How ‘The Penis Monologues’ Challenges China’s Toxic Masculinity


ZHEJIANG, East China — On a theater stage in the city of Hangzhou, a male character reflects on the time he date-raped a woman. “I finally broke through her defense and forcefully penetrated her. Controlling her, I felt the happiness of a conqueror. The insertion of my penis seems to have stamped a seal on her body, a label marking my sovereignty.”

The unflinching scene is part of a monologue in “The Penis Monologues,” a play that pitches itself as a counterpart to the well-known feminist play “The Vagina Monologues.” Written by Fang Gang, a renowned Chinese sexologist, “The Penis Monologues” examines aspects of what Fang calls “dominant male temperament” — a phrase that shares certain similarities with the English phrase “toxic masculinity.”

Based on real case studies collected during Fang’s research on gender while at Beijing Forestry University, the play’s 12 episodes are all performed by 10 amateur male actors. Before coming to Hangzhou in May, performances took place in Beijing and Shenzhen. However, Fang’s also had to overcome his fair share of obstacles in China, where frank conversations about sex and gender are still taboo. A performance in the southern city of Guangzhou was abruptly canceled for unknown reasons, while the show’s Chinese name deliberately avoids using the word “penis.”

Despite its limited run, “The Penis Monologues” is a remarkably candid examination of sex and relationships in a deeply patriarchal country. In 2017, a wide-ranging online survey of college students found that it was not uncommon for respondents aged between 18 and 22 — most of whom were female — to experience sexual harassment on campus, but that less than 4% would report it to the school authorities or police. And although dozens of women spoke upabout sexual harassment issues in the country last year, the impact has not been as strong as in Western societies, where soul-searching is taking place among certain groups of men.

Fang hopes “The Penis Monologues” will prompt more heterosexual Chinese men to reexamine the ways they approach and treat women. “I want to reflect on and criticize the violence of men against women, and promote gender equality from a male perspective,” Fang tells Sixth Tone. “Unilateral efforts from women are far from enough; men must act, too.”

That raison d’être resonates with Tao Xiaotao, a social worker specializing in sex education who is also the play’s Hangzhou producer. The mother of two young boys hopes that news of the performances will spread on social media and get more straight men thinking about their interactions with women. “Drama is a more acceptable form of expression (than directly calling for change), as it’s easier for people to relate to characters in a play, which then prompts them to reflect,” she says.

But the play’s subject matter hasn’t made it easy for Tao to find willing actors. Most men she approached declined after reading monologue titles like “Penis Size,” “Domestic Abuser,” and “Erectile Dysfunction.” “They are afraid of being mocked or judged by the public,” she tells Sixth Tone.

When 42-year-old business owner Yu Lei read the play for the first time, he was shocked that it so boldly addressed taboo subjects. But after attending one of Fang’s sex-ed public lectures and seeing members of the audience calmly taking notes, he decided to join the troupe, despite never having acted before.

Tao assigned Yu to the play’s first monologue, “Date Rape,” which tells the story of a male college student forcing his girlfriend to have sex with him in a hotel room. Yu was so nervous about performing that he told his wife he was taking part in a charity event organized by White Ribbon, the advocacy organization launched by Fang in 2013 to end the violence perpetrated by men against women. But he needn’t have worried: His performance wins thunderous applause from the 90 or so people in the audience, though Yu later confesses to Sixth Tone that he slightly regrets doing it. “I’m afraid people might think it was my own story,” he says.

Unlike Yu, Wang Hongqi directly told his wife about the play. On the night of the performance, she sits in the audience alongside their 6-year-old son. Despite the play’s occasionally explicit content, Wang doesn’t worry that sex-related topics might adversely affect his child. “Kids think all this stuff is perfectly normal and natural,” Wang says. “It’s the parents who don’t know how to give them a proper sex education.”

Wang, who used to work for a company that builds subway systems, once accepted the combination of extreme work hours and after-work social gatherings organized by his male bosses. But that culture kept him from spending time with his family, causing his wife to claim she was trapped in a “widow marriage.” So, Wang decided to make a change: In 2015, he quit his job and opened one of only a handful of sex shops in Hangzhou.

