Somewhere between March and April of 2013, the term “green tea bitch” (GTB) emerged on Chinese social media platforms. Weibo netizens joined in a collective effort to formulate a suitable definition of what a ‘green tea bitch’ actually is. As a result, a short essay was composed and shared online. The essay lists twenty-four different characteristics of a GTB. ‘Green tea bitch’ is not the first term to categorize young Chinese women in an overall derogatory manner. Other examples include ‘coffee bitch’, ‘black tea bitch’ or ‘milk tea bitch’.
What defines a ‘green tea bitch’ according to Chinese netizens? The list can be summarized in the following way:
“The green tea bitch appears to be very innocent. She normally has shiny long hair, but if it is not long, it is neat, straight, and parted in the middle. She has good looks, but is not exceptionally beautiful. She uses her eyes as her magic weapon to look at men with big bright eyes. She is especially energetic around her male friends, but somewhat dull around her girlfriends, complaining about how slim they look and how fat she is (although she is not). She hardly eats and gets drunk without hardly a sip of alcohol. She is overly dramatic during the night, when she complains about how hard and lonely her life is. She likes to take long walks and talk about the books she reads and the movies she sees. She loves Chinese art, literature and politics. Despite her intelligence, she will repeat how dumb she is. The GTB appears angelically innocent, harmless and pure, while she is anything but that: she is ambitious and would sell her soul for money.”
Weibo commenters mention the Chinese Lin Huiyin as the archetype of the ‘green tea bitch’. Lin Huiyin, or Phyllis Lin (1904-1955), was a famous architect, poet and writer. She was married to Liang Sicheng, who is also known as the ‘Father of modern Chinese architecture’. Lin supposedly also conquered the hearts of writer Xu Zhimo and philosopher Jin Yuelin. She is generally described as an ambitious, successful and plain woman who managed to win the love of rich and talented men, which is why Chinese netizens take her as the typical example of a green tea bitch.
The green tea bitch is one amongst many terms categorizing different ‘types’ of Chinese women. The ‘coffee bitch’ (咖啡婊) is often mentioned on Weibo and other social media platforms to describe high-end office ladies who constantly mix English with Chinese, dress according to the latest fashion craze and love to take pictures of themselves in fancy restaurants or on sunny beaches. The ‘black tea bitch’ (红茶婊) is a promiscuous girl who smokes, drinks, and likes eyeliner and low-cut clothes that show her cleavage. The ‘milk tea bitch’ (奶茶婊) is the kind of woman who talks in a girlish voice and has extremely sweet looks. She is always kind to everyone around her, but only to attract men who will give her presents that she will kindly accept.
“Not your tea, not your bitch!”
Public debates that attempt to (re-)define Chinese feminine roles have emerged since the 1990s. The decades before this era were times of political and social constraint. Under the rule of Mao, women were expected to be asexual and sacrifice themselves for the collective. The 1990s brought sexual liberation and a renewed awareness of what Chinese femininity entailed. China’s social environment was changing and increasingly influenced by the West. Female sexuality now also started to be used for commercial purposes, and new types of female identities were formed (Hung et al 2005;Evans 1995).
The discussion of female identities is nothing new, but in recent years, it seems that the online social debate has taken a derogatory tone towards women. The green tea bitch phenomenon is just one of many examples. As reported by Women’s Voice, there are small signs of resistance, as women refuse to be categorized in these terms. Their message: “Not your tea, not your bitch!” It will take more protests like theirs to get the message across. For now, it is only a matter of time before the next something-bitch pops up.
Some comments on Weibo:
Weibo user Yijinyexing (54.5174 fans) defines the term in these words: “Definition: the green tea bitch is represented by Lin Weiyin. She pretends to be a young pretty girl who is interested in art and literature. She often works as an actress/journalist/hostess/writer, and likes to talk about literature or politics to win a man’s heart. She’ll talk about how much she’s been hurt in the past, and her QQ [chat] username is that of a unique and obscure kind of flower. She is a successful lady with a chaotic private life- she has either been cheating in a relationship or has been somebody’s mistress.”
