The Vagina Monologues Comes to Beijing

04/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beijing, CHINA -- "I'd never, ever seen anything like that!" exclaimed a Chinese college student after the official Chinese premiere of Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues in downtown Beijing last week.

The pioneering production presented a bold challenge to traditional Chinese culture's public expectations for women -- including the play's extensive use of the word "bi" (a vulgar slang term for the female genitalia), a long on-stage sequence of orgasmic moans, and various speeches on themes of transformative feminism, overt lesbianism, and the triumphant energy of women controlling their own lives and bodies.

The play's appearance here captures a crucial moment of change in the way young Chinese women are thinking about their sexuality and their status. In its brief run of only five performances, it should be seen as a major cultural event.

The premiere, which took place on Wednesday, March 11, was not the first time an enterprising team had sought to bring Ensler's play to China. In early 2004, anticipated productions of the play were planned in Beijing and Shanghai. But China's traditionalist culture is strongly fostered by a regime that carefully regulates cultural events -- and both 2004 productions were banned at the last minute. The year 2004 was also the year that a middle school textbook in Shanghai first included mention of love, which at the time the official government newspaper, the People's Daily, called "an unprecedented endeavor." Several productions of The Vagina Monlogues have been attempted on college campuses since 2004 but none were officially authorized.

So this week's performance was a milestone. This production was the brainchild of a 27 year-old director, Wang Chong, who also translated the play. He took extensive efforts to ensure the play's governmental approval. One choice Wang made that likely played a crucial role in getting the necessary approvals was removing the word "vagina" from the Chinese title of the play, which thus became The V Monologues.

In an interview with That's Beijing, an English-language magazine, Wang defended the change: "In China, things should be handled Chinesely." The official title of the production in Chinese is indeed "V独白" (V-dubai), which means "The V Monologues" -- but the play's promotional literature also includes the play's English language name at the very top of the ad. The V Monologues' five-day run in Beijing sold out easily.

The crowd on opening night, which was predominantly women, seemed highly excited. Almost everyone attending the performance looked under 30. I was the only Caucasian person there. Some college students in the row behind me ate McDonald's as they waited for the show to begin.

The production itself was quite spare: three actresses, a few props, some background music, no set. As such, its power was in its language and the way that the performers conveyed that language to the audience. The play was almost completely intact in all its ribaldry and outspokenness. The audience reacted strongly and positively throughout, laughing at the jokes and audibly crying at some of the sadder stories.

But there was one particularly revealing moment from the audience that may itself capture the current cultural situation in China as much as the action on stage. As in the English-language version, the actress Lin Han concluded one of her pieces by chanting the word "bi" over and over again, zealously calling on the largely female audience to do the same. But from this Beiing crowd, a few male voices yelled out the word once; not a single female voice could be heard.

When I talked with another actress, Xiao Wei, after the show, she admitted that she and the other cast members hadn't expected many people to join in, because women in China rarely, if ever, talk about their bodies in that way. She added that she hoped the play would signal that "Chinese women are starting to care about their own situation," noting that while a nascent feminism exists in China, women's rights have not yet made significant headway.

Director Wang Chong had stronger words about the state of women in China today. "They are . . . the second sex" in China, he said. "In Mao's period, women had a better position in society: equal to men. But now those socialist ideals have disappeared."

There is a marvelous bilingual pun director Wang wrote into his translation that captures one of the essential questions that the play poses to the audience: "To bi or not to bi?" This is a play in dialogue with its audience; the audience members can't help but reflect on the questions that it asks. As I talked to some Chinese young men and women after the show, they seemed undecided. "It was very challenging for me to hear that word [bi] said by a woman," said one young woman. "Men use it, but I don't think I've ever heard a woman say it before."

Another girl, who described herself as a "long-time feminist," added that the officially-sanctioned status of the Monologues means that "even the government is ready for this dialogue to begin . . . although I have to ask: are Chinese women ready?"

Perhaps not. Nor is it clear what the full nature and outcome of this dialogue will be. Certainly American-style feminism and the blunt public sexuality in recent Western culture is not necessarily China's future path. Even so, it is no small achievement that this production of The Vagina Monologues has challenged the status quo of women in China today and added new energy to the dynamism already underway.

When Lin Han faced the crowd and cried "bi," none of the women in the audience joined her. But as she walked off stage, she shouted, "Maybe next time!" -- and the lights changed for the next monologue to begin.