What Happened to the Women?

The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was so magnificently awe-inspiring as to prompt the NBC anchors to declare that, if there were a trophy for the opening ceremonies, then it must be retired. Vancouver and London certainly have their work cut out for them.

Yet as I watched a string of stunning performances of Chinese men—banging on brass drums, doing quasi-qigong dance, executing a shanshui painting with their bodies while dancing on the world’s largest LCD screen, etc., etc., all capped by the 7’6”-tall flag bearer Yao Ming—I wondered, where did China’s 640 million women go? Sure, a 9-year-old girl sang the national anthem, and another 9-year-old girl floated over the mixed-gender group of children from the 56 recognized nationalities. The group of schoolchildren in the end was also mixed gender, but adult women were minorities in the evening’s performance. I kept squinting at various performers in an attempt to ascertain their gender, but the fact that I had to look so hard indicated that something was wrong.

Many gorgeous women floated around the stage in modified Tang costume, moving very delicately, as if they actually were dolls made of porcelain (or perhaps as if their huge dresses were unbearably hot and heavy). A single woman floated out on a magic carpet-type platform supported by dozens of people beneath her, and her entire performance of swirling colored scarves around herself while she “floated” lasted maybe 2 minutes. Another handful of women actually did float like angels over the 90,000 spectators in the Bird’s Nest, with lights illuminating their ever-smiling faces of serene beauty. But that was about it. In his world-class exposé of pre-packaged Chinese culture, Zhang Yimou cast women as docile, delicate, and demure pin-up girls.

I’d never be one to say that China—or any nation in the world—has full gender equality today, but neither would I dismiss the very real advances that China has made in that direction. Shouldn’t that be recognized and celebrated on the world stage? Apparently Zhang Yimou does not think so. He lost a very wonderful opportunity to challenge the stereotype of submission that plagues Asian women everywhere. Yet China’s 639-strong Olympic team has already won 6 gold and 2 silver medals. One of the gold’s was won by 48-kilogram Chen Xiexia, who lifted 117 kilograms, more than twice her own body weight, seemingly without even breaking a sweat (US’ers can see the video on nbcolympics.com).

This intrigues me given that I recently finished Andrew Morris’s book, Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China, in which he goes against what many scholars have said—including Fan Hong in her agreeably uncritical book Footbinding, Feminism, and Freedom, and Wang Zheng in her portrait of women’s physical educator Lu Lihua in Women in the Chinese Enlightenment—to assert that the world of Chinese athletics from the late Qing through the early Communist era was expressly male-centric. Morris argues that even the well-executed attempts of many Chinese women to re-define physical culture to be more inclusive failed because “women were still disproportionately blamed for their lack of attention to physical fitness and were stereotypically described in terms of a history of weakness and sloth” (p. 118). In other words, men policed the boundaries of “their” world of physical activity to keep women out, and they continually defined the aim of sport to be ridding China of the ignominious title of “Sick Man of East Asia,” a male-centric geopolitical goal of proving Chinese masculinity to the imperialist nations whose Orientalism cast Asians as passive and weak. Morris says that, although some advances for women were made through physical culture, in reality it was just a shift from Cherry Coke to Vanilla Coke—women’s bodies, first defined and controlled by Confucian patriarchy, were in the Republican and early Communist eras defined and controlled by nationalist patriarchy.

I’m going to be optimistic and assume that things are at least slightly different in Chen Xiexia’s China, despite the sometimes violent persistence of nationalist patriarchy (there and everywhere!). I’m going to let a 106-pound woman who easily lifts 258 pounds over her head represent today’s Chinese women, despite the fact that Zhang Yimou’s testosterone-filled celebration pulled on my heart strings.


Anon said...

I strongly disagree. For starters, the 9-year old girl's singing was one of the high points of the entire ceremony (BTW, the song was NOT the national anthem). If there are three things I'll remember in my whole life about the opening ceremony, they would be the huge Chinese paiting scroll, Li Ning's magnificent long march in the finale, and this little girl's singing (she's become an intant huge star in China). NBC cut the girl's singing short (as it did everything else, including Li Ning's torch run) and made it less touching than it actually was. I recommend people to watch the uneditted live broadcast rather than the fragmentary NBC version (was the US the only country that did not broadcast the ceremony live?). There were also many other woman performers in the ceremony, including the Taichi performance. The only thing in the entire ceremony that might marginally touches on the gender issue was the choice of Li Ning for the finale. But then again Li Ning was a fantastic choice for the hard task, as his performance forcefully showed. Plus, Chinese men had long been blamed as being inferior to women in terms of sports (the so-called 阴盛阳衰),so what's wrong about celebrating Chinese men's achievements in the choice of Li Ning? I'm not a fan of Zhang Yimou's recent movies, but I'd say the opening ceremony was simply fabulous. Bravo, Zhang Yimou.

