While much of the world spends March 8 honoring the accomplishments and contributions women have made to society, merchants and sellers across China will be honoring a holiday of their very own: “Goddess Day.”
Once one of the most important holidays of the year, International Women’s Day is quickly being replaced in ads and on billboards by younger, hipper variants like “Queen’s Day” or the above-mentioned “Goddess Day.” Even “Girl’s Day,” an unofficial holiday celebrated on March 7, sometimes seems like a bigger domestic event than Women’s Day.
The commercialization of Women’s Day is not a new phenomenon, and plenty of other commentators have bemoaned its role as another excuse to indulge in crass consumerism. But I tend to find this criticism too simple. Rather than complaining that businesses have crudely rebranded Women’s Day as “Goddess Day,” it’s worth trying to understand why so many of the country’s consumers seem open to the change.
The problem begins with the Chinese word for “woman,” or funü. A compound of the ancient words for “married woman” and “unmarried girl,” funü was widely used in the early 20th century as a neutral term for women of all ages.
Beginning in the 1920s, however, funü began to take on revolutionary connotations, especially in tracts calling for national renewal and women’s liberation. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, this usage was quickly codified. At least rhetorically, funü now held up half the sky and were expected to take an active role in both their own liberation and the work of national reconstruction. Many did, and though the country remained dominated by men, women made several significant economic, political, and cultural contributions over the next few decades.
In the post-Mao period, however, funü began to lose its revolutionary luster. As China embarked on its “reform and opening-up” drive in the 1980s and ’90s, many felt the word had become staid or outdated, and women wanted to be seen as more than just tools for building socialism. Meanwhile, the rise of terms like “housewives,” “rural women,” and “middle-aged women” — jiating funü, nongcun funü, and zhongnian funü, respectively — caused many Chinese to identify the word not with revolutionary progress, but with disadvantaged or vulnerable populations.
By 2017, when it was briefly popular for young women born in 1988 to sarcastically refer to themselves online as “middle-aged women,” the joke wasn’t just that a bunch of 29-year-olds were calling themselves middle-aged, but also that they would call themselves funü. It was a term with which few young, educated women could identify.
While funü may have started off as a combination of the words for “unmarried girl” and “married woman,” today it increasingly refers to the latter. And as the status of women, married women in particular, has declined in recent years, that’s a label few aspire to acquire. Whatever you call them — girls, goddesses, or queens — young women continue to be objects of desire in an ever-more capitalist society, both sexually and commercially. Their elders, on the other hand, are expected to resign themselves to lives spent taking care of their kids or robotically performing household chores.
In light of this ongoing linguistic shift, influential women began pushing to change the holiday’s Chinese name as early as 2007. Zhang Xiaomei, a beautician and delegate to that year’s “two sessions” series of legislative meetings, proposed the funü in the holiday’s name be replaced with the more neutral nüren. In explaining her reasoning, Zhang noted that for many millennial women, funü has a negative connotation.
Yet 12 years later, both terms have been eclipsed in popularity by more youth-skewing, flattering words like “goddess” and “queen.” Nor is it just brands embracing the shift: On March 6, the social media account of the Shandong Communist Youth League teamed with a cosmetics company to promote a “Goddess Day” giveaway.
Of course, just because “Goddess Day” is on the rise doesn’t mean we should consign ourselves to such crass, frivolous appellations. For one thing, while well-educated young women may feel funü is a touch derogatory, Women’s Day is about more than self-validation.
It’s hard to imagine a holiday called “Goddess Day” acting as a springboard for talking about the tens of millions of married Chinese women who have faced spousal abuse, for example, much less tackling issues like sexual harassment or assault. And celebrating “Queen’s Day” in a country that ranked 103 out of 149 in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report hardly seems appropriate, either.
Some people may wonder at how a holiday’s name could become so complicated, but the debate is not a meaningless one. The controversy reflects women’s status in society more broadly. Historically, women’s stories have been told mostly by others, meaning that, even today, there is no conventional, comprehensive, and completely neutral female form of self-address.
And perhaps therein lies the solution: Get out of the way, and let women reclaim and redefine funü for themselves. If more independent young women celebrate Women’s Day with pride, the stigma that has built up over the years may well fade away. And who knows? Perhaps in the process it will cease to be about selling things to women and more about empowering them.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A woman walks down the street in Beijing, Feb. 10, 2017. Fred Dufour/AFP/VCG)