A user who calls himself ‘Summer Sailing’ (Xiari Yangfan) (965 followers), says: “Because of this whole green tea bitch thing, people say it degrades the status of women and that it is a display of male chauvinism, etc. But I feel that around me the ones who like to call women bitches or the ones who say that pretty girls are nasty from the inside- they’re all women themselves. And they also like to say that if it were not for them pointing out the sluts and the green tea bitches, the men would always be tricked by these types of girls.”
‘Women’s Voice‘ (weibo.com/genderinchina) reports: “This morning at eleven o’clock [April 8, 2013] in Xi’an, near to the Drumtower, three young women dressed as Sailor Moon [a Japanese cartoon about magical girls] held up signs saying ‘not your tea, not your bitch’, calling a halt to verbal violence against women. They stated that they protested against degrading terminology for women, and that they were hoping that society would show women more respect and create friendlier cultural climate.”
– by Manya Koetse
Thanks to Chen Chen for clarifying various terms.
Evans, Harriet. 1995. “Defining Difference: the “Scientific” Construction of Sexuality and Gender in the People’s Republic of China.” Signs 20(2): 357-394.
Gxdxw Website. 2013. Accessed April 9, 2013. http://www.gxdxw.cn/2008%E6%90%9E%E7%AC%91%E7%9F%AD%E4%BF%A1/gezhongbiaodeyisi.html
Kineta Hung, Yiyan Li, and Russell W. Belk. 2005. “Consumption and the Amodern Woman@ in China: a Conceptual Framework.” AP – Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research 6: 349-353.
Zhang Wenjing. 2013. “”绿茶婊”三亚淫乱派对走红 网友总结24项特点 [Green Tea Bitch and a Sanya Promiscuous Party become popular topics- netizens compile 24 characteristics].” Zhongguo Guangbowang, April 5. Accessed April 8, 2013. http://ent.cnr.cn/yuleyaowen/201304/t20130405_512296428.shtml
No Cookie-Cutter #MeToo Approach: An Overview of China’s Me Too Movement (Updated)
There is no China-based, Chinese #metoo movement as there is in the US and other countries.
Ever since the #Metoo movement caught fire on social media with people sharing personal stories of sexual harassment, many journalists, China watchers, and Me Too activists have been closely watching if, and how, the #Metoo movement would surface in China.
More than five months after #Metoo particularly shook entertainment and media circles in the US, it has become evident that the #Metoo movement has not taken off in the PRC as it has in some other countries.
What is noticeable about those ‘Me Too’ stories that did become big in China, is that (1) they mostly relate to sexual harassment in academic circles, that (2) the majority is linked to US-based Chinese and the overseas Chinese community, and that (3) some stories on sexual harassment that went viral in China were only framed as ‘#Metoo’ accounts by English-language media – not by the posters themselves.
Some US news outlets have determined that there is no ‘me too’ movement in China because it has been silenced by the government. Although there has in fact been online censorship regarding this issue, there is no sign of a truly China-based ‘Me Too’ movement in which regular female netizens collectively share their stories of sexual abuse in the way it has unfolded in many Western countries.
At time of writing, neither the #Metoo hashtag nor its Chinese equivalents (#我也是，#Metoo在中国, #米兔) were censored on Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo. In addition, contrary to some reports in English-language media, Chinese mainstream media have reported about the Me Too movement since October 2017, with some state-run media (e.g. CRI) serving as a platform for victims of sexual harassment to make their stories known to the public.
This is an overview of some important moments in mainland China since October regarding the global #Metoo movement.
● 15 October 2017: Me Too
Ten days after the New York Times first published an article detailing sexual harassment complaints against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, American actress Alyssa Milano posts a tweet that urges victims of sexual abuse to come forward using the words ‘me too’.
The ‘me too’ slogan was first used in 2006 by Tamara Burke to help sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities.
#Metoo soon becomes a hashtag and movement that particularly rocks the American entertainment industry and focuses on the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.
● 16 October 2017: China Daily Controversy
The state-run newspaper China Daily publishes an opinion column by Canadian-Egyptian author Sava Hassan titled “Weinstein case demonstrates cultural differences,” in which Hassan alleges that sexual harassment is less common in China because “Chinese traditional values and conservative attitudes tend to safeguard women against inappropriate behavior from members of the opposite gender.”