Anon said...

The opening ceremony is a cultural/entertainment event and should be treated just as that. But if there is anything political about it, it's not about gender equality. What's political about it is the changing social expectation of where China is going after the Olympics. There had been so much uncertainty on this in the run-up to the games (the stunning fluctuation of the Chinese stock market in the year before the Olympics was a clear manefestation of this huge uncertainty). Would there be a political/economic collapse of China in 2008 as some hoped and others feared? Would there be Olympics-inspired democratization in the style of Seoul 1988? The perfect execution of the most intensely watched live event in history shattered all these expectations/fears. Now there would be a huge boost in Chinese people's confidence as a nation (good); the regime's confidence also gets a boost (good or bad depending on one's perspective). The Olympics are already a success for China (barring the unfortunate killing of a foreign visitor in Beijing; my condolences to anyone affected by this sad but isolated incidence by the way). With this increased confidence, one can expect the Chinese government to be more tolerant of criticism in some areas, but more hardline in others (e.g., Tibet). It's this watershed change of self-regard and social expectation that is the political significance of the games and the opening ceremony.

nobooksnolife said...

I agree with ranc's comment entirely. Living in Tokyo, we watched the opening ceremonies in real time, from 9 pm (Tokyo is one hour different from Beijing) to after 1 am, and the show was nothing less than magnificent. Now that I've read on several posts about how NBC handled the broadcast, I feel lucky that I could view the whole show, uncut, without commercial breaks.

As for the gender issue with regard to the opening ceremonies, the article tries to create a problem where there isn't one. Even if gender is to be analyzed, I would want to learn about the women's roles behind the scenes as well as in the performances, the amount of responsibility they carried for the whole production, etc.

Furthermore, I (a female caucasian American) would have to try to see the opening ceremonies through Chinese sensibilities in which the portrayal of women in traditional masculine roles would have appeared anachronistic and even laughable.

During the ceremonies, while being awed by the sheer scope and the appearance of nothing going wrong (at least on camera & broadcast), I did wonder about the inevitable back-story of a production involving so many people. How do they ALL manage to smile and look genuinely happy after so many rehearsals? I held my breath against some tragedy--broken rigging, for example, or some goof that would have made them a laughingstock, or a terrorist act that would set off a chain reaction with all those poised missile launchers.

NONE of it happened. It was simply a triumph. In our living room, we kept saying "HOW did they DO that?!" "Isn't it beautiful?" For just a few hours, the world was treated to a vision of peace and human endeavor that can inspire. Let us hope that the Games go forward in peace.

China still has problems. So does the US, for that matter. After the party's over, maybe we can all face our problems better and solve them more productively.

Thank you, China.

Jeremiah Jenne said...


I think you raise a good point, and it can be a touchy subject here in Beijing (as the previous commenter alluded to). Many people I've talked to are very proud of the success of all of China's athletes, but the fact remains that it's the women who do most of the 'heavy lifting' when it comes to China's Olympic dream of topping the medal chart. Given that nationalism in China, as in many places, has a strong gender component, it's a situation well worth watching and discussing.

Thanks for bringing it up!

Unknown said...

Glad to see that Nicole writes about this. The consistent attention to marking out clear male/female difference in the ceremony, both in terms of costume and in terms of the "division of labor," was startling to me and several foreign friends here in Beijing. I think it also helped draw the conscious line between "now" and "then" the "then" being Maoist Socialism. People have noted how a kind of end-run was performed around the history of 100 years of war and misery, and the founding of the new nation. Under Socialism, gender distinction was famously played down in public, and here that old trend to androgynous dressing and glorying of female labor power was elaborately reversed. Because gender styles are often felt to be just "natural", this helps, whether consciously or unconsciously, to "naturalize" current conditions in China--some of which are wonderful, and others of which are creating suffering in segments of the population. Let’s also remember that the Chinese team chose to continue this gender segregation and distinction-making: the women came out first, dressed in gold jackets and skirts, followed by the men, dressed in red jackets and trousers. Even team Spain—who also marked men from women in gold and red—at least had everyone walking together. Just as Chen Xianxia finished lifting so much weight for the Republic in concentrated silence, Zhang Yimou was basking in a bilingual press conference on the “making of “ where the toughest question that was put to him was: which part was most expensive?

Unknown said...