But as Wang’s new business flourished, he became more and more concerned about male chauvinism found in sex culture. “Most of my male customers want to buy something that can make them bigger downstairs or last longer in bed, but few of them care about what their female partner wants to experience in her sex life,” says the 41-year-old. “Sexual violence can be more subtle than physical violence, but it’s still something we should discuss and pay attention to.”

Assertions of masculinity come up often in Fang’s play. Several monologues dwell on the so-called masculine temperament, which “requires men to succeed in their careers and be in a dominant position in their relationships with women,” Fang says. The anxiety to assert their manliness brings men not only “welfare and power,” but also stress and pain, he explains.

Two actors portray the story “Gender Queer” during the play “The Penis Monologues” in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, May 18, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Two actors portray the story “Gender Queer” during the play “The Penis Monologues” in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, May 18, 2019. Fan Yiying

That pain is familiar to Ye Chuyang, a queer actor portraying their own experiences in the monologue “Gender Queer.” “I don’t agree with binary gender divisions, because it limits people’s possibilities,” Ye tells Sixth Tone. “Most people think men are supposed to be macho, decisive, and strong. They don’t appreciate feminine or delicate men. Though my parents appreciate the sensitive and gentle side of me, they prefer me to be strong and tough just like other boys.”

Ye thinks the play is a chance to both educate people about sexual diversity and help more men understand the experiences of women. “If men could break the rules and speak out, women would feel encouraged and less lonely in this battle,” he says.

Gu Wei’s story, meanwhile, is probably the most personal. A former domestic abuser, his monologue reflects on how, in the past, he treated his now ex-wife as a possession and didn’t tolerate any challenges to his authority in their marriage. “It’s typical dominant masculinity,” he says.

Gu, who has since reformed his behavior and become an activist and volunteer at White Ribbon, hopes to raise awareness of an issue that many Chinese women suffer in silence. Though a national law to protect victims of domestic violence came into effect in 2016, in reality women who report abuse seldom receive adequate help from the authorities, which sometimes list domestic violence cases as “family conflicts.”

Born in 1999, Luo Bin is the youngest in the crew. Growing up, Luo witnessed how his grandfathers dominated the family and how they snapped at his submissive grandmothers. The young Luo concluded that such behavior was normal. After he got to college, he sided with his male friends when they complained that their girlfriends wouldn’t have sex with them.

Working on the play has convinced Luo that his long-held attitudes toward gender roles are misguided. “It didn’t occur to me that when your girlfriend says no, it means no,” he says. “We hurt girls before we know it. I hope the play can make the public aware of date rape and prevent it from happening.”

The sophomore college student acts as the play’s host, going up to other actors and asking questions like “What’s a real man?” and “What’s your favorite sex position?” The questions sometimes make the spectators visibly uncomfortable, but Luo thinks they’re necessary to foster open conversations about gender equality. “Now I know if we don’t give people the right to choose what they really want, then it’s not equal at all,” he says.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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Artist Brings ‘Haha-Then-Aha’ Moments to China’s Gender Debate


SICHUAN, Southwest China — In most Chinese bookstores, there’s a section of bright pink books instructing women on how to be a good housewife or find a man before they hit 30.

But at an out-of-the-way underground art space some distance from provincial capital Chengdu’s city center, there are how-to books of a different kind. “Be a Man Who Never Cries,” instructs one. Other titles include: “Men, Don’t Lose Arguments Because You Don’t Know How to Fight” and “‘Bad Boys’ Go Everywhere; Good Boys Go to Heaven.”

It’s a typically tongue-and-cheek part of artist Wu Kangyang’s latest exhibition, held in Chengdu in October. In another area of the industrial-style room with exposed brick walls, there’s a platform where men are encouraged to sit or stand and think about why men rape women, rather than asking women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists. There are large white posterboards, mimicking the instructional boards you might find in a “feminine virtues” class, except these have phrases like: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift;” “Do not participate in dinners where women are present; problems could creep up on you;” “Be alert on the bus. Don’t give female hoodlums an opportunity to be indecent;” and “Giving birth to a boy is useless. A married son is like spilled water.”