The article is linked to on Twitter by China Daily, writing: “What prevents sexual harassment from being a common phenomenon in China, as it’s in most Western societies?”
Over recent years, various surveys have pointed out that sexual harassment is, in fact, a problem in mainland China. A 2016 survey amongst over 2000 working females conducted by the Social Survey Center of China Youth Daily indicated that more than 30% experienced sexual harassment. Another survey by the China Family Planning Association also showed that more than 30% of China’s college students have been sexually assaulted or harassed.
● October – November 2017: State Media Reports #Metoo
Various mainstream and state-run Chinese media extensively report about the “Me Too” movement in North America and elsewhere.
Some examples (in Chinese):
*People’s Daily, October 30 2017: “我也是受害者！揭发性骚扰运动走上法国街头” [“I am also a victim! The movement to expose sexual harassment is heading to the streets of France.”] http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2017/1031/c1002-29617842.html
*Xinhua, November 4 2017:”美国揭露性骚扰运动延烧到国会山” [“The US movement against sexual harassment extends to Capitol Hill.”] http://www.xinhuanet.com/2017-11/04/c_1121905779.htm
*Xinhua, November 6 2017: “我也是”运动蔓延 美国会酝酿反性骚扰培训” [“As ‘MeToo’ movement grows, America explores anti-sexual harassment trainings.”] http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2017-11/06/c_129733177.htm
*Xinhua, November 11 2017: “随笔：“我也是”，你有勇气说出吗?” [“‘Me Too’: Do You Have the Courage to Speak Out?”] http://www.xinhuanet.com/2017-11/16/c_1121965426.htm
*Sina News, December 1 2017: “大声地说出来 羞耻的不是你” [“Speak out loud: you are not the one to be ashamed.”] http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2017-12-01/doc-ifyphtze2990099.shtml
*China Daily, December 6 2017 “《时代》揭晓2017年度人物：性骚扰丑闻“打破沉默者” [“Time announces Person of the Year 2017: those breaking the silence on sexual harassment.”] http://language.chinadaily.com.cn/2017-12/07/content_35249891.htm
● 27 November 2017: Shanghai Harassment goes Viral
The 28-year-old Xu Yalu (nicknamed ‘Brazil Teacher Xu’ 巴西徐老师) posts on WeChat about how she has been harassed multiple times by the same man in Shanghai from 2013 to 2015, and that the police will not do anything to stop the man.
The article, titled “I was harassed three times within two years time by an old pervert” (“上海静安寺，我2年内被一个老色狼猥亵3次”) receives more than 1.19 million views before it is taken down by Chinese censors. Three days later, Xu Yalu republishes her article on Zhihu.com where it is not taken offline.
● November 2017: Sophia Huang Xueqing Steps Forward for Chinese ‘Metoo’
Huang Xueqin (黄雪琴 aka Sophia Huang Xueqing), a female reporter, launches a survey focused on the sexual harassment of Chinese female journalists and emerges as an initiator of a potential Chinese #Metoo movement by launching ATSH, an Anti-sexual harassment platform on WeChat.
Huang speaks to various English-language media about the silence with which the global #metoo movement is met in China. According to HKFP, Huang receives over 200 responses from female journalists, of which only 16% say they have never experienced sexual harassment.
Later, in January, Huang publicly speaks out in a special show titled ‘Hear me Speak’ by the CRI TV programme “China’s Voice” (中国之声) about the ‘Metoo’ movement in China and about her personal experiences being sexually harassed as a journalist.
● 1 January 2018: Wo Ye Shi
With the hashtag ‘Wo Ye Shi’ (#我也是, “#metoo”) a US-based former doctoral student named Luo Qianqian (罗茜茜) comes forward on Chinese social media (@cici小居士) with sexual harassment allegations against her previous supervisor Chen Xiaowu (陈小武).
