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China

Punchline from a female fist Sophie Zinser describes how online subversion is changing China’s attitude to gender equality

It took a one-two punchline to the male gut for the Chinese comedian Yang Li to go viral:

‘How could men be so average yet so confident?’

As a contestant on season two of the Chinese comedy TV show Rock and Roast, Yang’s comment had mill i ons of engagements on Chinese social media platform Weibo in .

Raised in rural Hebei, she worked as a fashion designer and then in retail before finding the Beijing Stand Up Comedy Club. A few successful shows and writing assignments lifted her profile from stand-up comedian to TV fame and finally to commercial infamy.

Last year, Intel and Mercedes-Benz featured her in advertisements, which brought an angry response from male netizens. In a Weibo post with more than , likes, one man summed up the rancour: ‘I think Mercedes-Benz choosing Yang to make advertising is to tell ordinary men like me to stay away from its cars.’

Although she has never described herself as a feminist, digital trolls on Weibo have deemed Yang and her hundreds of thousands of followers nu quan; a phrase that means both ‘women’s rights’ and – when spelled with a different final letter – ‘feminist fists’. While the phrase began as an insult, a small group of feminists re-appropriated it on social media in an attempt to reduce stigmatization and improve solidarity, while others were looking for an anti-male community.

Once the phrase gained popularity, it was quickly appropriated for commercial use. One public relations firm MaMeng made nearly £ , per clickbait article on the topic, running one headline to million followers that read: ‘A man who doesn’t pay off your [online] shopping cart doesn’t love you’. Weibo has since banned MaMeng. Months after Yang’s remark went viral, hundreds gathered outside a Beijing court in solidarity with the Chinese #MeToo pioneer, Zhou Xiaoxuan.

In December , Zhou sat for her court case against Chinese Central TV presenter Zhu Zhun after claiming he forcibly kissed her in . But when Zhou refused to label herself as a feminist and chose to pass down her father’s last name to her child, a group of feminists – some of whom supported Yang’s work – retaliated against Zhou on social media, calling her a ‘marriage donkey’.

Global interest in Yang, Zhou and Chinese feminism has increased since the sudden disappearance and odd re-emergence of international tennis star Peng Shuai last November.

Chinese feminism itself has a patchwork history rooted in China’s varied historical movements. Some scholars point to the May Fourth movement of where protesters rallied against patriarchal Confucian ideals and sparked a female literary movement. Indeed, women working in the s in the public sector in China had the right to vote and to take maternity leave decades before their western counterparts.

Others point to the Cultural Revolution, specifically, to Mao’s quote: ‘Women hold up half the sky.’

Post-socialist era China brought in western ways of thinking about women’s roles in society and offered alternatives beyond the Maoist perspective. Feminist nongovernmental organizations flourished in China after the landmark meeting of UNWomen. But socially, a departure from traditional communist rule after led to a resurgence of traditionally ‘feminine’ and western-influenced beauty standards becoming more in vogue.

Increasing censorship President Xi Jinping rose to power in with an all-male Politburo Standing Committee and a political party that currently comprises less than per cent women. The Chinese Communist Party’s stance on women was epitomized in an infamous poster taken down f rom a Beijing marriage register office which read: ‘Being a good housewife and good mother are the biggest achievements for women.’

Holding an explicitly feminist meeting is viewed under Xi as a political gathering and is thus banned in China. And over the past few years, words such as ‘feminism’ and ‘MeToo’ – which grew in popularity after Zhou’s statement – have become increasingly censored on social media.

Feminist Voices’ Weibo account – the largest alternative media source for women in China – was officially blocked in . Since last April, major Chinese social media outlets Weibo, WeChat and the popular discussion platform, Douban, have supported the systematic shutdown of any discussions from ‘feminist fists’ or the popular b t movement. Founded in South Korea, b t members have no children, no male sex partner, no boyfriend, no husband, do not buy products that fail

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