air grievances.

The nature of online debate surrounding the Taiyuan bombing recalls other instances where disgruntled citizens turned to violence and web users reacted. For example, in 2008, an unemployed man named Yang Jia killed six police officers in Shanghai, in what some speculated was a response to earlier police brutality. On Oct. 15, authorities sentenced motorcycle taxi driver Ji Zhongxing to six years in prison after he set off a bomb at Beijing's main airport, to protest what he said was a 2005 police beating in the southern province of Guangdong. In both cases, online opinion split over whether to treat the perpetrators as sympathetic (or at least tragic) figures, or as villains. In the case of Taiyuan, a similar, troubling narrative is playing out once again.

Liz Carter and Rachel Lu contributed research. 

AFP/Getty Images