Luo accuses the award-winning professor Chen of sexually harassing her and several other students 12 years ago at Beihang University, also known as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA). On the Chinese Q&A platform Zhihu.com, Luo shares how her supervisor attempted to force himself upon her. She also posts several testimonies online to support claims that Chen also sexually assaulted at least seven other students.
In a blog post on Weibo, Luo writes that she was inspired to come forward with her story when she first heard about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the launch of the “#metoo” campaign on Twitter and Facebook.
● 4 January 2018: “Social movements play limited role”
State-run newspaper Global Times, commonly regarded a Party mouthpiece, publishes an article in which it addresses claims made by Western media outlets that “sex-related crimes are serious in China,” but that the country “‘rarely’ takes sexual assault allegations seriously.”
Although Global Times acknowledges that sexual violence is a problem in China, as it is in other countries, it also stresses that “social movements can only play a limited role in reducing sexual harassment.”
Instead, it says that the most effective solution is that “more efforts should be put into establishing and perfecting laws and regulations so as to deter potential sexual violence and properly handle it if it happens.”
● 7 January 2018: Fudan Survey
SCMP reports that the petition collects 300 signatures in a day. On Weibo, Taogeriler writes: “About the petition against sexual harassment, I have asked a lot of people to join, but many people feel it does not have anything to do with them.”
● 11 January 2018: “Say no to sexual harassment!”
After investigating the claims of Luo Qianqian and other former students, Beihang University fires Chen from his position. Three days later, the Education Departments also recalls his scholar title.
Meanwhile, Party newspaper People’s Daily launches an online campaign titled “Being courageous is the best you can be. Turn things around and say no to sexual harassment!”
● 15-19 January 2018: Manifests and Hashtags
According to the South China Morning Post, students and alumni across China have been inspired by Luo’s account to press their own universities for change. The report does not give out numbers, but estimate that “between 30 and 50 campaigns had emerged on social media over the past week.”
One of them is an anti-sexual harassment manifesto drafted by Xu Kaibin 徐开彬, a journalism professor at Wuhan University. It is signed by approximately 50 instructors from over 30 Chinese colleges.
Although there are not many accounts of women sharing their own stories of sexual assault on Weibo, various hashtags emerge on Chinese social media as variations to #metoo. Besides #woyeshi (#我也是）there is also #MeTooInChina (#MeToo在中国).
From January 17 to February 17, the hashtag #MeTooInChina gets temporarily blocked on Weibo. In response to this, Weibo users launch the alternative hashtag #mitu, written as #米兔, which literally means ‘rice bunny’, but sounds like the English #metoo, and the hashtag #MiTuinChina (#米兔在中国#).
● 31 January 2018: Chinese-American lawyer Hua Qiang’s #Metoo
Chinese state-run news outlet CRI.com publishes a feature article about LA-based Chinese-American lawyer Hua Qiang (华强) who has joined the #metoo campaign by sharing her story of sexual harassment.
Hua Qiang tells CRI that during a 2008 annual conference for lawyers, an influential lawyer by the name of Malcolm S. McNeil gave her a ride home after her car broke down. On the highway, Hua states, the lawyer suddenly started harassing Hua, grabbing her bosom, while driving. Too afraid to cause an accident on the freeway, Hua was too scared to fight him off. His wide network and strong influence in the area also made Hua too afraid to speak out, until the #metoo movement arrived.
● February 2018: MeToo in South Korea
The spread of the ‘Me Too’ movement in South Korea makes headlines in Chinese (state) media and becomes a topic of discussion on Chinese social media.
● 9 March 2018: Wang Ao Speaks Out
Chinese assistant professor of East Asian Studies Wang Ao (王敖) at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, writes an article on sexual harassment on Chinese social networking site Douban, in which he expresses his admiration of Luo Qianqian and her #MeToo story.
In a lengthy post*, Wang details sexual harassment cases he has encountered inside academic circles.
In one example, Wang tells about an acquaintance who planned to study overseas and received an invitation from the professor in charge of admissions. When she arrived at his Beijing residence, the man tried to grab her and she finally manages to escape. Wang also alleges that the same professor has been targeting students for more than 20 years, and even had to change schools because of it. Although Wang does not mention any names in his article, the Douban link is soon removed.