Since Wu’s first exhibition on heterosexuality went viral in April, he’s become known for his works that first make his audience giggle, and then reflect. It’s a unique approach in China, where many still hold traditional views on gender, and if the issues feature in art at all, artists rarely take a lighthearted tack. Wu’s witty commentary on stereotypes is especially popular online, where it plays into a national gender debate that has repeatedly surfaced in recent years following news about harassment on public transportationmedia misogyny, and misconduct in universities and workplaces. Wu’s even been given promotional support from NetEase, one of China’s biggest tech companies.

A visitor poses next to a white posterboard that reads: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift,” at Wu Kangyang’s exhibition in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A visitor poses next to a white posterboard that reads: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift,” at Wu Kangyang’s exhibition in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Born and raised in the city of Mianyang — about 130 kilometers northeast of Chengdu — Wu, now 29, developed his love of art while accompanying his mother, a retired textile worker, to the factory where she mixed colors. Despite his artistic bent, Wu caved to pressure from his parents to major in English, which they thought would make it easier for him to find work. When his classmates became teachers after graduation, Wu instead started his career in art and now works in a private art gallery. On the side, he makes money arranging holiday installations for shopping malls and follows his less lucrative passion of creating exhibitions on the issues of gender and sexuality.

It’s a subject close to home for Wu, who has known he was gay since middle school. Nevertheless, he’s never told his parents and doesn’t plan to, worried they’d isolate themselves from their friends out of shame. “Maybe they’ve already figured out that I’m gay, and it’s just that no one wants to talk about it,” Wu says. “I would feel relieved if I were to come out of the closet, but the reality might put them into a closet.” His mother and father, he says, are mostly interested in watching TV dramas and political news, respectively. They have little notion of their son’s popularity.

Wu’s latest show was inspired by an argument over China Central Television’s annual back-to-school gala, which featured a performance by a group of so-called little fresh meat entertainers — delicate, handsome, and often feminine young men. Parents criticized the national broadcaster en masse for imparting “non-masculine” and “non-positive and uplifting” values on their children. The discussion reached the highest echelons of Chinese public debate: While state news agency Xinhua said such “sissy pants” represent a “sick culture” that would negatively impact the nation’s children, Party newspaper People’s Daily argued modern society allows a diversity of interpretations of what it means to be a man.

Wu says he didn’t take the debate seriously until he noticed some middle-aged male curators that he admires share articles such as “Sissy Young Boys Lead to a Weak Country” on messaging app WeChat. “I was shocked and angry,” he says, adding that society puts pressure on men with expectations that they have a well-paid job, act tough, and don’t cry. “When ‘sissy pants’ becomes a trend, it challenges mainstream ideas and makes some people uncomfortable and anxious,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Wu decided to satirize women’s bookshelves and feminine virtues course posters because they were eye-catching and simple, making them perfect for getting his message across — and going viral on social media. But it was about more than just popularity: He wanted people to rethink their ideas.

On a chilly weekday during his six-day exhibition, visitors laugh out loud and take selfies with the installations, immediately uploading them to social media. Wu, who wears round, Harry Potter-style glasses and sports floral tattoos on his forearm, isn’t sure they’ve understood his intentions, yet he prefers not to explain his work to the visitors. “Everyone has their own views, and maybe their understanding is deeper than mine,” he says.

Wu Kangyang sits on a platform at his exhibition that encourages men to think about why they rape women, rather than asks women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Wu Kangyang sits on a platform at his exhibition that encourages men to think about why they rape women, rather than asks women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

But plenty of people seem to get the message. Luo Zhihui, 23, just moved to Chengdu for a master’s degree. He identifies as gay and has read about Wu’s other gender-equality exhibitions on social media. This is his first visit. The art-lover describes himself as sissy, but it’s not a negative word in his mind. It’s just who he is. “I’m slim. I care about my looks, but it doesn’t make me less of a man,” he tells Sixth Tone after visiting the exhibition.

