Notes from the Middle Kingdom: Trotters of Love and Respect

Words: James Kramer
Friday 23 March 2018
reading time: min, words

Spring is here, and with it comes celebrations of all things feminine. Our man in Beijing, the one and only James Kramer, has sent us correspondence about the importance of womanhood, equality, and International Women's Day in China. 


"Pig’s trotters", my wife says over her traditional celebratory breakfast of pancakes and fresh strawberries with accompanying foot massages. She’s been vocally critical of my cooking before (“you season timidly, bitch” being one of my all-time favourites), though I'll state here that I broil a damn tender porky trotter. Yet how this relates to our sickeningly loved up breakfast still leaves me stumped. Her comment, however, isn't gastronomically inclined. She is instead referring to a resent unsettling trend in Chinese social media surrounding this year's celebration of Women's Day.

It's fair to say that Women's Day is a bigger deal in China than here in the UK. While friends of mine in Argentina told me that over there it’s a day for marches in the streets and radical protests, the best I could muster locally was a themed poetry night and a fundraiser or two. Not to say these are undeserving, but the Chinese government really throws some serious RMB behind the date each year, though it’s not been without its hiccups re sensitivity. One of the most overused quotations from Mao that is always manhandled into every semi-related article around this time (and so why not here as well if nothing else I’m a slave to conformity is 妇女能顶半边or "women hold up half the sky" which, when you consider how many heavy metal particles there are floating around up there, makes it quite a feat that puts Rosie the Riveter to shame.

China has strong ties to Women's Day, going all the way back to 1922 when Xiangning, a pioneering feminist, spoke to a gathered crowd of over 2,000 in Guangzhou. It's treated seriously as a national holiday, where the majority of public sector female workers get the day off, and those still working are adorned with gifts and saccharine co-worker sentiment. Yet the national press has been a bit squiffy of late. A few years ago when Google ran its ‘Inspirational Female Professionals’ doodle, scientists, astronauts, the whole caboodle; Baidiu (Chinese Google), ran a GIF of a spinning ballerina in a music box, a sort of title fight between objectification vs. infantilism to see which could demean women more (I’ll clue you in, it was a tie).

There's been significant talk on the interwebs about how commercialisation has taken a large slice out of the honorific proceedings. Most of the focus has been focused squarely on online discounts for the day in question, all purchased of course on novelty pink credit cards made specially available this year. Even better, why peruse the stores with your 15 minute ‘shared boyfriend’ who, across various shopping centres in Beijing, could with a quick QR scan be bought for 1 RMB (think 11 pence) per quarter hour to beautify that otherwise unsatisfying conspicuous consumption. Because nothing says emancipation like perfume discounts and sexless besuited gigolos.

My wife and I both had different reactions to this particular story. Hers was that 11 pence would be way above the pay-grade that she would be willing to shell out for an hourly slice of my time (did I mention the pancakes and the foot pampering? did I?) While my own train of thought led me to wish I’d known about this sales pitch in advance. I would have rented a tuxedo, so as not to clash with my new found brothers, and then bought five of them for a whole, extravagant hour. We would have been the smartest, most effete street gang there ever was. We’d make the Jets look like Crips. I was going to call us ‘The Fancies’.

While my dream of evening wear street fights still lingers on, “pigs’ trotters!” you remind me, is then how connected to this ramble? Well, along with the flack that's been directed towards the ideological erring of the festivities, there’s another area of contention; that of "Girls’ Day", although a more fully realised translation (including the connotative associations of Mandarin) would be "Maidens’/Virgins’ Day". Not too creepy, right?  

Originally born online, Girls‘ Day has come to be celebrated across campus grounds over China. It’s rapidly gaining traction too in the wider public consciousness. And yes of course it takes place on March 7th. Why? I hear you ask (or possibly beg me not to say) is because it "only takes one night for a girl to become a woman." Now, before we begin the next paragraph I'm going to take a minute to wash that last sentence off with lye.

Urgh, that’s better. This charming line of thought came with the inspiring poster of a before & after raw to cooked pig's trotter à la pirouetting high heel with a slogan that roughly translates as "your taste is better when matured". There has been of course, widespread netzin outcry at this. I don't want you to think this hasn't been widely condemned, it has. And there are to combat this, many others ways in which international gender rights movements are starting to ripple across the middle kingdom too.

A recent spate of public clarifications about the sexual abuse taking place in educational institutions, which was previously widely known and commonly hushed up,  have led to dismissals and convictions. Given that less than five years ago, the common tactic was to sweep it under the fairly guilt-heavy rug of public familial shaming, this is a sign of progress, mostly spurred on by some incredibly determined and courageous student-led groups, with more gumption than I could ever dream of mustering. Wienstienesque, a high level film director in China was recently condemned for demanding his young (very young,) leading female star to dance on a table in front of the film’s stakeholders.

Woman still make on average 22% less in China than their male counterparts. Unfortunately, this is in line with other countries such as the US. There have been gender equality movements gaining traction and within each younger generation there is increasing momentum pushing for actual change. Yet public policy can at times be underhanded. It was proposed for new mothers to be able to receive up to a startling three years’ maternity leave, which smacked of governmental benevolence until commentators realised that this was to try and dissuade employers from hiring women (not that it works, I don’t know a single mother in China not balancing a job in the mix).

Similarly, there is currently a nationwide campaign to suggest to female university students that they should get married and quickly pregnant prior to graduating, as this will ensure better job opportunities. Not sure how to figure that one, heading off to job interviews with a plastic Bitty Baby Doll lifelessly swaddled across my chest got me nothing but stares and a brief sectioning.

So I'll end by saying that back when a friend of mine taught an introduction to Modern Feminism she found that while initially foreign, by the end of the week her students loved themselves some binary opposites, and could quote Hélène Cixous out the wazoo. Also true, is that complaining about rampant commercialisation on public holidays is like sweeping leaves on a windy day, and there's little in the way to suggest that these ideas aren't widely suspect, with most good-natured people seeing through the haze. But perhaps more could be done in the future, than “Shero” themed Barbie dolls next year no?

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