● 10-16 March 2018: The Gary Xu Scandal
Wang Ao publishes another article on March 10, first on Douban and then on Zhihu, in which he provides a name with the professor mentioned in his earlier story. According to Wang, it concerns Xu Gang (徐钢), better known as Gary Xu, a prominent art curator at the Shenzhen Biennale and associate professor of East Asian studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). UIUC is known for its large numbers of Chinese students.
Wang adds that not only students but also some his own colleagues became a victim of Xu’s improper conduct. A female commenter under the name “Survivor 2018” replies to the thread, telling her own story of alleged abuse by Xu Gang.
Chinese law graduates in North America start asking people to offer relevant information regarding Xu Gang’s misconduct to be able to take legal actions against the professor.
On March 16, Xu Gang posts a lengthy article through WeChat in response to the accusations made against him. Xu states that he supports the #MeToo movement, but that he denies any sexual misconduct allegations and says that Wang just aims to destroy his reputation.
Meanwhile, Chinese media outlet Sixth Tone reports that two women have come forward about sexual misconduct they say they experienced at the hands of Xu.
One woman told Sixth Tone she was forced into unwanted sexual actions with Xu, which she says “ruined her life” at the time. She furthermore claimed that other UIUC students also had sexual relations with Xu. In 2015, an undergraduate student already reported Gary Xu to the school for engaging in sexual misconduct with several female students.
● March 19 2018: Gary Xu Non-Active
According to Sixth Tone, the University of Illinois responded to this case through email, saying that “the University investigates and takes appropriate action whenever conduct is reported that may jeopardize or impact the safety or security of our students or others,” and that they are not allowed to discuss any potential investigations. They added that “Dr. Xu currently is not teaching any courses but will hold his tenured status until Aug. 16, 2018, when he will resign from the university.”
Xu has since also been fired from his post as the curator of the upcoming 2018 Shenzhen Biennale.
● March 20 2018: Various Hashtags
Many discussions using the ‘metoo’ hashtag on social media now relate to how the #metoo movement is gaining traction in South Korea.
*MeToo: 34.8 millions views, 20.000 comments, 241 fans of this hashtag.
*WoYeShi #我也是: 1.7 million views, 2339 comments, 6 followers of this hashtag.
*MeTooinChina #Metoo在中国#: 7.2 million views, 6941 comments, 134 followers of this hashtag.
*MiTu #米兔: 3.2 million views, 8050 comments, 0 followers.
*MiTuinChina #米兔在中国: 3.5 million views, 4456 comments that include this hashtag, 64 followers of this hashtag.
● UPDATE – April 2018: Gao Yan Case
A two-decade-old sexual abuse case becomes trending on Weibo when Canada-based netizen named Li Youyou (李悠悠), inspired by Luo Xixi and ‘#metoo’, comes forward on social media about a Peking University classmate named Gao Yan (高岩), who committed suicide in 1998.
Twenty years after her death, Li and some of Gao’s other old classmates, link Gao’s suicide to the behavior of Professor Shen Yang (沈阳), who had since moved on to work in the Literature & Language department of Nanjing University. They claim Gao was raped by the professor on multiple occasions over a two-year period, and had been called “mentally ill” by him.
The case draws much attention and also leads to the dismissal of Professor Shen. On Chinese social media, rather than a ‘#metoo’ movement, netizens link the story with that of two other university suicides, namely that of male student Yang Baode (杨宝德) and Tao Chongyuan (陶崇园); they address a bigger problem of exploitation of students in Chinese universities. More than sexual abuse, it is also about emotional and verbal abuse, and official misconduct in academic circles – regardless of gender. Also read our article about this here.
By now, there are sporadic discussions of China’s ‘metoo’ movement on Weibo. “I still hope #metoo can influence China,” one netizen (@末未木十) writes.
Another netizen says: “The #metoo movement is meaningful, but it hasn’t really been able to become a reality in China.”
“#MetooinChina has returned,” one other Weibo user says: “But there’s barely discussions about it anymore. Now, the hashtag “International Women’s Day Against Harassment” (#三八反骚扰#) has been deleted. I wonder when that one will come back.”