This editorial up on Sina pertains to this discussion:


The title is loosely translated as, "From Liu Xiang to Zhang Lin, China's men have finally become tough."

Ranc, it includes your saying in this line: 一直以来,在国际体坛都是男强女弱,只有中国一直都是阴盛阳衰。 -- "In international sports circles men have always been the strong ones and women the weak ones; only in China have males been the weak ones and females strong (阴盛阳衰)".

There's definitely a consciousness about the gender balance of the sports out there. I suspect it might have something to do with the common stereotype among Westerners of Chinese men as effeminate, which many Chinese people are aware of.

Anon said...

Some people just read way too much into non-issues. Chinese team chose gender segregation in the parade of nations? For your information, many large teams such as Japan, Denmark, Brazil, Belarus, Hungary etc did the same thing and had women walk before men. Also, one more answer to the question "what happened to the women", a female Chinese athelete read the oath representing all athletes in the ceremony (Zhang Yining, a badminton world champion)---you probably didn't see that in the NBC droadcast because it was cut. I guess Chinese males should complain about it. Also, in Chinese colleges, male students and female students live in different dorms rather than mingle together. I guess that also reflects gender inequality? And that must have something to do with rising nationalism?

I probably should't read too much into this post. But maybe I should, and I'll do it here. NBC was there in the opening ceremony, but by inadvertently cutting a few scenes, it mislead you to think too few women were featured in the ceremony. Now what if the media was not there for an event (say, in Tibet). How much would you be misled? Media is a dangerous, dangerous animal. That's one thing. The second thing is, we are scholars. We must be conservative in making any assertions---that is, making it only with overwhelming evidences. There is a reason why statisticians and econometricians only reject a null hypothesis and make a statement when the null falls outside of the 95% or even 99% confidence interval, not 51%.

This is the first post where I see people alleging the opening ceremony reflected gender issues. A real eye opener. But I should learn from the econometricians, and not read too much into one post.

KFD said...

I too thought for the most part the women that appeared in the ceremony were doll-like and did not for the most part do justice to the strength of Chinese women atheletes. But as one person has commented it IS an entertainment ceremony not a political statement -- but to me this is what makes it even more interesting as it is almost unconcious. The current Chinese feminist projects are more about insisting on gender difference after decades of forced 'equality'(read equality as being like a man). I think one of the strategies that women use is to emphasise their femininity through beauty products and clothing, and in this sense perhaps Zhang Yimou is merely reflecting the current dreaming of women in China (who are mostly not Olympic atheletes).

Anon said...

People, pls watch the whole program (uncut by NBC) before you make your comments.

The following is another example of people making comments without thinking them through (I don't mean you, Sam):

"一直以来,在国际体坛都是男强女弱,只有中国一直都是阴盛阳衰。 In international sports circles men have always been the strong ones and women the weak ones; only in China have males been the weak ones and females strong".

阴盛阳衰 means women winning more medals than men (you cannot claim that Chinese women are physically stronger than Chinese men, right?). How can it be that in every country (except China) men win more medals than women? On average, for every country that has more medals from men than from women, there will be another country that has more medals from women than from men. After all, the total number of medals are equal for men and women. This is simple logic. Some people just can't get it.

Not that I care if the ceremony indeed featured men over women. But I do get uneasy when people make sweeping comments without thinking.


Nicole E. Barnes said...

Thank you all for your comments; I am so glad that a long discussion has ensued. I still disagree with Ranc: the Olympics, including the Opening Ceremony, is entirely political. Why else would the world's political leaders attend? Why else would it be of interest in what order the world's athletes enter the stadium during the parade of nations? Why else would it matter how the various nations are referred to (i.e. PRC being "China" and not "Mainland China"), and in what languages (French, English, Chinese in this case)? Etc....
I am of course very aware of the historical legacy of the "Sick *Man* of East Asia" and am tremendously happy that China is getting a chance to drive that old misnomer into its grave for good. It is even a cause of celebration that thousands of handsome, fit, and strong Chinese men got to demonstrate their masculinity in front of the world on Friday night. My point is simply this: China could have also shown its strength through a display of *strong women* in like fashion. And by this I do not mean to be imposing my US'er values and expecting Chinese women to do what I want them to do. I see no contradiction in being able to say, in the same breath, that I absolutely loved and was completely floored by the Beijing Opening Ceremony, yet I was also disappointed that women were quite sidelined (from my perspective). I both love my country (the US) and recognize that its very foundations lie in slavery and genocide; I very comfortably love and critique it at the same time. Just as I ended my post, I reiterate that no country in the world has yet solved sexism. This doesn't mean that all men have to feel attacked or feel bad about themselves, it just means that we all get to work together so that people of all sexes and genders get to feel proud, strong, fully human, and fully celebrated. As to the suggestion to watch the un-edited live broadcast, it's not likely for me as I already spent 4 hours watching it and all its accompanying commercials Friday night, so these comments are still affected by NBC's admittedly incomplete coverage (for one thing, I noticed that all of the athletes whose march into the stadium got cut short for the commercial break were from previously colonized nations).

