Vagina Monologues in China

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I have, for many years, been interested in how a single political ideology or a set of political
institutions will vary when they are implemented in different cultural contexts. For
example, in 1988 I published a book that examined how movements claiming to represent
the ideologies of Trotskyism and Maoism took on very different forms when political
activists tried to apply them in France and in the United States.
It appears that the same is true of cultural productions. The production that I want to
discuss here is Eve Ensler’s award winning play, The Vagina Monologues. This play is interesting
because it is simultaneously, and intentionally, a cultural production and a political
intervention. It is a cultural production because its form is the play. It is not a treatise or a
political tract. It is meant to be enjoyed, to be fun for both the performers and the audience.
But it is also political because it is designed to raise consciousness about power, violence,
and self-affirmation in the face of patriarchal power and violence against women.
On February 23 and 24, The Vagina Monologues was performed in the Lincoln Hall
Auditorium. This has apparently become a yearly event. The performance was to benefit
the local Woman’s Fund and V-Day International. V-Day is an international effort to combat
violence against women world-wide. At about the same time that The Vagina Monologues
was being performed in Lincoln Hall, a class in Chinese history at the University of
Illinois was being shown a documentary about its performance in China.
In the United States, Ensler’s play became an artistic component of a larger feminist movement
that was struggling for women’s rights in all domains of life– political, sexual, economic,
and expressive. Such a movement, that engages in open political organizing,
demonstrations, and direct confrontations with those holding political power, does not
exist in China. It does not exist in China for both political and cultural reasons. The political
reason is that the state, controlled by a single party, does not permit such public activity.
The pro-democracy movement and Falun-Gong have both paid very dearly, often with
their lives, when they have held public demonstrations. In the latter case, the demonstration
was not even political, simply featuring the bodily exercises of this spiritual group.
The second reason is the moral context in China. There is a reluctance in China to
publicly discuss issues that are explicitly sexual. “Good taste” dictates that these remain in
the private domain. This conflicts with the Western feminist contention that the boundary
between the public and the private is a false one that is useful in perpetuating patriarchy.
As in most single-party states, the Chinese regime assumes as its responsibility control
over public expressions of sexuality morality. When it judges that presentations are
too far from the dominant norms, or are too public, it will intervene to prevent them.
Indeed, scheduled performances of The Vagina Monologues in public galleries and museums
by non-student actresses were prevented from taking place by the regime.
But, in an interview with Professor Sufeng Song of the Program in Women’s and Gender
Studies at Sun Yat-Sen University and a Freeman Fellow at the U of I this year, we
learned that there has been an open space for such expression in China. That space is the
universities with students as the actresses. The Chinese-language version play was first
performed in China in December 2003. It was performed by students in the Women and
Gender Studies Program at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. The actual performance
was at the Guangdong Museum of Art. Perhaps because it was the first performance
that was under the government’s radar, students in the Women and Gender Studies
program at Sun Yat-Sen did manage to perform the play in the Guangzhou museum
while non-student performances in the larger cities of Beijing and Shanghai were not permitted
to take place. The play has been presented in a number of other Chinese universities
since the initial 2003 performance.
I observed some interesting differences
between the play that was presented in Lincoln
Hall Theater and what I saw in the documentary
on the presentation in
Guangzhou. According to Professor Song,
these differences are due to concerns over
the prevailing sexual mores among actresses
and audiences alike. It is not that there is no
reference at all to sex in Chinese culture.
Professor Song points out that many of the
folksongs sung by the rural population are
very explicit. But there is a modesty and a
discreteness in China that perhaps once
existed in the United States but no longer
does. So, if one wants the audience to accept
the message, which means, among other
things that the actresses have to be comfortable
in delivering it, then a certain sensitivity
is required. Professor Song stresses that
the play needs to be fun for both actresses
and audience. There can be a certain fanciful audacity, such as if one were to think about
how one would go about dressing a vagina up, which would be fun and provoke laughter.
But other things are thought to be off-limits, or requiring the greatest sensitivity. The
portrayal of sex workers is one of those things. Prostitution is illegal in China, though it
exists. But the overt portrayal of a prostitute on the stage would not work for either the
actress or the audience. In addition to conservative sexual mores, there is a kind of selfcensorship
in China when it comes portrayal of illegality, probably based upon both deference
to authority and fear of the possible penal repercussions, that does not exist in the
United States. Neither performer nor audience would be at ease with it; they would not
learn from it; and they would not find any fun in it.
Another issue is lesbianism. The documentary about the play produced in Guangzhou
contained interviews with actual lesbians but did not show their faces. In a “not-in-yourface”
delicacy, it showed only their clasped hands. In the play itself, there was only one
brief reference to a lesbian experience by an actress who was recalling many memories in
her life. An American might say that this “delicacy” contributed to the closeting of lesbians.
Professor Song says that it is rather out of respect for the women who are not out of
the closet as well as an attempt to balance education about the lesbian experience and the
need for greater respect for it with a concern for sensitivities in a society that is to a very
great extent desexualized even when it comes to heterosexual forms.
In the Chinese documentary, there is much less bare skin presented to the audience
than in the Lincoln Hall version where one young woman appeared in a bikini and another
in a tee-shirt and what appeared to be panties. All of the actresses shown in the Chinese
documentary were fully clothed. It is not that there was no self-affirmation of sexuality in
the Chinese version, it’s just that nudity is not required for such affirmation and would be
counterproductive in the Chinese context.
In addition, the portrayal of sexual pleasure was different in the two productions.
Again, the Lincoln Hall version was more blunt about the sensations when parts of the
vagina were touched. In the Chinese version, the issue was presented by what Chinese
women felt was a taboo against groaning during the sexual act, i.e., the woman expressing
too much pleasure. The Chinese production reverted to forms of traditional opera to
discuss the pleasure that women feel during the sexual act. Professor Song says that “in a
culture that is comparatively more modest in sexual expression, it is a little difficult to get
these amateur and perhaps first-time actresses to act it out on the set.” Actually, the most endearing part of the
Chinese documentary to me was when students
asked older women about groaning to
express sexual pleasure. The older women,
some of them mothers of the actresses, were
shy and they laughed good naturedly with
an obvious dose of embarrassment, but they
were amazingly good sports to permit the
filming of the discussion.
The Vagina Monologues is part of an international
movement to raise the consciousness
of women about their sexuality, about
the patriarchal nature of the societies in
which they live, and about one of the most
damaging aspects of those societies, violence
by men against women. What this
comparison of two performances in two
different countries shows is that the universal
messages must be presented in ways
that take into account both the way that
political power is manifested and the moral
sensibilities that are deeply rooted in the
culture. The less blunt approach is not
always the less powerful one.

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