Yang Li: The 'punchline queen' who offended Chinese men

By Zhaoyin Feng and Yitsing Wang
BBC Chinese

Published
image captionThe controversy over Yang Li's remarks has highlighted the difficult path of feminism in China

China's "Punchline Queen" Yang Li is no stranger to controversy.

The 29-year-old is now one of the country's most well-known comedians, having risen to fame in recent months on a Chinese television show called "Rock and Roast".

Every week, in front of a national audience of millions, she addresses controversial gender issues using a style unfamiliar to many Chinese viewers - stand-up comedy.

She's attracted a huge following, but her punchlines haven't landed well with everyone - and now Yang is facing the biggest backlash of her career.

image copyrightWeibo
image captionYang Li's remarks have attracted both brickbats and praise

In a December episode she talked about telling a male comedian her new jokes. He replied that she was "testing men's limits".

"Do men even have limits?" Yang sarcastically asked, triggering a fresh wave of criticism.

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In recent weeks on social media, male netizens have accused her of "sexism" and "man hating". Meanwhile a group claiming to defend men's rights has called on netizens to report Yang to China's media regulator, alleging her of "repeatedly insulting all men" and "creating gender opposition".

But supporters have defended Yang, saying the male critics are oversensitive and lack a sense of humour.

There is little doubt that Yang's jokes have prompted fresh debate in China, where both the feminist movement and stand-up comedy are relatively new cultural phenomena.

Can China take a joke?

It's not that humour has been absent in Chinese culture.

Xiangsheng, China's comedy tradition, has been popular in the country for over a century. In this format, the audience watches and laughs as two comedians poke fun at each other.

But when audience members themselves become the butt of the joke - as they sometimes are in Western stand-up comedy routines - some Chinese may not find it quite so funny.

"In the West, stand-up comedy is about challenging and 'offending' the audience, authorities or social norms," Tony Chou, comedian and owner of Beijing comedy club Humour Section, tells the BBC.

But this is still largely seen as rude or disrespectful by some in China.

media captionChina-US comedians: 'We hope jokes travel faster than the virus’

For example, Mr Chou says, a comedian performing at his club was assaulted by an audience member because he'd made a joke about people from Henan province. "The thing was - the comedian was from Henan too," Mr Chou says.

As a result, he says, some comedians tend to hide their personal opinions, not only because of the cultural taboo, but sometimes also because they fear political or commercial repercussions.

Fellow Chinese comedians have been divided over Yang's controversy. In a Weibo post that later became a trending hashtag viewed more than 100 million times, popular comedian Chi Zi said Yang is "not performing true stand-up comedy."

But Chinese-American comedian Joe Wong said he supported Yang as comedy grants a chance to "underprivileged people to poke fun of those who are privileged".

'Militant feminist'

But the deeper issue of this controversy is the difficult path of feminism in China.

Though Yang Li has never publicly announced that she is a feminist, her online critics have coined a new phrase to describe Yang and her tens of thousands of supporters - "militant feminists".

"Nu quan" in Chinese means feminism, or literally, women's rights. Netizens have replaced "quan", which means "rights", with a homophonous character meaning "fist", making it a somewhat derogatory term for feminists.

"The militant feminists are unreasonable, punching fists everywhere and demanding privileges," one of Yang Li's online critics, a 23-year-old college student surnamed Yang (not related to the comedian) tells the BBC.

Chu Yin, a Beijing-based law professor and comedian, said on Weibo that "gender politics from the West" threatens "the unity of the working class" and will lead to "hatred against straight men".

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionWomen in China face certain expectations from society, as do men

Meanwhile Yang Li's supporters argue that the backlash has proven Yang's point in many of her jokes - the female perspective is often silenced by those who believe men are more superior than women.

Traditional gender roles largely prevail in China, and both men and women are under social pressure to play their parts.

Chinese women's rights activist Xiong Jing says men are also victims of these gender stereotypes.

For example, in a country with a huge bachelor surplus, men need to own houses and cars to be considered eligible for marriage, and they are expected to be the main breadwinners of the family.

"Many men have to bear heavy expectations, which lead to depression and resentment," she says. "But they have to think about what needs to be changed fundamentally."

Lu Pin, a prominent Chinese feminist, tells the BBC that compared to other countries, feminists in China face unique political and social pressure.

image copyrightCFP
image captionIn 2012, women's rights activists staged a "bloody brides" protest against domestic violence

"In China's patriarchal system, compared with feminists, their critics have enjoyed more support from the authorities."

As feminists challenge the deeply entrenched gender stereotypes in the country, they have been accused by the authorities of "provoking social instability".

This means they have increasingly become a target of the Chinese government, which has made upholding social stability its utmost priority.

In 2015, five Chinese feminists were detained for seven weeks for planning a campaign against sexual harassment on public transit.

In 2018, the social media accounts of Feminist Voices, a leading feminist organisation in China, were censored after having been taken down several times.

Last December, when a Chinese court heard a high-profile #MeToo case, state-controlled media refrained from covering the event. Amid this silence, a few influential accounts on Weibo posted unsubstantiated allegations that "foreign forces" were involved to stir controversy.

"Many commentators now allege Chinese feminists are linked to 'foreign forces'," Lu says, "Why is this allegation so effective (in convincing the public)? Because they replicate and follow the government's logic."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe #MeToo movement has galvanised women's rights activists in China

It was against this backdrop that Yang Li's punchline set off controversy.

It's unclear whether the authorities have launched a formal investigation into the incident. The Weibo account of the group that called for her to be reported to the authorities was later deleted.

Meanwhile Yang Li has not issued a statement and her team did not respond to the BBC's interview request.

But in what appeared to be a veiled comment on the controversy, she wrote on social media recently: "This is never ending… it's a bit difficult to be in this industry now."

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