In China, V is for The Vagina Monologues
By Emily Rauhala
It's been performed in more than 120 countries in at least 45 languages, and now The Vagina Monologues has officially arrived in China. After a successful run in Beijing in March, the Chinese production of Eve Ensler's famous play swept into Shanghai this weekend. Wang Chong, the play's Beijing-born director, translated Ensler's script from English for a three-woman cast, taking care to closely match the meaning of hard-to-translate words like "vagina" and its less anatomical synonyms.
Apparently, they translate well. After a series of sold-out shows, the Chinese version show is being hailed as a hit. "I'd never, ever seen anything like that!" one student leaving the show told a Huffington Post blogger.
Not everyone is sold. In a move that angered academics and activists in China and the United States, Wang decided to omit the word "vagina" from the play's title — at least for half the run. In Beijing, the production was billed was "The V Monologues." In Shanghai, two months later, the original title was restored. The name change was not endorsed by Ensler's camp, and critics were quick to spot the irony. "The point is to speak it out," says Ai Xioaming, a professor of women's studies at Sun Yat-sen University. But Wang insists his decision was pragmatic: In Beijing, he could not find a venue unless he changed the title. In Shanghai, conditions were different. "I'm more wise than brave," he told That's Beijing, an English-language publication, ahead of the debut. "In China," he added, "things should be handled Chinesely."
What exactly that means is up for debate. Thirty years into China's great opening, Beijing has backed away from the nation's bedrooms. Privately, people enjoy relative sexual freedom — subject, for the most part, to limits set by parents, not the Communist party. But public crackdowns on pornography and sex-related events are common, as this month's anti-porn internet censorship measures have proven, and they are notoriously hard to predict. At mainland China's first gay pride festival in Shanghai last week, officials shut down two film screenings and a performance of The Laramie Project, an American play about the murder of a gay college student. The "hot body" competition and drag shows, meanwhile, proceeded as planned. In May, plans to build China's first sex theme park were nixed after pictures of the venue's thong-clad, leg-shaped gate caught the attention of the press, though the city of Tongli, outside Shanghai, has its own sex museum displaying centuries-old sex toys and sexy statues to boot.
So it goes with the Monologues. Chinese producers first attempted to stage the play in Shanghai in 2004, but the show was canceled after hundreds of tickets had been sold. Officials reportedly told the producer, Li Shengying, that the play was "not yet mature." The same year, however, Ai Xioaming, the professor at Sun Yat-sen, staged the play unofficially with students, filming the process for a documentary called The Vagina Monologues: Stories From China. The play ran title and all, thanks, Ai says, to a moratorium on press before opening night. It's a lesson for would-be directors and social activists alike. If you deign to bring sex out of the bedroom, be discrete. You can say "vagina" in China. Just don't shout.