On the 11th May 2019, I was invited to enjoy the play Our Vaginas, Ourselves, which was performed in the George Fox Lecture Theatre at Lancaster University by the Chinese feminist group VaChina. The group is based in the UK with ties to feminist activities in Beijing. According to the group members, ‘VaChina’s aim is to open up conversations on gender inequality in China within a foreign country through providing a safe and active space for feminists to gather and campaign together’.
Based on Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, the script of this play was written by BCome, which is another feminist group established in Beijing in 2012. The play focused more on the specific problems in the Chinese context and was performed in several scenes, with titles such as Vagina, The First Night, Masturbation, Domestic Violence, Bitch, Sexual Abuse, Sex Workers, and At the Obstetricians. After watching the play, I lost myself in thought. In this blog, I would like to discuss what I have seen in China and what I have learnt from the play on two important topics: domestic violence and obstetrics.
According to Li’s 2018 report in The Beijing News, approximately 30% of Chinese married women suffer from domestic violence, of whom only 15% apply for a divorce. As a matter of fact, most victims have never asked for help. According to United Nations statistics, merely 40% of victims across most countries in the world have asked for help, among whom less than 10% have ever called the police.
In China, women are used to keeping silent when they suffer violence from their spouses. The truth I cannot imagine is that Chinese victims call the police on average after 35 occasions of domestic violence. One of the reasons is that calling the police may bring them more violence from men because some police in China tend to persuade women to give men another chance to keep family harmony.
However, it cannot be denied that there is a cultural climate that means many women become complicit in enabling their own abusers. The thing worse than keeping silent is that, still, some women think domestic violence is a common part of family life and even speak for their husbands when others try to help them. Many women prioritise keeping the marriage and the entireness of family for the children. It is of course probable that the mother’s suffering violence in front of the children may hurt them more than the parents’ divorce.
Fortunately, Chinese people have started to pay attention to this problem. As digital technology develops rapidly, internet platforms such as Weibo provide good access for women to ask for help instead of calling the police directly. I have seen several women who publish videos as evidence of suffering domestic violence on Weibo, which made a sensation on the internet. With the support of public opinion, they achieved the result they wanted.
The phenomenon of domestic violence was also presented in a 2017 crime film in China called ‘记忆大师’ (English: Battle of Memories). In the film, the male protagonist kills two women who both suffered domestic violence. One is his mother, who he murders when he is a child. The other is a married woman he loves when he is an adult. Both victims refuse to act against the violence and accept the fact that they may be hurt anytime. Furthermore, the play by VaChina presents this problem as an important issue, which will encourage more people to consider how to tackle it.
On the other hand, domestic violence provides me with a new perspective for my PhD research on Jane Eyre. Jane’s courage in standing up to Rochester when she finds out about the existence of his previous wife, Bertha, is amplified by the disparity between Jane’s slightness and Rochester’s irritability and physical strength.
The final scene of Our Vaginas, Ourselves, which deals with obstetrics and gynaecological health, made a deep impression on me. It was presented as a monologue by an obstetrician who has seen many different patients and heard their stories. For example, a 50-year-old woman suffers from a serious pelvic infection that is hard to treat due to delayed and incorrect treatment of a previous case of slight colpitis. Another young girl undergoes an abortion several times because of unprotected sex and lack of knowledge about birth control.
Rather than the medical services of obstetrics and gynaecology in China, I suggest focussing more on the reason behind the problem: the extreme lack of sex education in China. According to a survey in 2012, over 70% of people in China have premarital sex. However, the lack of sex education causes the high rate of abortion, infections by sexually transmitted diseases and gynaecological disease, for many women do not know how to protect themselves when it comes to having sex.
Although I was born and grew up in a relatively developed city in China, I never received systematic sex education. In school, there was no relevant lesson for teenagers to learn about their body, gender difference and sexuality. My parents always avoided mentioning any relevant matters, as sexuality is a taboo. As parents of a daughter, the only things they taught me about sex in order that I protect myself were: ‘do not have premarital sex’ and ‘do not wear revealing clothes’. Talking about sex in public is not what a ‘good woman’ should do. However, it is so fortunate that I received sex education from three elder sisters, who imparted so much knowledge to me about sex, gynaecology, obstetrics and sexually transmitted diseases. I also had the opportunity to absorb information from the internet and from books, and even learn about the sexual culture in western countries when studying abroad.
However, most girls are not as lucky as I am. They may live in a closed cultural environment that keeps sex education away from them. Nevertheless, due to teenagers’ desires and curiosity, they may experiment with sex when they do not know how to protect themselves, or, even worse, they have no idea why they need to protect themselves in the first place. Moreover, women sometimes feel shame to see the doctor when they are infected with the gynaecological illness. Hence, they delay treatment, which may result in lifelong illness. All these problems result from the lack of sex education. The play highlights this phenomenon to alert Chinese women. Sex education should be a priority.
VaChina calls on women to learn about our bodies and to take ourselves seriously. In my opinion, the keyword ‘vagina’ is a symbol that signifies women’s bodies, sexualities, women’s self-awareness and so on. In summary, the play Our Vaginas, Ourselves is definitely a fabulous play that entirely corresponds with the Chinese context. I would recommend to everyone, especially Chinese women, to enjoy the show and discuss these important issues with this amazing group.