Perhaps saying that there is no Chinese MeToo movement at all is too crude; after all, there are important stories and initiatives in China that are connected to the global #metoo movement. But unlike in the US and other countries, these events have not led to a wider movement of common netizens widely sharing their own stories of abuse on social media.
Why is this the case? According to the Washington Post, it is because of China’s “patriarchal culture and a male-dominated one-party state that obsessively protects those in power.”
Stephany Zoo at RadiiChina says that ‘metoo’ has not taken off because China’s business landscape is built on guanxi, relationships, and that speaking out would pose too much of a risk to individuals within such a stability-focused culture.
One Chinese blogger claims that China’s metoo movement has been hindered by, amongst others, the decade-old abuse case of Tang Lanlan. This case triggered massive attention earlier this year when Chinese media exposed the identity of the victim, potentially ruining her chances to lead her life out of the public eye.
The Chinese so-called ‘human flesh search engine‘ could cause victims of sexual abuse to become victimized once again by becoming the focus of attention in an online environment that is joined by more than 700 million people; in order to protect oneself, not speaking out in public might be the safer option in the eyes of many people.
But maybe there is also another reason for it, namely that some social movements emerge in a country because it is the right time and the place for it. Just as many Chinese movements have never emerged in the US, many American movements will have no success spouting up in the PRC. #Metoo is not a movement that can have a cookie-cutter approach – even if it does spring up in other countries, it will have different shapes, voices, and outcomes.
“Foreign media can report whatever they want [about China],” one Weibo commenter says: “In the end, it’s up to us to pay attention to [the movements] we find important.”
* title: 《关于学校里的性侵犯，我看到了什么，想了什么，能做什么》
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Anorexia in China – Same, But Different
What’s on Weibo gives an overview of how anorexia nervosa is discussed in China and on Chinese social media.
“Does anorexia exist in China?” is one amongst the millions of questions recently posted on the Chinese Quora-like platform Zhihu.com. It is a question that pops up on Chinese social media every now and then, as the eating disorder is not often discussed in a Chinese context.
The empty dialogue page on Zhihu.com is telling for the general discussion of anorexia in China today. Anorexia nervosa, commonly called anorexia, is an eating disorder characterized by low weight that receives relatively little attention on Chinese online and social media compared to the English-language online environment, where there are countless support groups, discussion forums, and even the so-called unhealthy ‘Pro Ana’ communities where the behaviors related to anorexia are promoted.
Both anorexia in general, and the pro-ana communities in specific, received ample attention from Western media over the past few years. ITV recently reported about an “alarming rise in social media sites encouraging anorexic sufferers to starve themselves,” and that social media worsens the condition of people with anorexia who flock to these kinds of websites.
A “WESTERN” PHENOMENON
“Eating disorders seem to be an exotic phenomenon to many Chinese, but it actually is not.”
General discussions of anorexia nervosa on Weibo, China’s biggest social media platform, mostly relate to cases of the disease in Western, Caucasian women. The young Australian model and performer Phoebe Combes attracted some attention on Weibo in 2017 for suffering from anorexia. “How come every time I read about [this disease] it concerns foreign women?”, one netizen wondered.
Sporadically, speculative discussions do arise on social media about Chinese celebrities who may or may not be suffering from anorexia. Talk show host Chen Luyu (陈鲁豫), for example, became a topic of discussion when netizens started worrying about her frail appearance and said she was “too thin.”
For many netizens, however, the issue is often simplified to a mere “they should just eat more.” Despite general public unawareness about anorexia in China, more doctors and specialists are stepping forward to talk about the issue.
“When a Chinese doctor raised the issue of anorexia in China some twenty years ago at an international conference, foreign experts doubted if eating disorders existed in China,” one professional support site dedicated to anorexia and bulimia in China says: “We now want to promote awareness about eating disorders to patients and their families.”
In 2017, deputy director Ma Yongchun (马永春) of a hospital in Tongde, Zhejiang, spoke out to Chinese media website AcFun.com, saying that although eating disorders seem to be an exotic phenomenon to many Chinese, it actually is not. She also warned about the negative effects of social media platforms promoting unhealthy body images or unhealthy eating patterns.
