“In Taiwan, there’s a slogan, ‘I can look sensual, but you can’t harass me.’ That makes sense. But will what you wear increase your chance of being harassed?”
This was the provocative question that a prominent male political science professor, Liu Qing of East China Normal University, asked the three female hosts of Stochastic Volatility, the largest feminist-themed podcast in China.
What followed was an episode full of sincere and honest questions in which hosts Fu Shiye, Zhang Zhiqi, and Leng Jianguo picked apart the professor’s reasoning.
“On the one hand, we know that he was so outdated on the information and the discussions surrounding these issues,” Zhang says. “But on the other hand, we felt that he was genuinely confused. He asked those questions in a very friendly tone.”
Together every week, Fu, Zhang, and Leng continue to host discussions like these on their podcast, which has around 600,000 regular listeners. They talk about things that are often considered taboo in Chinese society. One episode discusses egg freezing and fertility treatments, another discusses the sexualization of women’s clothing, while another episode talks about why some breast cancer survivors choose not to undergo breast reconstruction.
And they’re not the only podcast to do this. Over the past few years, podcasts have become a space where feminist-minded women in Chinese society can feel represented and discuss their frustrations with the patriarchy.
The number of podcasts with feminist themes on China’s most popular audio streaming platforms rose from eight to 35 from 2019 to 2021, according to a study by Fan Yang, a lecturer at Hangzhou Normal University. Some of these podcasts, like Stochastic Volatility, have huge audiences while others are more niche—and might focus on specific topics like women in rural China or women’s interpretations of cinema. “We call 2021 the first year of podcasting in China,” Fan says. “It was not the first year in reality but it was the first year podcasting in China bloomed.”
Podcasting has become especially popular among China’s intellectual elite, in part because looser censorship made it a better medium to discuss more controversial topics. AI-powered transcribing software continues to improve, meaning that there is a growing risk of censorship on podcasts. But audio formats still remain a harder place for authorities to patrol. Podcasting is also a niche medium in China, meaning it is less likely to be scrutinized as closely.
The rise in the podcast movement also happened to coincide with a sudden surge of interest in feminism in the aftermath of China’s MeToo movement in 2017. “I think before MeToo, feminism was not quite a popular topic in the Chinese news sphere,” Zhang says, recalling her previous experience as a journalist at one of China’s major newspapers, Jiemian News. “Back then there was not much coverage on the issues of feminism or sexual assaults.”
Despite repeated attempts by the government to censor the words “metoo” on the Chinese social media website Weibo, the movement generated enough publicity to lead to the removal of multiple prominent professors, government officials, and business leaders accused of sexual harassment and assault.
The Chinese government’s official policy is to support gender equality and condemn sexual harassment. But gender inequality remains a significant issue. There is a sex ratio imbalance because of the now-abolished one-child policy, and women remain underrepresented in positions of power. President Xi Jinping’s 37 member cabinet does not have a single woman.
Concerns about China’s declining population have also led the government to encourage women to give birth by promoting traditional gender norms. In January, the government amended its Women’s Rights and Interests Protection law, saying that “Women should respect and obey national laws, respect social morals, professional ethics and family values.”
For Fu, Zhang, and Leng, these inequalities motivate their podcast. They say that they take inspiration from the feminist movement in the West in their push for gender equality, but they sometimes find it difficult trying to apply these ideas to the Chinese context.
Zhang tells TIME that while she loved Barbie, for example, the premise of the movie shows how much work feminists in China still need to do. “In the movie, Barbie needs to wake up from that utopian dream that she can be anything and learn that you actually cannot be anyone you want in real life because it is still a patriarchal world. That's the main setting of the movie,” she says. “Here in China, we haven't had that dream yet. We still need to encourage the girls to dream big—to dream to be anyone they want to be. I think that's the gap.”
But that doesn’t mean the three aren’t doing their part to close that gap.
Zhang says that so much of Chinese society, media, and culture revolves around the male perspective that women are eager to find a space where they could feel seen. “It used to be that most podcasts—all of them—were targeted for a male audience,” Zhang says. “I'm making this show for the girls.”
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