On a quiet alley off the main strip of a bustling tourist hutong district of Beijing near the old Bell Tower, a small theater slowly filled up with people on a weekend this past August.
The theater was fronted by a chic coffee shop where water bottles sold for over double what they would at a typical convenience store and the coffee selection was suitable for the pallet of most connoisseurs in the US, or at least addicts.
Through this shop people shuffled into a small black box theater theater, perhaps the size a volley ball court, with scaffold-like seating against one wall and a circle of folding chairs centered on the stage. The last member of the audience took their seat and the play began: a provocative, honest, and deeply emotional account of the female menstrual cycle—a topic rarely discussed in China.
The play—titled the “Period Paint Monologues”—comes at an interesting time for gender politics in China. Women are gaining access to information that they previously could not reach. For example, the Gender in China (女权之声 nǚquán zhīshēng) magazine on WeChat regularly posts articles on a variety of issues from gender inequality in China’s college entrance exam to the economics of China’s “leftover women”.
That said, with government crackdowns on independent film producers and other progressive voices in the country, the means for genuine discussion of this sort are being squandered in favor of—for example, in the film industry—big budget productions that tend to play up traditional notions of gender, or as some consider them, chauvinistic ones. The voices allowed to be mass marketed are safe, not controversial, soothing rather than provoking; everything the “Period Paint Monologues” was not.
Unlike the United States, the drive for equality for women in China actually began with top-down initiatives enacted by the Chinese Communist Party. Inspired by communist rhetoric and notions for equality started in western nations, Chairman Mao declared that “women hold up half the sky” (女人撑起半边天 nǚrén chēngqǐ bànbiāntiān) and the party set about promoting a pro-women propaganda campaign that sought to undo the purportedly sexist dogma of traditional Chinese society.
As Lily, a performer of the “Period Paint Monologues” explained, “it was a time when women were pushed to be like men in terms of labor, but men were pushed to be like women in terms of character.” She further clarified that much of this was done in the interest of maximizing labor efficiency. During this time the Chinese government was responsible for assigning jobs to graduates regardless of gender. This top down economic model ensured that many positions were occupied by women.
That is no longer the case. With China gradually ceding the reins of its economy to market factors college graduates are increasingly responsible for finding employment on their own. The situation has resulted in what some consider blatant discrimination based on gender and perhaps a step back for women in China. Many employers specify that they want a male for jobs that are traditionally suitable for both genders, the gap in income between men and women has risen in recent years (women in cities make 67.3% what men make, in the countryside they make 56%), and given the current state of the Chinese legal system it is hard for women to remedy these situations.
While some are critical of such developments, others do not find them quite as surprising. Yangneng, a teacher native of Guangxi Province who attended this year’s Asia Women’s Empowerment conference in Jogja, Indonesia, stated, “I don’t think sexism has emerged as result of China’s economic development, it’s always been there. In different times people paid attention to different things. In the past, everybody was just concerned with how to clothe and feed themselves.”
While she agreed that the party did promote notions of equality between men and women, it is hard to take some of this seriously as they also enacted policies that did not agree with such notions. That said, Yangneng was also keen to point out that the notion of “equality” between the two cultures—Western and Chinese—are different, and what outsiders may find unacceptable many Chinese may content to be a normal situation.
The interesting thing to note is that the Chinese government does not appear opposed to equality of men and women per se—after all, it is one of the tenants of a Communist utopia—rather they seem hesitant of the path that may be required to get to such a point. Whereas the government tried to instill a sense of equality in the past, the movement is beginning to become more grassroots, working up from women themselves speaking out about their position in society, often modeled to some degree off their Western counterparts. Such movements are necessarily difficult as people need to reconsider certain notions they hold, and the process does not fit the numbing state of social harmony often featured in Chinese government campaigns.
And yet some are continuing to challenge such notions, as the “Period Paint Monologues” serves as a case in point. That said, such productions remain confined to small theaters out of the general public’s eye.
Asked how she felt their performance would be received at Beijing’s Workers Stadium packed with the hundred names of China (老百姓 lǎobǎixìng—the common people) Lily mused: “Some people would leave straight away, because they are appalled by the topic, or they would sit there constantly checking their phones… but I think there would be some people who would go back home and ask their wife or girlfriend about it.”
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