Luo says he’s been to a few other exhibitions calling for gender equality, but they all look too serious. Wu can’t agree more. “Many people think that when discussing social issues, they must use a kind of hateful resentment,” he says. “They must shout slogans and stand in opposition. I think this is a misunderstanding, which creates a greater communication barrier.”

Wu used a similar sense of humor in his April exhibition on heterosexuality. Visitors were presented with a “Chengdu Heterosexuals Map,” which shows the places in the city where straight men tend to hang out. Then, photoshopped news headlines: “Global Outbreak of Heterosexual Demonstrations, Anti-discrimination Fight is Everyone’s Responsibility;” “Celebrities Speak Out in Support of Heterosexual Rights;” “Heterosexual Marriage Has Been Passed, History has Been Changed.” The show was aiming to turn discourse on its head, posing a series of questions: What is heterosexuality? What is the origin of heterosexuality? How can you recognize someone who is heterosexual?

Once again, that exhibition had been inspired by the news. That same month, microblogging site Weibo purged LGBT-related comics and videos amid a crackdown on violent and “lewd” content. A few days later, the site backtracked after a public backlash. Wu, who is unimpressed by the efforts of LGBT groups in Chengdu, believes his art can help raise awareness about LGBT issues.

Sometime before noon during the October exhibition, Huang Xinya walks in. Believing that gender equality is an important issue, she decided to check it out after reading about it on Douban, an app for reviews of books, movies, and art. Huang, 24, says she is one of the many young women who are fans of the “little fresh meat” aesthetic. “I don’t understand why many people say they are sissy,” she says. “And even if they are, what’s the problem?”

With Chinese women becoming more independent and fighting for equality in all aspects of life, Huang says, “we can like any type of men we want, instead of longing for a tough and masculine man to take care of us.” Huang mentions the changing attitudes toward men wearing makeup: “Everyone has the right to make themselves look good, which has nothing to do with gender.” Plus, she adds, “there are more than just two genders, male and female, in the world.”

Joy Lin, the founder of Shanghai-based feminist organization We and Equality, finds many Chinese people still hold stereotypical views on how men and women should dress and behave. She mentions a “feminine virtues” summer camp held in eastern Zhejiang province last August which reportedly taught children that wearing revealing clothes would cause rape. A similar workshop held in northeastern China in 2017 taught married women to swallow their husbands’ insults and eschew divorce at all cost. At the same time, many schools in recent years have introduced masculinity courses that teach boys how to be “true” men.

Visitors at Wu Kangyang’s exhibit are encouraged to put a red sticker on a water bottle if they prefer being straight in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Visitors at Wu Kangyang’s exhibit are encouraged to put a red sticker on a water bottle if they prefer being straight in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Lin praises Wu’s use of irony in challenging mainstream beliefs. “It’s a smart way for spreading ideas and educating the public,” she says. “These ironic phrases first make people laugh, and then think.”

While Wu believes that Chinese society has become more aware and supportive of gender and sexual minorities, LGBT and feminism are still sensitive topics. The downtown mall that was the original venue for his heterosexuality exhibition backed out of hosting it, meaning he held it in a private art space instead. He was recently given a list of words that are unofficially banned by authorities, including “homosexual.” And although Chengdu — his home for over six years — has a reputation for being China’s queer capital, Wu believes this reputation is unfounded. People in Chengdu care about pandas — there’s a breeding center in the city — and will line up for hours to try a newly opened hot pot restaurant, but when it comes to gender equality and the LGBT movement, Chengdu trails behind cities like Shanghai and Beijing, he says.

“I’m trying to make Chengdu a better city by making people think about real issues in my own humorous way,” Wu says. “I hope one day when Chengdu is in the headlines, it’s for more than just cute pandas and tasty hot pot.”

Nevertheless, Wu’s work has already made some people change their minds. After seeing Wu’s success, the downtown mall venue realized they made a mistake. “[They] regretted canceling the exhibition after seeing it was that popular,” Wu says. “I then responded that they’re not very farsighted.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.