“This is how you describe us: banshee, shrew, whore, hooker, man-eater…”
Standing still on a stage, growling out her words, Chinese singer Tan Weiwei cuts a stark figure as she sings her latest pop hit, Xiao Juan, in a recent live television performance. She is flanked by a group of women who remove their sunglasses and throw them aside, a silent demand to be seen as individuals.
A moody, excoriating diatribe against domestic violence, Xiao Juan has both captivated and inspired hundreds of thousands of Chinese women since its release.
Its lyrics rail against misogyny and victim blaming in China, referencing specific cases of violence against women which have dominated China’s news headlines this year.
And it’s a bold statement. Tan is one of few mainstream musicians in China – perhaps the only one – using her music to address the issue, which is still considered a taboo topic for many.
‘Know my name… and remember it’
The title of Tan’s new album “3811” refers to her age, as well as the 11 songs on the album which chronicle the stories of real-life Chinese women, from a taxi-driving single mother to a 12-year-old girl just hitting puberty, and even Tan’s own aunt, who works as a bus ticket operator.
Chinese music critic Postman – a pseudonym – tells the BBC the album is striking not just because of the strong feminist thread throughout, but also because it gives a group of seemingly ordinary women a sense of importance.
He says: “Years from now, when we look back at this time period, we will not only be looking at the usual films, books, news clips and media websites to know what happened. There will also be this album that has recorded the stories and names of all these ordinary women who would have otherwise been entirely forgotten.”
But the most striking song from the album is undoubtedly Xiao Juan, the name often given to female victims of violent crimes in China. Far from dismissing these women as a collective “Jane Doe”, Xiao Juan is desperate to recognise them as real individuals.
“Our names are not Xiao Juan… Know my name, and remember it,” Tan sings.
The lyrics also appear to make multiple references to chilling real life cases of domestic violence which have made headlines.
The cases referenced in Xiao Juan
- “No one dares to disobey…You use your fists, petrol and sulfuric acid.”
“Petrol” appears to refer to influencer Lamu, who was burned alive after being doused in petrol in the middle of a livestream in September.
- “Flush us down the drain, from wedding bed to riverbed, stuff my body into a suitcase.”
In July, a Hangzhou woman was dismembered by her husband, and had her body parts dumped in a septic tank. A few months later in October, a female corpse was discovered cut up in a suitcase in Sichuan province.
- “Put it in a fridge on the balcony.”
In 2016, a Shanghai man killed his wife and stored her body in a fridge on the balcony for three months. The man was executed in June this year.
And there’s another element that’s hard to miss: the song lists words that have the Chinese character for female in them – “whore”, “hooker” and “man-eater” to name a few.
“Many bad words in Chinese have ‘nü’ – the Chinese character for female. It reflects the deep rooted… misogyny in the culture,” Feng Yuan, co-founder of Beijing women’s rights group Equality, tells the BBC.
Another prominent Chinese activist, Lu Pin, says that by adding these elements the song criticises not only domestic abuse, but also the “misogynistic culture behind it”.
“This is also the reason why the song has received some opposition, because [some] feel uncomfortable criticising the patriarchal Chinese culture,” she says.
However, most social media users in China appear to celebrate the song. The hashtag “Tan Weiwei’s lyrics are so bold” got more than 340 million views on micro-blogging site Weibo.
One user said the lyrics looked “scary” at first glance. “But every single word hits you in the heart, because what is even scarier is that all of these things happened in reality,” the person wrote.
Many have thanked Tan for standing up for women everywhere and “showing courage” in performing such an honest song.
In what appeared to be a response to these comments, Tan wrote in a recent Weibo post: “It’s not courage. It’s just a sense of responsibility.”
A traditional society
Equality says that between 2016 and 2019 at least three women died of domestic violence every five days in China, the latest grim statistic in what has been a festering issue.
Authorities have tried to address it, introducing an anti-domestic violence law in 2016 that allows victims to obtain protection orders. Since then police stopped or prevented more than six million incidents of domestic violence according to Asia Foundation, in an indication of how widespread the problem has become.
On the surface the law appeared to work: state media reported that domestic violence complaints to the Communist Party-linked All-China Women’s Federation had gone down 8.4% in 2019 compared to the previous year, and Equality’s media monitoring found that news outlets reported less domestic violence cases that result in deaths than three to five years ago.
But China does not release official statistics on domestic violence, and activists say that many domestic violence cases still go unreported.
At the heart of the issue is that China remains a deeply traditional society where family harmony is still prized and prioritised, which some say makes it difficult for domestic violence victims to leave or speak out.
This has shaped its laws: critics for instance point to how the anti-domestic violence law favours mediation which they say can end up silencing victims. And earlier this year, China introduced a new 30-day “cool-off” period before couples are granted a divorce, sparking concern that victims of domestic abuse could be coerced during that period to reconsider.
Like many places around the world, lockdowns and quarantine measures as a result of Covid-19 have sparked a surge in reports of domestic violence in China this year.
Lu Pin believes this is also due to an increase in awareness. “I personally think there is more exposure because people are paying more attention to the issue now,” she tells the BBC.
“More victims are speaking up and getting more support from the public, but they have also been attacked and smeared a lot. At this stage… [people are just] beginning to realise its a problem, so the debate is fierce.”
According to Feng Yuan, what really sparked this rise in awareness was the arrival of the MeToo movement in China in 2018, which prompted a string of allegations involving people across different institutions and parts of society, from temples and universities to television talk shows.
Feng Yuan says this “collective interest” in the topic banded people together, and thrust cases that might have once slipped through the cracks into national prominence, online and across media outlets.
The increase of foreign reporting on such cases – such as a prominent one of an intern who sued her boss – has also further cemented the topic as one of interest in China.
Domestic violence aside, critics also highlight that the song is rare in calling out China’s patriarchal values.
“This is actually a feminist song and feminism is a very rare song theme in China in the mainstream music scene. There are actually many songs that go against feminism,” says Lu Pin.
“Chinese celebrities and entertainment works rarely criticise social reality, let alone adopt such a sharp and fierce attitude. Tan is bold.”
It is not common for celebrities in China to speak up, with authorities often censoring subjects deemed sensitive. Tan herself has not spoken publicly or given any interviews since the song went viral, and has not responded to a BBC request for an interview.
Many online have voiced their concern for Tan, expressing worry that her song could be censored eventually. But how likely is this?
“This is hard to say. No one knows exactly where the red line is,” says Lu Pin.
“[But] what’s important to me is that the song is there right now. It’s a sign indicating that women’s rights have been powerfully amplified and caused debate on a broader level.
“This is the new start of progress of our society.”