‘Dama’: A History of China’s Ageist, Sexist Slur
This is the first piece of a series on Chinese ‘damas.’
“Dama” is a loaded word these days. Although originally nothing more than a benign descriptor for a kindly, hardworking, middle-aged woman, the term has somehow morphed into a globally recognized byword for a grasping, domineering, nouveau riche matron. In popular media, for example, damas are typically portrayed as uncultured, easily swayed by gossip, and utterly unwilling to listen to reason.
This wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, a search for the term “dama” on either the National Index to Chinese Newspapers and Periodicals or Duxiu — a Chinese full-text search interface similar to LexisNexis — would have returned little out of the ordinary. Then, in 2013, the word suddenly started popping up everywhere, even overseas.
What changed? It all started with gold. In mid-April 2013, China’s long-running bull market suddenly started to look distinctly bearish. Shortly afterward, the author of the best-selling book “Currency Wars,” Song Hongbing, wrote in a since-deleted social media post that damas — referring in his usage somewhat disparagingly to middle-aged female investors — were responding to the downturn by buying up vast quantities of gold, the price of which had just dipped. Song may have been the first to joke that China’s damas were challenging the titans of Wall Street for dominance over the international gold market, but Chinese blogs, newspapers, and television programs soon joined in, hyping these gold-buying grannies with dubiously sourced claims that they had “beaten” Goldman Sachs and other financial goliaths at their own game.
Even The Wall Street Journal got in on the act. On Aug. 12 of that year, the outlet published a video on the phenomenon of such damas. It was one of the earliest appearances of “dama” in a major English-language publication.
What happened next was predictable. Damas’ financial success proved transitory at best, as their rush to buy gold created a bubble and primed the market for a crash. As global gold prices slumped, the idea that China’s damas had somehow beaten Wall Street was revealed for what it was: a cruel joke.
Suddenly, the ever-mercurial media — fresh off a news cycle praising damas as agents of change and representatives of a rising China — now started ridiculing them as a herd of economically illiterate lemmings. Chinese damas may have briefly shocked the financial world, but once order was restored, they were turned into a national laughingstock. They were, so the narrative went, just a bunch of old women playing games they didn’t understand.
It wasn’t just about the money they had lost: Many Chinese believed damas had embarrassed the country. Damas’ uncouth rush to buy up as much gold as possible was an uncomfortable reminder that China itself was something of an upstart on the global stage — and occasionally given to its own irrational spending binges. As the young author Jiang Fangzhou put it in a 2014 essay, “Patriots held up Chinese damas as national heroes capable of conquering the financial giants of the West, but the image these women projected on the international stage was not altogether an impressive one.”
Over time, the dama gold rush of 2013 has faded from people’s memories, but the term has stuck. Its longevity is perhaps due to the fact that it provides a useful shorthand for older women who refuse to adopt the graceful and motherly manner Chinese society expects of them at their age. Most all recalcitrant women who are getting on in years run the risk of being labeled damas. They often find themselves portrayed as gossipy, selfish, and utterly lacking in taste, in addition to being scapegoated for a whole host of social ills.
Take the country’s so-called square dancing grannies, for example. Another group primarily composed of middle-aged and elderly women, Chinese square dancers are known for commandeering the nation’s public spaces and turning them into loud, impromptu dance halls, as well as their occasional clashes with local residents. The country’s media outlets delight in reporting on stories of granny-related social conflict, from the man who was so angered by the conduct of his neighborhood square dancers that he fired a shotgun into the air and unleashed his three Tibetan mastiffs on them, to the incident last month involving a dancing granny who supposedly argued so fiercely with a nearby resident about noise levels that the man had a heart attack and died.
Such cases are rare, and not representative of square dancers as a whole. Yet the media continues to blow them out of proportion, adding fuel to the dama myth in the process. As a result, middle-aged women looking for companionship or a chance to get out and exercise are falsely portrayed as a malignant social force that everyone — even officials — must tiptoe around. The writer and commentator Zhang Tianpan once claimed that dancing damas “have more power than the municipal government.” Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he went on to compare the women to warriors: “They are invincible, and people flee before them.”
When not being derided as headstrong or difficult, damas are most often objects of ridicule. The recent phenomenon of middle-aged women posting photographs of themselves waving silk scarves demonstrates this. The benign trend has somehow aroused the ire of — mostly male — vloggers on the Chinese internet. Like the country’s square dancers, these so-called silk scarf grannies are now lumped together with damas as the butt of online jokes.
Before turning my attention to damas, I studied the Chinese subculture of shamate. Especially popular among young adults from rural areas in the late 2000s, the shamate look was defined by flamboyant outfits and outlandish hairstyles. Those not initiated into shamate mocked these affectations, but in ways that often betrayed their anti-rural prejudices. Ridiculing young people from the countryside for their supposed lack of refinement or for being uncool was a way for young, middle-class urbanites to establish their superiority and marginalize those from different, less privileged backgrounds. So it is with damas today.
But what crime have these women committed? For the most part, Chinese damas are just slightly older women looking to get out of the house, meet up with friends, and stay fit. As a society, we don’t shun bourgeois trend hoppers for suddenly purchasing a gym membership or picking up a contrived interest in hiking. And if anything, young women are encouraged to spend hours taking the perfect selfie. So why should we ostracize older ones for square dancing or waving scarves?
When we use dama as an insult, what we’re really doing is suggesting that there’s something inherently wrong with being a middle-aged woman. It’s ageist, classist — and it’s time to stop.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell
(Header image: A group of women celebrates China’s National Day holiday in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Oct. 1, 2018. Wu Xiaoyu/VCG)