THE STORY OF YUN
“Her condition spiraled out of control when she spent days on end watching live streams on Chinese social media that promote unhealthy eating habits.”
The AcFun article featured the story of one of Ma’s patients named Yun (alias), a 33-year-old former athlete from Zhejiang who weighed only 36 pounds with a height of 160 cm when she was at her lowest point – and on the verge of death.
She told AcFun that she became anorexic after being forced to eat a restrictive diet by her grandparents during her teens. When her entire athlete team suffered from gastroenteritis, her grandmother only allowed to her to eat bean curds and rice for months on end.
Unable to continue eating her forced diet and not allowed to eat anything else, the young Yun developed an eating disorder. At the age of 19, she was diagnosed with anorexia by doctors at the Tongde hospital – a diagnosis that was followed by years of ups and downs. Yun’s condition spiraled out of control when she spent days on end watching live streams on Chinese social media that promote unhealthy eating habits.
Weighing only 36 pounds at her low point, Yun was barely able to move. One day, when she was alone with her sister’s small baby, she found herself too weak to pick up the infant went it was desperately crying. For Yun, it was a turning point in her decision to beat the illness.
Although many doctors gave Yun low chance of survival, a team of doctors including Ma Yongchun eventually were able to give Yun the help she needed. She now maintains a healthy weight.
UNHEALTHY ONLINE TRENDS
“Vomit Bars are online forums where netizens nicknamed ‘Rabbits’ encourage each other to vomit after eating.”
Doctors such as Ma Yongchun are part of a growing group of specialists in China raising awareness on eating disorders in China and warning against unhealthy online trends – which are on the rise.
Over the last years, online discussion boards such as Baidu Tieba have seen the phenomenon of ‘Vomit Bars’ (催吐吧) – a phenomenon somewhat comparable to the online ‘pro-ana’ movement on English-language internet sites.
‘Vomit Bars’ are online forums where netizens nicknamed ‘Rabbits’ (兔子) encourage each other to vomit after eating. Several live streaming sites also have people promoting weird or unhealthy eating habits, such as eating non-food products or binge eating – something Dr. Ma strongly condemns.
On Chinese social media, organizations helping those suffering from anorexia or other eating disorders are present, but not popular.
Although the Chinese Eating Disorder Recovery Web (@进食障碍康复网) only has a weak following online, their offline mission is strong: “China’s health care system can no longer ignore the growing group of eating disorder patients in China.”
ANOREXIA ON THE RISE OR NOT?
“There are no official statistics on the occurrence of anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders in China in the past and present.”
The topic of anorexia in China has also received more attention in international media and academic publications over the past decade.
Some English-language media, such as the LA Times, suggest that with changing beauty standards, skinny trends, and more influence from Western popular culture, eating disorders are “on the rise” in China.
Whether or not this is actually true is hard to say; there are no official statistics on the occurrence of anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders in China in the past and present. A study from 2013 among Chinese female college students in Wuhan, considered one of the best estimates of national rates, however, found levels similar to Western countries (Tong et al 2014).
In Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation, the authors (French & Crabbe 2010) also suggest that eating disorders such as anorexia are indeed present in society and that an increasing number of urban Chinese, mainly young women, are suffering from it (171).
Even if anorexia were to occur as much in China as in the West – which has neither been refuted nor confirmed – the way in which the disease is described and/or experienced seems to be significantly different.
SAME DISEASE, DIFFERENT MANIFESTATIONS
“Chinese patients showed few, if any, of the classical concerns associated with anorexia.”
Various studies over the past years have established that there are differences between Western countries and China in how anorexia develops with regards to patients’ preoccupations concerning appearance and body image.
In “The Myth of Chinese Barbies: Eating Disorders in China including Hong Kong” (2014), researcher M. Getz writes that eating disorders are traditionally conceptualized as a Western mental health issue, specifically because the ‘fat phobia’ aspects of the illness are often stressed the most. According to study, this attention towards appearance seems to be less important to Chinese patients (746-747).
