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    A Chinese Word Describing ‘Beautiful Women’ Is Taking an Ugly Turn

    Certain terms have been distorted to fit a sexist narrative and insult young women online, experts say.

    The Chinese word yuan refers to “beautiful women.” But the word’s recent usage, especially on social media platforms, is anything but complimentary.

    Over the past few weeks, social media users and some state media outlets have adopted the term and paired it with another word to mock women they see as engaged in attention-seeking activities online. Although people have long harbored negative perceptions of mingyuan — or “socialites” — accusing them of flaunting fake wealth, the word took on another connotation last month when pictures of fashionable women posing for photos at Buddhist temples went viral on Chinese social media.

    The backlash against the women, labeled foyuan — which loosely translates to “female Buddhist socialite” in English — was swift, with many social media users accusing them of capitalizing on religion for profit, which is illegal in China. Before long, social platforms such as Douyin and Xiaohongshu banned the accounts of prominent foyuan and deleted their posts for indulging in marketing purposes.

    But the disappearance of foyuan online has been replaced by campaigns against female influencers deemed too pretty or inappropriately dressed for their situations. Terms such as bingyuan, liyuan, and yiyuan, or “bedridden beauties,” “socialite divorcees,” and “pretty doctors,” respectively, have exploded on social media.

    So when did yuan, used to describe beautiful women, take an ugly turn?

    The backlash was already simmering last year after an imposter snuck into a group chat made up of Shanghai female socialites on messaging app WeChat. They then proceeded to expose their fancy lifestyles — afternoon teas, luxury staycations, and designer handbags — that they shared on social media as fake. The article went viral, turning yuan into a synonym for vacuous, grasping social media influencers.

    “The emergence of the word yuan has transformed the original positive meaning into a derogatory one because male-dominated society has ambivalent attitudes toward women’s beauty: admiration and suspicion,” Lily Yu, associate professor of translation studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, told Sixth Tone. “The deep-rooted notion of ‘beauty infidelity’ often leads to harsh criticism or malicious speculation, or even vicious derogation of (women).”

    Yu said that the original meaning of yuan has been distorted to fit a sexist narrative, allowing it to be used to satirize, deride, and insult young women.

    “The word yuan is one of the few positive words in Chinese to feature the radical  (meaning woman),” she said, referring to the components that comprise Chinese characters. She added that the female radical is mostly associated with derogatory words for women or supposedly feminine behavior, including adultery, jealousy, and prostitution.

    Some feminist scholars have also pointed out that the character for women itself — — visually appears to be a woman bowing to a man, while the Chinese character for men precedes women in the phrase gender equality, nannü pingdeng. The Chinese word to describe men visiting brothels, piao chang, also contains female characters. 

    “This is a misogynistic phenomenon at the linguistic level, reflecting the attitude of a male-dominated society toward women,” Yu said. “Irresponsible derogatory or even personal attacks are harmful to most readers, as after seeing such information after a while, certain ideas will take root in the mind.” 

    The comments and interactions involving the topic on social media are telling, and the state-run People’s Daily has accused foyuan and bingyuan of “destroying our temples and hospitals.” Other influential outlets, including China Central Television and the Health Times, have also criticized them, with the latter accusing bingyuan of profiting from or even faking their illnesses.

    The targets of these attacks have been subject to trolling and online bullying. After being attacked online for sharing photos in which they could be seen smiling and posing in hospital beds, multiple women have posted their medical certificates to prove they weren’t faking their illness.

    “I can’t believe that I’m now called ‘bingyuan’ — I’m so angry,” one woman wrote on social platform Xiaohongshu following her thyroid surgery. “As someone who likes to document my life online, I wanted to share my story, hoping to help others in similar situations.”

    Bai Meijiadai, a lecturer at Liaoning University’s School of Journalism and Communication, sees the stigmatization of yuan as a result of a wider online trend relating to the lack of factual information and context involving viral content.

    “(The media or individuals who criticized yuan) use pictures of women from social media without fact-checking or verification and then publish the articles in the form of news,” she said.“This needs to be rectified and changed.”

    And tens of thousands of women are already stepping in to change the online discourse, banding together against the misogynistic use of yuan and its attempts to stigmatize women as a group. Many are not only embracing the word but also reclaiming its positive roots, calling themselves xueyuan, or female studying socialite; zhijiaoyuan, female volunteer socialite; and yishuyuan, female art socialite.

    “Let’s stop trying to prove we are not yuan,” wrote one user on microblogging platform Weibo. “Instead, we are all yuan.”

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: James Boast/Ikon Images/People Visual, reedited by Sixth Tone)