Anon said...

Dear Nicole,

Ok. The olympics are political. But as far as I can tell, your original post is about sexism, rather than the name of the Taiwan delegation. Further, where did I say in my comments there was no sexim in China? And how do you know that I made the comments because I personally "feel attacked or feel bad" by your post? Where in my comments did I say I love China and respond to your post because of that? If we want to have a debate, let's debate on the actual things that you and I said, not any perceived opinions/positions I may or may not have.

Let's be clear. I made my comments simply because it was obvious you did not watch the whole program. How can you say no women were featured in the program when the athelete that made the pledge for all athelets was a women (Zhang Yining)---which you probably didn't see, and quite many female artists were featured in the ceremony. This is supposed to be a scholarly blog, and as scholars, we are supposed to withhold our opinions before we see the "whole" thing and are fairly certain about our conclusions. Think about the 95% of 99% confidence interval of statistical testing.

Let me iterate that I can't care less about whether the ceremony was sexist or not, or whether Chinese men were inferior to women in sports (why must men win more medals than women? and can assure you China cannot be the only country that has this perceived issue---see my last comment), or if people have enjoyed the ceremony or not (lots of people didn't). But I do care when SCHOLARS make sweeping judgements without first seeing the whole thing (and knowing what China's national anthem is---sorry to be harsh).

Finally, let me confess that I'm wholly sympathetic to the feminist project. Certainly in my family women are at an equal, if not higher status, than men. But I do feel that some feminists' over-sensitivities are actually hurting the gender equality project (by whining about non-issues, we actually help to make undesirable things more permanent; sorry if this is politically incorrect, and I don't plan to debate with anyone on this as I'm no expert on feminism). As to someone's comment that female performers in the ceremony looked like dolls, let's be clear that everyone is just an actor/actress in front of the director. So your real problem is that the director is a male. But if the diretor had been a female, you would say men are in ferior than women in China; if the director is a male, you would say there is sexism. How can anyone satisfy you?

Finally (really), I apologize if some of my comments have been unduly harsh and if anyone was offended. But let me be clear that I make the comments not because my nationalistic sensitivities or gender sensitivities were hurt, but only my scholarly sensitivities were touched. I'll leave the matter as such.

Thanks for the discussion.

Nicole E. Barnes said...

I certainly did not intend to be "whining about non-issues" or "make sweeping comments without thinking." I did in fact see, in the edited NBC airing, Zhang Yining read the athletes' oath. So you and I will have to agree to disagree about the representation of women in the Opening Ceremony. However, as far as I know, the song that so moved you was Nie Er's "March of the Volunteers" with words from Tian Han, the song originally written for a movie about intellectuals who joined the War of Resistance against Japan, which later became the national anthem of the PRC. If I am mistaken in this, I apologize. However, I will not hold back from discussing issues that I feel are important to me simply because I am a scholar, and simply because I do not know absolutely everything about China (and never will).

Anon said...


The song that girl sang was not "March of the Volunteers". It was "Ode to my motherland". The girl was, of course, miming, as we know now. But that's irrelevant to our discussion. Actually, that this fake singing caused so much contraversy is itself a testimony to how promptly the girl was featured in the ceremony. If she had not been promptly featured and had become a huge star since, few would care if she was faking or not.

But I agree that we can disagree about the representation of women in the program.

Anon said...

Sorry, I mean "prominently", not "promptly".

Nicole E. Barnes said...

Ranc, thanks for the clarification on the song. And thanks for a lively discussion.

Anonymous said...

How is Yang Peiyi not relevant to a discussion titled "What Happened to the Women?"

On account of her looks being a threat to China's national image, Yang was replaced on stage at the opening ceremony by muted microphone model Lin Miaoke.

I believe women in China have a lot to think about after this embarassing incident which was started by a man in the Politburo.

Anonymous said...


There was something lost in translation. Yang is pretty too and is not regarded as a threat. The names of both girls were printed on the official program of the opening ceremony. Most people commented without checking what Chen Qigang really said.

Please check here:


Anonymous said...