This idea is further strengthened by Sing Lee, an expert in eating disorders in Chinese communities, who argues that Chinese patients “showed few, if any, of the classical concerns associated with anorexia” (747).
A major way in how anorexia in China is often different than in other (Western) countries is that it is somaticized. This relates to the fact that mental illnesses in China still carry a stigma and often go undiagnosed due to the lack of mental health care institutions.
Since physical problems are more socially accepted in China than mental health issues, people who suffer from anorexia in China are more prone to talk about their problems in the form of somatic symptoms such as distaste for food and not being hungry, or abdominal problems (Getz 2014, 750).
Levels of industrialization, media influence, eating habits, societal pressure to be thin, family pressure to succeed, etc., all may play a role in the occurrence of anorexia. Especially One-Child Policy generation children allegedly experience more pressure in their lives to perform.
As the development of anorexia in China goes hand in hand with social stigmas and superstitions regarding mental health issues, a traditionally strong food culture, a general unawareness on eating disorders, and many other cultural factors that may influence the manifestation of the disease, one can see why studies have found that “eating disorders are not culture-bound or culture-specific, but rather culture-reactive.” The reasons why patients develop anorexia and how it is manifested can, therefore, radically differ per culture (Pike & Dunne 2015).
“I simply can’t eat any food. I have no interest in food. Even if I am starving I still do not want to eat.”
These findings are also apparent on the various anorexia support message boards in China, where people suffering from the disease share their experiences. Rather than talking about fear of being fat, many commenters only discuss their loss of appetite and stressful lives.
One netizen on Zhihu.com writes:
“I am suffering from anorexia right now. The pressure at school is too much for me. I don’t have any time to relax. It’s all about studying. I simply can’t eat any food. I have no interest in food. Even if I am starving I still do not want to eat.”
Another person writes:
“I think I have anorexia. But I am not sure. (..) I simply do not want to eat. If I see food, I have no desire to eat it. I only eat some breakfast and some dinner, an egg at 7.30 and some rice at 17.30.”
A new study on anorexia in China by Zaida Aguera et al (2017) confirms the idea that anorexia in Chinese patients is often experienced or communicated physical rather than psychological, as they are “culturally encouraged to use denial and minimization to cope with conditions deemed taboo” (9).
Because the way anorexia presents itself is different, researchers argue that its treatment also requires a different approach in China than in other countries that have developed own national standards on treating eating disorders.
The treatment options in China, however, are still limited. The first and only closed ward for eating disorders opened in Beijing six years ago. But the recent increased media attention raised by doctors such as Ma Yongchun and heightened focus on mental health care in China indicate that there will be more options for Chinese anorexia patients in the future.
As for the Zhihu poster who asked about anorexia in China – they are still waiting for an answer. In the meantime, they have suggested an own solution in the underline, writing: “There just is so much tasty food in China, that anorexia in China is probably is much rarer here than in any other country in the world.” No one else responded.
Agüera, Z., Brewin, N., Chen, J., Granero, R., Kang, Q., Fernandez-Aranda, F., & Arcelus, J. 2017. “Eating Symptomatology and General Psychopathology in Patients with Anorexia Nervosa from China, UK and Spain: A Crosscultural Study Examining the Role of Social Attitudes.” PLoS ONE, 12(3), 1–13.
French, Paul, and Matthew Crabbe. 2010. Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation. Imprint: Anthem Press.
Getz, M.J. 2014. “The Myth of Chinese Barbies: Eating Disorders in China including Hong Kong.” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 21: 746-754.
Pike, Kathleen M., and Patricia E. Dunne. 2015. “The Rise of Eating Disorders in Asia: a Review.” Journal of Eating Disorders 3:33. Available online https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-015-0070-2 [17.1.18].
Tong, J., Miao, S., Wang, J. et al. 2014. “A Two-stage Epidemiologic Study on Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Female University Students in Wuhan, China.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 49(3): 499-505.
Are you suffering from an eating disorder and need help? For information on eating disorders and how to help if you are worried about someone, Beat (UK) or ANAD (US) has advice for sufferers, friends and family.
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