Art is often seen as the being an archive of a society’s collective memory. It’s a form of education, instilling values and changing opinions about events and prevailing opinions.
In 2020, the fight in China to bring voice to issues surrounding sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, pervading misogyny and other issues closely related to women continues, with TV shows, singers and actors lending their influence to a growing wave of prominent feminist and activist voices, such as Xianzi, the activist suing TV host Zhou Jun for forcibly kissing her in 2014 when she was an intern.
Here are some of the most significant cultural events and voices in 2020 which spotlighted women’s issues in China in a positive push for change. Don’t expect to find Disney’s Mulan on this list.
The first episode of Vicki Zhao’s powerful new TV show Hear Her only aired in late November, but its immediate impact makes it worthy of a prominent place on this list.
Zhao, perhaps best known for her role as Mulan (not that one — the 2009 live-action version), brought a collection of eight female-centric stories to major streaming platform Tencent, with each one focusing on a different issue surrounding women in contemporary China. Billed as “China’s first female monologue-centered TV show,” Hear Her used dramatized solo performances and famous stars (including Yang Mi and Berlinale Silver Bear winner Yong Mei), but the stories felt very real — something reflected in the outpouring of empathetic social media responses to each episode.
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The show’s first episode, “Magic Mirror,” focused on body image issues and sparked a wave of discussion on social media, with related hashtags generating 540 million views in just over 24 hours.
“Looks are valued because today’s society is less and less tolerant of women,” reads one particularly popular Weibo comment. “God, I have such a strong body dissatisfaction,” wrote another user on the site.
The show has gone on to grapple with misogynist hate speech and family pressures, sparking wide-ranging, often much-needed discussions each week.
A former contestant on mainstream talent shows such as I Am A Singer and Super Girl, Tan Weiwei sparked a flurry of social media conversation at the tail-end of 2020. The main reason? “Xiao Juan,” a song from her new album 3811, captured the emotions and horror behind domestic abuse.
“Xiao Juan,” which takes its name from a frequently used media pseudonym for victims of domestic abuse, paints a vivid picture with lyrics such as, “With fists, with kerosene, with acid […] Imprisoned my body and cut off my tongue, silently weaving tears into the silk and brocade.”
The lyrics reference a slew of high-profile instances of domestic violence, such as the emergence of video footage of a man in northern China’s Shanxi province beating his wife to death, as well as the instance of Tibetan livestreamer Lhamo, who was set on fire by her husband and subsequently died from the burns incurred.
Li Xueqin catapulted to fame on Chinese comedy show Rock and Roast on Tencent earlier this year, earning praise for her focus on subjects relating to loneliness and depression, as well as her humorous stories about her crush on Mandopop star Kris Wu. The Peking University graduate also breaks with stereotypes surrounding that particular school, the so-called Harvard of China, by pursuing a career in comedy.
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In one of the more viral moments on the show, Li’s co-contestant Yang Li called out mediocre men who have an inflated sense of confidence. That comment drew the ire of a law professor at a PKU who fired back with, “A man may be average, but you are likely ugly without make-up.” His comment showed the basic sexism and male privilege that is still a large factor in Chinese society — but hopefully also gave Yang and Li some material to work with in future sets.
A social media post by idol rapper Yamy sparked a widespread discussion about workplace harassment in post-#MeToo China earlier this year. Yamy, who rose to fame on competition shows Rap of China and Produce 101, debuted as part of the idol group Rocket Girls in 2018. Just two days before the group’s disbandment on July 23, she posted a message and audio recording on her Weibo page detailing the harassment and abuse she’d endured at the hands of Xu Mingchao, her boss and the CEO of JC Universe Entertainment agency.
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In the three-minute recording of a company meeting led by Xu, he can be heard saying, “Ask me if Yamy is pretty. Ask me! She is ugly. Extremely ugly. Is there anyone who can’t agree with this fact?” Xu then continues to criticize Yamy’s appearance, clothing, and singing ability, asking members of the staff to agree with him. In her statement, Yamy wrote: “Those two years of endless cycles of beatdowns and criticism made me extremely depressed […] I really used to think that if there were a problem, it must have been my fault, that I didn’t do well enough.”
After Yamy’s post, the hashtag #workplacePUA (PUA here meaning “pick-up artist,” used to call out manipulative males and their behavior) reached over 590 million hits on Weibo, with people denouncing Xu’s actions and sharing their own experiences with abusive employers.
Yang Liping is an internationally-renowned dancer and choreographer who became famous for her signature dance, “Spirit of Peacock” (雀之灵) in the late 1980s.
The Yunnanese dancer was at the center of an ageist and sexist controversy earlier this year, when a netizen commented on one of her social media posts saying: “The biggest failure as a female is childlessness. The so-called ‘live your own life’ is a lie. Even if you could stay young for another 30 years, when it comes to 100-year-olds, will you look like you are 30? No matter how pretty and accomplished you are, you cannot beat time. You won’t be able to have the joy of being surrounded by grandchildren when you are 90.”
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The comment incited an intense debate online. In particular, a procession of famous female celebrities reacted with anger on Chinese microblogging site Weibo.
Days after the controversy rearer its head, Yang herself spoke out with a classy response: “It is inevitable that every human being will go on a journey to become old […] But as long as your spirit is young and filled with positive vibes, you will have a special aura around you. As long as you think you are having a good life and are not harmful to others, it is all good. Thank you everyone for your understanding and love. I hope we could all be at ease, just like me.”
