Vagina is a ‘bad’ word in China and saying it out loud was what got Xu Zihua (not her real name) and another 16 of her colleagues in trouble at the beginning of November. The undergraduates from Beijing Foreign Studies Universities (BFSU), one of China’s most prestigious universities, decided to post photographs of themselves holding up messages such as “My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom,” to promote an upcoming campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, U.S. playwright Eve Ensler’s controversial 1996 play.

The young women, all aged around 21, posted the photos on Nov. 7 on Renren, an online community website similar to Facebook and popular with university students. The photos were shared on other social media websites, including the Chinese Twitter-like microblog Sina Weibo and on Youku, China’s leading video sharing platform, and went viral. “We were only promoting our performance, we never thought we’d get that much attention,” explained Xu. But the photos hit a nerve with Chinese internet users and what ensued was a wave of degrading comments online, targeting the girls' looks and their 'deviant sexual morals.' One Internet user on Weibo wrote: "If no one told me they are from BFSU, I would think they are whores." 

Nobody wants to be called a feminist, otherwise who will want to marry you.
— Xu Zihua, 20

“I am not actually a feminist,” said Xu, surprisingly. The female student attends classes on ‘Gender and Society’ at BFSU and The Vagina Monologues is part of the school curriculum. “To me, feminism is about looking at social events and behaviour from the perspective of gender inequality, and then striving to achieve equality in all aspects in life,” Xu described, nailing the term.

“But I am still learning. Most girls in China don’t really know what feminism is, but they feel discrimination every day, and they desperately want to level things out. Most of them are worried about getting a job after graduating, but I would say some still think that being a housewife is the best solution, given the traditional perception of a woman’s role in society,” Xu noted.

“Nobody wants to be called a feminist, otherwise who will want to marry them,” explained 20-year-old Xu, who studies English language and literature at BFSU. “It’s like the word vagina, people don’t say it the same way they say nose or mouth. Vagina is a dirty, mysterious word,” the student said, pointing out one of the reasons why there are few Chinese feminists. The Vagina Monologues has been performed across China since 2009, though often advertised with the word 'vagina' being censored. But that isn't unique to China. In the U.S., the play is still often referred to in ads as The V Monologues.