I climbed Fool's Mountain and found this link to a Chinese report of what Chen Qigang said:


Evidently the reason Yang Peiyi waas kept backstage had something to do with her teeth. There is nothing lost in translation of
"正在发牙齿" (developing teeth), but it might indeed get lost if China's Internet censors could acquire the power to delete Google and Baidu caches.

The opening ceremony program was only distributed to the lucky folks who flocked to the Bird's Nest on August 8. Therefore a majority of the One World who watched it on domestic an international TV did not even have One Dream of seeing a copy. It mentions three names as singing performers:
演唱: A 杨沛宜, B 林妙可, C 雷茈昕
Singing: (A) Yang Peiyi, (B) Lin Miaoke, (C) Lei Cixin
What happened to the "C" woman? Should we include Lei Cixin's contribution since her name was listed in the program as a singer?
The day after the ceremony Zhang Yimou made Lin Miaoke an overnight sensation by praising her singing, but he did not mention that Yang Peiyi was also listed in the official program. I think mentioning the program in this debate carries about as much weight as a 14 year old Chinese gymnast.

WiseOldMan said...

It's interesting that you have brought up this subject Nicole, since I have had the same discussion with my friends during the Opening Ceremony.

One thing about a Communist country is that they don't have to be Politically correct, just for the sake of pleasing all people. The Chinese Government wanted to showcase what China has become along with its History and that is what they did.

I think the only thing that made the ceremony stand out with this male bias was that all the drummers were males, the Confucian scholars were male and the Oar bearers were male. However all these were integral parts of China's history, and it was male dominated in that era.

That's not to say for the two thousand years of Chinese history that there are no moment where females had left a good imprint. There were many instances where females have contributed to the success of the dynasties. However in places where female strength were shown, it seems that you have dismissed it as "Doll" like.

The Tang Dynasty was renowned for the period of artistic growth. Therefore the attires of that time were held in high regards, and many of the mythical female angels (or whatever you want to call it) of China are portrayed as wearing Tang Costumes throughout history. They are the symbolism of beauty, kindness, compassion and tranquility.

The female dancer on the carpet also wore Tang costume, and it takes great skill in doing that performance in air. It's a great injustice to dismiss her act.

We also have the thousands of female dancers during the athletes who danced and moved for 2hrs straight. You can't dismiss their contributions as well.

It's a shame that you feel the females were "sidelined" when they were an integral part of the show. The Olympic flag bearers were of mixed gender with three males and three females of prominent past athletic accomplishments.

The painters/dancers on the giant paper were of mixed gender. The people flying and bring up the Olympic symbol were female.

In the real world it's hard to please everyone. The Chinese have been criticized for the Yang and Lin incident, the fireworks on T.V being staged and the ethnic minority group were all of Han origins. But what people often forget is that this is a Show. It's meant to spell bound you with awe and excitement. To make you forget about what's happening in the outside world for that small moment of your life.

But as a side thought, if the show was more male orientated why would you as a female not feel proud? Or vice versa, if the show was female orientated, why as a male would you not feel proud? Why must there be a distinction between genders, race or religion? Is it not sad that you have to view something like this with eyes that suggest there was prejudice or weakness in a sex if they were not equally portrayed? If your brother was apart of the show, would you as a sister, a mother, a aunty or grandmother not feel proud? So why would a stranger not feel proud of the accomplishment of these people? After all we are all humans, not male, not female, not Chinese, not Americans, but all humans with blood sweat and tears.

Nicole E. Barnes said...

I'd like to leave a response to "wiseoldman" and his thoughtful post. I agree with a lot of what you said, including that we all get to feel proud of one another's accomplishments, regardless of gender, race, etc, etc. These differences are all on the surface anyway. Humans are over 90% genetically related to pigs, and any genetic differences between we homo sapiens are microscopic indeed. Nonetheless, that does not mean that there are not insitutionalized means of privileging one group over another, and these should always be contested. I truly did not mean to dismiss any of the women's performances, I just wanted more. And as for the Tang women--it was during the Tang that women were bulky in form (unlike the Olympic performers), played polo on horseback, and played central roles at court (at least the elite women). Why did this side of Tang femininity not show? All of this being said, I *did* very much enjoy the opening ceremony and found it to be incredibly moving and unprecedentedly well-coordinated. Does that mean I can't say a single negative comment about it? I don't think so; both sentiments are equally true for me. When my comments are coupled with all the other criticisms I appear to be just like every other foreigner who thinks that China can do no right. I think that I will just have to risk that, despite the fact that I love so many things about China. As I said before, I simultaneously love my own country and criticize its shortcomings, and I believe that all conscientious world citizens should feel free to do the same. If that doesn't happen, we end up with affairs like the Nazi Holocaust.