Zhong Feifei’s road to variety show fame has been unconventional. As a university student at Johns Hopkins studying counter terrorism, she had never performed on stage nor had any big aspirations to make music as a career. But when producers of the hugely successful Chinese variety show Produce Camp 2020 (创造营 2020) discovered the Congolese-Chinese singer via her beauty blog, she was suddenly flung into the spotlight.
Once there, she eschewed the usual play-it-safe path followed by Chinese pop stars. While Zhong’s fans have been supportive of her roots and interests, her encounters with racial abuse on the Chinese internet, directed at her biracial background, have been well-documented — and she’s not been afraid of facing down such comments.
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In a racist repost of a group of her selfies on Weibo in November of last year, a commenter asked whether ancestors of Chinese people would be angry at her calling herself a descendant of Han Chinese people. Zhong commented that the poster could go to hell and find out.
The occurrence put racism against biracial Chinese people squarely in the spotlight once again, something that China has had a problem with in the past, with stories surrounding the likes of variety show contestant Lou Jing more than ten years ago, showing how while some things change, others stay the same over time.
Zhong however, has continued her rise — putting out a debut solo single in November 2020 — as well as maintaining a willingness to not shy away from such issues.
Bilibili-produced variety show Rap for Youth was a certified hit in China this summer, but the show’s finale made headlines for reasons other than just the hip hop talent on display. Contestant Sheng Dai’s lyrics denouncing sexual harassment in the workplace and criticizing victim shaming were apparently cut from the broadcast of the show’s last episode, triggering the artists involved to highlight the incident on social media.
As the finale was airing, Sheng’s teammate on the show, Chen Jinnan, took to microblogging site Weibo to post a coded message accusing the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) of being responsible for the omission.
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Chen’s post was akin to a Chinese-language acrostic, with the first characters of each line spelling out the message “In tonight’s final Sheng Dai was cut because the NRTA didn’t approve [the lyrics].” Chen, Sheng and Straight Fire Gang member Feezy performed the song “Medusa’s Manor” as part of the finale, but certain parts of Sheng’s verse were apparently missing from the broadcast on Bilibili. The removed lyrics supposedly included lines such as “using gender to define value / is this era going backwards?”
Chen’s Weibo post subsequently became a major trending topic on the social media site, setting off a wave of outraged comments and overshadowing the crowning of 20 year-old Beijing rapper Lan Duo as champion. Chen herself followed up with a string of frustrated messages, including the comment “I hope you’ll learn to respect women,” earning widespread support online.
Mango TV’s Sisters Who Make Waves became an overnight sensation this summer, as it swapped cutesy teens and twenty-somethings for a cast of mid-career female celebrities who were all over the age of 30, with the eldest competitor aged 52.
Although its feminist credentials were somewhat questionable, the show set off a wave of discussion around ageist stereotypes and female empowerment. A hashtag tied to the series’ Chinese name — #乘风破浪的姐姐# — attracted 46 billion views on the Twitter-like platform Weibo.
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The contestants were considered to be Chinese entertainment’s “leftover women” — a widely-used derogatory slang term that describes single women aged 27 or older. According to traditional Chinese family values, women are expected to get married and raise kids before this age, regardless of how successful they may be in their own right. In recent years, Chinese authorities have been keen to push this further by encouraging families to have more babies and introducing measures to discourage divorce.
In a notoriously ageist industry, the show felt like a riposte to its rivals’ constant focus on youth — especially when it comes to female celebrities. The talent contest was also followed in July by drama Nothing But Thirty, which also took aim at the “leftover women” tag and its assumptions. Both shows were among the most-searched terms on the Chinese internet in 2020.
Sisters‘ all-male follow-up meanwhile, has been a massive flop.
Guizhou-born singer, rapper and dancer Liu Yuxin was another figure who took China’s variety show landscape by storm this year, landing herself a spot as the center or “C位” (the main position for the strongest member of a Chinese pop group) in The9, a nine-person girl group formed at the end of the second season of hugely popular variety show Youth With You.
What’s significant about Liu’s ascent to the main position in the Mandopop group is her androgynous style, with short spiky hair, and her closet, which frequently consisting of blazers and sportswear. Androgynous looks are by no means a new sensation in China, with high-profile stars such as Rocket Girls’ Sunnee and all-androgynous group Acrush attracting attention in the past, but with a number of high-profile advertisements for the likes of Nike, Armani and more, Liu Yuxin is the most famous of them all right now.
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Alright, Victoria’s Secret‘s position in the pantheon of feminism is… debatable. So too is just how much the brand’s 2020 campaign in China really helped challenge preconceived notions around women and image. But, at the very least, it did spark some interesting conversations around what it means to be “sexy” for today’s Chinese women.
Chinese microblogging platform Weibo was abuzz when the lingerie company revealed three new spokesmodels that for China and greater Asia earlier this year.
At the center of the campaign, which calls for buyers to “redefine sexy,” were A-list actresses Zhou Dongyu and Yang Mi, alongside supermodel He Sui. In response to the Asian campaign, experts argued that after years of financial struggles in China, the lingerie brand appeared to be pivoting away from their overtly sexy image, and instead advertising comfort and confidence.
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The move was met with a fair amount of surprise, especially around the recruitment of slim, “fresh-faced” Zhou, who first appeared in Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Tree in 2010, and more recently starred in anti-bullying drama Better Days with Jackson Yee. “I like Zhou Dongyu’s interpretation very much,” wrote one Weibo user. “In the past, Victoria’s Secret gave me the feeling of vulgar porn.”
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