China’s queen of jokes, Yang Li, is no stranger to controversy.
The 29-year-old is now one of the best-known comedians in the country, after rising to fame in recent months on a Chinese television show called “Rock y Rostizado.”
Every week, in front of a national audience of millions, he tackles controversial genre issues using a style unknown to many Chinese viewers: “stand-up” or stand-up comedy.
He has attracted a large following, but his jokes have not gone down well with everyone, and now Yang faces the biggest negative reaction of his career.
On a December episode, he talked about how he told a comedian his new jokes. And he replied that she was “testing the limits of men.”
“Do men have limits?” Yang asked sarcastically, prompting a new wave of criticism.
In recent weeks on social media male netizens have accused her of “sexism” and “I hate men.”
Meanwhile, a group claiming to defend men’s rights has asked netizens to report Yang to China’s media regulator, claiming he “repeatedly insults all men” and “creates gender opposition.”
But her supporters defend her, saying that male critics are hypersensitive and lack a sense of humor.
There is no doubt that Yang’s jokes have sparked a new debate in China, where both the feminist movement and the stand-up are relatively new cultural phenomena.
Can China take a joke?
It’s not that humor has been absent from Chinese culture.
Xiangsheng, China’s comedy tradition, has been popular in the country for more than a century.
In this format, the audience watches and laughs as two comedians poke fun at each other.
But when audience members themselves become the butt of the joke, as they sometimes do in Western comedy routines, some Chinese may not find it as funny.
“In the West, stand-up tries to challenge and ‘offend’ the audience, the authorities or social norms,” Tony Chou, comedian and owner of the Beijing Humor Section comedy club, explains to the BBC.
But some in China still consider that this is largely rude or disrespectful.
For example, Chou says, a comedian who performed at his club was attacked by an audience member because he made a joke about people from Henan province.
“The thing was, the comedian was also from Henan,” Chou says.
As a result, he says, some comedians tend to hide their personal opinions, not only because of cultural taboo, but sometimes also because they fear political or commercial repercussions.
Chinese comedians are divided over Yang’s controversy.
In a Weibo post, which later became a trending hashtag viewed more than 100 million times, popular comedian Chi Zi said that Yang “doesn’t run a real stand-up.”
But Chinese-American comedian Joe Wong said he was supportive of Yang, as the comedy offers an opportunity for “disadvantaged people to poke fun at those who are privileged.”
But the deeper issue of this controversy is the difficult path of feminism in China.
Although Yang Li has never publicly announced that she is a feminist, her critics online have coined a new phrase to describe Yang and her tens of thousands of followers: “militant feminists.”
“Nu quan” in Chinese means feminism, or literally, women’s rights.
Netizens have replaced “quan”, which means “rights,” with a homophone character that means “fist,” which makes it a somewhat derogatory term for feminists.
“Militant feminists are irrational, they punch everywhere and demand privilege,” one of the criticisms of Yang Li, a 23-year-old university student surnamed Yang (not related to the comedian), tells the BBC.
Chu Yin, a prominent Beijing-based law professor, noted on Weibo that “Western gender policy” threatens “the unity of the working class” and will lead to “hatred against straight men.”
Meanwhile, Yang Li’s supporters argue that the backlash has demonstrated Yang’s point of view in many of his jokes: those who believe that men are often superior to women. they silence the female perspective.
Traditional gender roles are largely prevalent in China, and both men and women are under social pressure to play their role.
Chinese women’s rights activist Xiong Jing says that men are also victims of these gender stereotypes.
For example, in a country with a huge surplus of singles, men must own houses and cars to be considered eligible for marriage, and are expected to be the breadwinners.
“Many men are burdened with huge expectations, which leads to depression and resentment,” he says.
“But they have to think fundamentally about what needs to change.”
Lu Pin, a prominent feminist, tells the BBC that, compared to other countries, feminists in China face unique political and social pressure.
“In China’s patriarchal system, compared to feminists, their criticisms have received more support from the authorities.”
As feminists challenge deep-rooted gender stereotypes in the country, authorities have accused them of “cause social instability”.
This means that they have become a goal of the Chinese government, which has made the defense of social stability its top priority.
In 2015, five Chinese feminists were detained for seven weeks for organizing a campaign against sexual harassment in public transport.
In 2018, the social media accounts of Voces Feministas, a leading feminist organization in China, were censored after they had already been suspended several times.
Last December, when a Chinese court heard a high-profile case linked to #MeToo, state-controlled media refrained from covering the event.
Amid this silence, some influential accounts on Weibo posted unsubstantiated allegations that “foreign forces” were involved to generate controversy.
“Many commentators now allege that Chinese feminists are linked to ‘foreign forces,'” says Lu.
“Why is this accusation so effective (to convince the public)? Because they repeat it and follow the government’s logic.”
It was in this context that Yang Li’s joke sparked controversy.
It is unclear whether authorities have launched a formal investigation into the incident. The Weibo account of the group that asked to be reported to the authorities was later deleted.
Meanwhile, Yang Li has not issued a statement and his team did not respond to the BBC’s request for an interview.
But in what appeared to be a veiled comment on the controversy, he recently wrote on social media: “This is endless … it’s kind of hard to be in this industry right now.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.